The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 3, 1937
The Strange Story Of Conrad
--By W. J. Cash
Site ed. note: To see firsthand the influence of Conrad on Cash's early writing, see "The Derelict", a seafaring story of the supernatural, written by Cash while a student at Wake Forest, accessible from the homepage.
One of the most interesting books I know for reading on these cool evenings when fires are coming again into use, is Joseph Conrad's "A Personal Record." I do not find that it has been much read, even by professing Conrad fans; but it is impossible to know why. Because it is not only one of the best written of all his works, but also as curious a tale of the growth of as curious a personality as ever dwelt upon this curious planet spinning from everlasting to everlasting through immensity.
Born Teodor Josef Konrad Korzeniowski in Poland in 1857, he lived the normal life of a son of the Polish gentry until he was sixteen. Then he did a thing almost unprecedented in the annals of the Poles, who have been as completely landsmen as the Swiss themselves, and went away to sea a midshipman on a French merchant ship. Those were the days of the great white glory of sail, and the deep winds booming in the rigging--the days of the "Flying Cloud" and the "Cutty Sark" and all the lovely clipper ships that hung upon the road to China Sea, and made a drab trade a thing of shining romance. And the boy who had gone away with the Frenchmen was to live in ships and to learn of ships and the sea, to work on ships and command ships, until steam had wiped sail clean from the deep sea ways, and he himself was a man past forty. Then--this Polish sailor suddenly stepped forth as one of the greatest masters of written English who appeared in the Nineteenth century, and before his death in 1924 was to turn out twenty-four volumes of novels and short stories and essays, all couched in the alien Germanic dialect he had never heard until he was a man grown.
THIS STRANGE STORY
Where is there a story stranger than that? But the man himself was stranger even than his story. He himself tells us that he could not explain his abandonment of his native language and his selection of English as his medium. "The truth of the matter is that my faculty to write in English is as natural as any other aptitude with which I might have been born. I have a strange and over-powering feeling that it had always been an inherent part of myself... The merest idea of choice had never entered my head. And as to adoption, well, yes there was an adoption, but it was I who was adopted by the genius of the language... It was a very intimate action, and for that reason it is too mysterious to explain. The task would be as impossible as trying to explain love at first sight. There was something in this conjunction of exulting, almost physical recognition, the same sort of emotional surrender and the same pride of possession all united in the wonder of a great discovery..."
But I think he did not know, and that there is no impenetrable mystery about the case. The great merit of English, its great advantage over other western languages, is its almost complete lack of inflection, and unexampled flexibility and elasticity which results from that. Conrad took to English because it was the only language which could begin to follow the loose ends of his own inordinately complex thought--the only one which lent itself to the uses of his enigmatic personality. His remark to Sir Hugh Clifford that he could not have written in a language so "crystallized" as French exactly covers the matter.
HE REMAINED A POLE
Mencken once upon a time, I believe, said that he (Conrad) was stripped of all illusions save only the belief in honor. I do not think that is quite true. For he was undoubtedly all his life more or less under the sway of patriotism for Poland, a sentiment learned at the knee of his father who had been one of the chief figures in the Polish rebellions of the nineteenth century. It was partly for that reason, that he is so hated and scorned the Germans and that he made all his cads and scoundrels members of that race; though it yet must be admitted that events have pretty well born out his reiteration of Gambetta's warning: "Prussianism! There is the enemy!" But disillusioned in general, he certainly is wise to the point of being glacial, indeed. He can move with emotions profoundly when he wills, as in the passage between Marlowe and Kurtz's intended in "Heart of Darkness." But even there he seems himself to stand apart, remote and dispassionate.
But the man cannot be really explained by saying that he is disillusioned and glacial. I don't think, indeed, that any of his biographers or critics have ever really gotten hold of his personality. I doubt that anybody ever will in truth. I have myself assiduously read through the whole canon and still for me he remains a shadowy figure. A man with a thousand facets plain to see, but not to be grasped at the core. But so far as he can be got at, he is best to be got at through "A Personal Record." You'll find it good reading, I think.
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