Conrad’s style (1) Decadence and foreignness

14 September 2012

The narrow creek was like a ditch: tortuous, fabulously deep; filled with gloom under the thin strip of pure and shining blue of the heaven. Immense trees soared up, invisible behind the festooned draperies of creepers. Here and there, near the glistening blackness of the water, a twisted root of some tall tree showed amongst the tracery of small ferns, black and dull, writhing and motionless, like an arrested snake. The short words of the paddlers reverberated loudly between the thick and sombre walls of vegetation. Darkness oozed out from between the trees, through the tangled maze of the creepers, from behind the great fantastic and unstirring leaves; the darkness, mysterious and invincible; the darkness scented and poisonous of impenetrable forests.

This passage from Conrad’s first short story, The Lagoon, (1896), demonstrates some key elements of his prose style:

Lush descriptions Conrad is addicted to adjectives – tortuous, immense, festooned, glistening, writhing, sombre, arrested etc. The insistent use of adjectives at every opportunity creates a richness and sumptuousness of texture which reminds you that this is the 1890s, the yellow decade, the period when Oscar Wilde wore jackets made of green velvet and even Conan Doyle characters live in plush luxury.

it is noticeable that many of the adjectives or adverbs are vivid or extreme: fabulously, immense, pure, writhing, fantastic, poisonous, impenetrable. There’s a definite fin-de-siecle decadence, an aromatic heaviness of description, about Conrad’s lexicon.

Over and above the influence of the period, the lushness seems appropriate to the subject matter ie the steaming, hot, tropical jungle which is the setting for almost all Conrad’s early stories.

In the famous preface to the The Nigger of the “Narcissus” Conrad says his overwhelming task is to make the reader see.

My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see.

This has been taken as a manifesto of literary impressionism. I’ve never understood how this is particularly different from any other novelist who writes descriptive passages. What does single Conrad out is the length and repetitiveness of his descriptions. Over a long distance this creates a heavy, clotted atmosphere, and contributes to his Author’s Message of Doom and Abandonment. The claustrophobia of imagery and the hysteria of psychology makes me think much more of north European Expressionism than sunny southern Impressionism. More Munch Scream than Monet Waterlilies.

Similes As his qualifiers tend to be extreme, so Conrad’s similes tend to make comparisons with grand, colourful and rich objects. It is part of the process of expansion or amplification. To be honest, he doesn’t use similes that often, but when he does they’re rich.

…a signal fire gleams like a jewel on the high brow of a sombre cliff. (Karain)

green islets scattered through the calm of noonday lie upon the level of a polished sea, like a handful of emeralds on a buckler of steel. (Karain)

The gold head flashed like a falling star… (Karain)

Dried palm-leaf roofs shone afar, like roofs of gold. (Karain)

His sentences complicated like arabesques… (Karain)

gaslights stretched far away in long lines, like strung-up beads of fire. (Return)

The very mist on the Essex marshes was like a gauzy and radiant fabric… (Heart)

The ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time… (Heart)

The fact dazzling, like the foam on the depths of the sea, like a ripple on an unfathomable enigma… (Heart)

Long sentences Though he can write short sentences where necessary, and for unexpected punchiness, the typical Conrad sentence is long, sometimes a paragraph long. They are built up from multiple clauses, often placed in apposition ie describing the same noun or noun phrase, approaching the same subject from different angles. Eg ‘tortuous, fabulously deep’ and ‘filled with gloom’ in the passage above both describe the ditch; ‘black and dull’ and ‘writhing and motionless’ both describe ‘a twisted root’. More about apposition in my post about Conrad and repetition.

UnEnglish phraseology ‘Under the thin strip of pure and shining blue of the heaven’ is not how a native English-speaker would phrase this. Conrad admits somewhere that he didn’t write in French because he knew it too well; he knew the rules and wouldn’t be able to break them. Whereas English is much more flexible and idiomatic than French and so allowed him to stretch rules, creating new phrases, denting existing ones. For example:

  • The house which seemed to float upon a restless and impalpable illusion of a sea. (Lagoon)
  • Each had a bedstead and a mosquito net for all furniture. (Outpost)
  • He had been, at home, an unsuccessful painter who, weary of pursuing fame on an empty stomach, had gone out there through high protections. (Outpost)
  • On his passage voices died out as though he had walked guarded by silence. Surely we’d say, As he passed… (Karain)
  • A puff of breeze made a flash of darkness on the smooth water. (Karain)
  • …one could not imagine what depth of horrible void such an elaborate front could be worthy to hide. (Karain)
  • This fit of hot anger was succeeded by a sudden sadness, by the darkening passage of a thought that ran over the scorched surface of his heart, like upon a barren plain, and after a fiercer assault of sunrays, the melancholy and cooling shadow of a cloud. (Return)
  • Often far away there I thought of these two.. (Heart)
  • ‘A simple formality,’ assured me the secretary… (Heart)
  • In exterior he resembled a butcher in a poor neighborhood… (Heart)
  • Ah! but it was something to have at least a choice of nightmares. (Heart)
  • …as if to devour all the earth with all its mankind. (Heart)

On every page of Conrad there are one or two phrases which aren’t quite correct, giving the sensitive reader a continual, slight feeling of disconnect and foreignness.

Backplacing adjectives Adjectives in English generally come before the noun they describe. Only a handful specifically don’t. But a big aspect of Conrad’s unEnglish phraseology is the way he routinely puts adjectives after the noun. Why? it gives him the freedom to pile up two or three adjectives after a given noun or noun phrase, thus adding to the sumptuous repetitiveness which is key to his style.

…faces dark, truculent, and smiling… (Karain)

…men barefooted, well armed and noiseless… (Karain)

…a coast deceptive, pitiless and black… (Karain)

…the water slept invisible, unstirring and mute… (Lagoon)

…the glitter of stars streaming, ceaseless and vain… (Lagoon)

This tripling of adjectives placed after the noun is just one type of repetition, a technique I address more fully in the next post.

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