Conrad’s style (2) Repetition

The fear and fascination, the inspiration and the wonder of death—of death near, unavoidable, and unseen, soothed the unrest of his race and stirred the most indistinct, the most intimate of his thoughts. The ever-ready suspicion of evil, the gnawing suspicion that lurks in our hearts, flowed out into the stillness round him—into the stillness profound and dumb, and made it appear untrustworthy and infamous, like the placid and impenetrable mask of an unjustifiable violence. In that fleeting and powerful disturbance of his being the earth enfolded in the starlight peace became a shadowy country of inhuman strife, a battle-field of phantoms terrible and charming, august or ignoble, struggling ardently for the possession of our helpless hearts. An unquiet and mysterious country of inextinguishable desires and fears. (The Lagoon)

Repetition is an absolutely essential element of Conrad’s style. Why use one word when you can use two? ‘Black and dull’, ‘writhing and motionless’, ‘thick and sombre’, ‘fear and fascination’, ‘profound and dumb’, ‘untrustworthy and infamous’… And why use one pair of words when you can double up and use two phrases of paired words? ‘The fear and fascination, the inspiration and the wonder…’

Rhetoricians down the ages have categorised many different types of repetition (they are usefully summarised on this webpage from Brigham Young University) and it is quite entertaining to try and identify the types of repetition Conrad uses:

Apposition is the rhetorical term for when one noun or phrase is placed next to another to explain or amplify it. It’s a key aspect of the Conrad style – the extra clause, qualifying and expanding the original word or clause, adding to the length and musicality of the sentence, helping to create the sense of depth and lushness of description; or to expand his nihilistic phrases into long sequences which emphasise the sense of all-encompassing doominess and entrapment.

…the earth enfolded in the starlight peace became a shadowy country of inhuman strife, a battle-field of phantoms terrible and charming… (Lagoon)

Darkness oozed out from between the trees, through the tangled maze of the creepers, from behind the great fantastic and unstirring leaves… (Lagoon)

…stirred the most indistinct, the most intimate of his thoughts… (Lagoon)

The ever-ready suspicion of evil, the gnawing suspicion… (Lagoon)

The earth … became a shadowy country of inhuman strife, a battle-field of phantoms… (Lagoon)

Synonymia ‘The use of several synonyms together to amplify or explain a given subject or term. A kind of repetition that adds emotional force or intellectual clarity.’

…the contact with pure unmitigated savagery, with primitive nature and primitive man… (Outpost)

The fear and fascination, the inspiration and the wonder [of death]… (Lagoon)

Outside the big doorway of the street they scattered in all directions, walking away fast from one another… (Return)

They were both unable to look at a fact, a sentiment, a principle, or a belief otherwise than in the light of their own dignity, of their own glorification, of their own advantage. (Return)

Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of every clause:

…and as it was utterly faithless, as it contained no new thought, as it never by any chance had a flash of wit, satire, or indignation in its pages, he judged it respectable. (Return)

…the darkness, mysterious and invincible; the darkness scented and poisonous… (Lagoon)

Therefore I shall speak to you of love. Speak in the night. Speak before both night and love are gone – and the eye of day looks upon my sorrow and my shame; upon my blackened face; upon my burnt-up heart. (Lagoon)

A rumour powerful and gentle, a rumour vast and faint; the rumour of trembling leaves, of stirring boughs ran through the tangled depths of the forests, ran over the starry smoothness of the lagoon…

A plaintive murmur rose in the night; a murmur saddening and startling… (Lagoon)

High above his head, high above the silent sea of mist… (Lagoon)

… stirred the most indistinct, the most intimate of his thoughts… (Lagoon)

… he was still standing before the house, he was still looking…

…the fear, subtle, indestructible, and terrible, that pervades his being; that tinges his thoughts; that lurks in his heart; that watches on his lips the struggle of his last breath. (Outpost)

He thought it must be a horrible illusion; he thought he was dreaming; he thought he was going mad! (Outpost)

The day had come, and a heavy mist had descended upon the land: the mist penetrating, enveloping, and silent; the morning mist of tropical lands; the mist that clings and kills; the mist white and deadly, immaculate and poisonous. (Outpost)

…and their eyes, quick or slow; their eyes gazing up the dusty steps; their eyes brown, black, gray, blue, had all the same stare… (Return)

… with the hurried air of men fleeing from something compromising; from familiarity or confidences; from something suspected and concealed… (Return)

His face was set, was hard, was woodenly exulting… (Return)

He had made up his mind to eat, to talk, to be natural. (Return)

The years would pass, and . . . The years would pass . . . And then… The years would pass in the anguish of doubt . . . The years would pass and he would always mistrust her smile . . . The years would pass… (Return)

The years would pass—and he would have to live with that unfathomable candour where flit shadows of suspicions and hate . . . The years would pass—and he would never know—never trust . . . The years would pass without faith and love. . . . (Return)

She had a mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering. (Heart)

Anadiplosis is repetition of the last word of a preceding clause at the beginning of the next one:

…the inspiration and the wonder of death – of death near, unavoidable and unseen…

…they felt themselves very much alone, when suddenly left unassisted to face the wilderness; a wilderness rendered more strange, more incomprehensible by the mysterious glimpses of the vigorous life it contained.

The courage, the composure, the confidence; the emotions and principles; every great and every insignificant thought belongs not to the individual but to the crowdto the crowd that believes blindly in the irresistible force of its institutions and of its morals…

A man may destroy everything within himself, love and hate and belief, and even doubt; but as long as he clings to life he cannot destroy fear: the fear, subtle, indestructible, and terrible…

… into the stillness round him – into the stillness profound and dumb… (Lagoon)

He sat by the corpse thinking; thinking very actively, thinking very new thoughts.

This intense desire of secrecy; of secrecy dark, destroying, profound… (Return)

I tried to break the spell—the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness… (Heart)

Scesis onomaton – A series of successive, synonymous expressions. Conrad employs this category of repetition liberally.

…out of the great silence of the surrounding wilderness, its very hopelessness and savagery seemed to approach them nearer, to draw them gently, to look upon them, to envelop them with a solicitude irresistible, familiar, and disgusting. (Outpost)

…he will begin this horror again to-morrow—and the day after—every day—raise other pretensions, trample on me, torture me, make me his slave. (Outpost)

His old thoughts, convictions, likes and dislikes, things he respected and things he abhorred, appeared in their true light at last! (Outpost)

…that one death could not possibly make any difference; couldn’t have any importance… (Outpost)

Society was calling to its accomplished child to come, to be taken care of, to be instructed, to be judged, to be condemned… (Outpost)

She had her desire—the desire to get away from under the paternal roof, to assert her individuality, to move in her own set… (Return)

…a distinct failure, on his part, to see, to guard, to understand. (Return)

Nothing could be foreseen, foretold—guarded against. (Return)

…and then came the idea, the persuasion, the certitude, that the evil must be forgotten—must be resolutely ignored… (Return)

There was an utter unreserve in her aspect, an abandonment of safeguards, that ugliness of truth… (Return)

The glamour of youth enveloped his particolored rags, his destitution, his loneliness, the essential desolation of his futile wanderings. (Heart)

… the crowd … flowed out of the woods, filled the clearing, covered the slope … (Heart)

…the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams. (Heart)

Triplets Sets of three, specifically three adjectives, giving a rolling, grand affect to your rhetoric. Mostly the adjectives are consonant, developing the same thought – but sometimes a set of three can be used to create a dissonant affect when one or more are unexpected.

…a solicitude irresistible, familiar, and disgusting. (Outpost)

…death near, unavoidable, and unseen…

…a coast deceptive, pitiless and black. (Lagoon)

…as if in the presence of something undreamt-of, dangerous, and final.  (Outpost)

…the mist penetrating, enveloping, and silent… (Outpost)

A shriek inhuman, vibrating and sudden… (Outpost)

He felt the destructive breath, the mysterious breath, the breath of passion, stir the profound peace of the house. (Return)

Their air of wooden unconcern struck him as unnatural, suspicious, irremediably hostile (Return)

… thoughts disintegrating, tormenting, sapping… (Return)

His very existence was improbable, inexplicable, and altogether bewildering. (Heart)

I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear… (Heart)

I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror… (Heart)

In the third post on Conrad’s style I look at his use of repetition in the structure of his stories and how this can be psychologically interpreted.


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Conrad’s style (1) Decadence and foreignness

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.

Un-English 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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An Outcast of The Islands by Joseph Conrad (1896)

Joseph Conrad followed his 1895 debut, Almayer’s Folly, with a prequel, An Outcast of the Islands.

This longer, more substantial novel (295 pages to Almayer’s slender 167) is also set in an isolated backwater of the Malayan archipelago, and features largely the same characters, filling in a lot of Almayer’s backstory, but from a different perspective.

What is odd about the novel is the extent to which it almost replays the narrative arc of the previous one, with the central character another feeble white man abandoned up a distant tropical river among, outwitted by crafty Malays and Arabs, and slave to a mad passion for a native girl which brings him to ruin.

It’s the first novel all over again, but on twice the scale and much more obsessively despairing and nihilistic:

On Lingard’s departure solitude and silence closed round Willems; the cruel solitude of one abandoned by men; the reproachful silence which surrounds an outcast ejected by his kind, the silence unbroken by the slightest whisper of hope; an immense and impenetrable silence that swallows up without echo the murmur of regret and the cry of revolt.

Plot 

About 15 years before the climactic events of Almayer’s Folly, another Dutchman works in Hudig’s warehouse in Macassar, Peter Willems. He thinks he is a great successful man and has earned a big house and the hand of a beautiful Portuguese woman in marriage through his own abilities. But he steals and embezzles from his employer and his jealous rivals expose him. One fine morning he is sacked, ruined, and thrown out of his house.

He goes down to the jetty, distraught, contemplating suicide, but encounters the English buccaneer Tom Lingard who shatters his illusions by telling him old Hudig only set him up with the house because the Portuguese girl he’s married is in fact old Hudig’s illegitimate daughter. Far from being the swanky demigod he thought he was, Willems is only the patsy and tool of Hudig’s wishes.

Lingard offers to take him on, to take him to the new trading post in a new river on the east coast of Borneo where a colleague of his from Hudig’s, Kaspar Almayer, is setting up a trading station and expecting great things…. Weakly, Willems accepts and finds himself in Sambir, the same raddled trading post on the Panteir river as the disillusioned Almayer. Almayer’s daughter, Nina, is still small which helps us date it to 15 or so years prior to the first novel.

And now Willems is once again out of his depth in the small communities dotted along the river and run by a local ‘rajah’ and his wily, one-eyed Malay ex-pirate and fixer, Babalatchi. These conspire to make Willems fall ‘helplessly’ in love with the fetching daughter – Aissa – of another local potentate who has been brought there dying after a bloody fight with the Dutch authorities. Willems is meant to fall so totally under her spell that he is persuaded to help a mighty Muslim trader of the area, Syed Abdulla, navigate to Sambir, to land and establish his own trading post, in direct rivalry to Almayer and against the interests of his protector, Lingard. In his foolish exuberance Willems goes so far as to tie Almayer up and taunt him, waving a gun in his face.

Captain Lingard returns and there is a sequence of set-piece scenes: Almayer updates Lingard, Lingard canoes across the river to the native campong, Lingard is tempted by the wily Babalatchi who hands him a loaded rifle at dawn as Willems is set to appear at the door of his hut, hoping the white men will kill each other. Lingard does indeed confront Willems and punches him to the ground, but resists the temptation to do more, insisting that Willems will remain here, effectively a prisoner, as his punishment.

The Arabs and Malays have left the settlement, having gone to a new one upriver. Lingard also leaves. Willems is completely abandoned apart from the Malay girl, Aissa, who is genuinely but puzzledly in love with him.

But Almayer, goaded by Lingard’s failure to take revenge against Willems, takes his own: for unexplained reasons Lingard has brought and dumped at Almayer’s station the Portuguese wife Willems had abandoned in the opening chapters. Almayer now arranges for her to be paddled over to Willems’ isolated campong hoping that she will encourage Willems to get in the canoe and be paddled downstream to find ships at the sea some 15 miles away.

However, things don’t go to plan as Aissa confronts the newly reunited husband and wife, becomes hysterical with jealousy and, after Willems has hustled his wife back to the canoe and is returning, Aissa shoots Willems through the lung and kills him.

In the final few pages Conrad does what will become a habit with him and abruptly switches the point of view to some years later as the complacent Almayer retells the last few actions of the plot (burying Willems ‘body etc) to a passing explorer who has casually stopped at the station. Having the effect of distancing the action, and also making it seem trivial, just another yarn…

(In fact this mannerism will become standard operating procedure for the other great suicidal depressive of English literature, Graham Greene.)

Good

When he is good, Conrad is brilliant. I think he is best in:

Descriptions of the jungle, particularly the changing light of dawn or dusk.

Instinctively he glanced upwards with a seaman’s impulse. Above him, under the grey motionless waste of a stormy sky, drifted low black vapours, in stretching bars, in shapeless patches, in sinuous wisps and tormented spirals. Over the courtyard and the house floated a round, sombre, and lingering cloud, dragging behind a tail of tangled and filmy streamers—like the dishevelled hair of a mourning woman.

Non-white characters In painting the characters of the non-white characters: the esteemed Muslim trader Syed Abdulla, the local rajah Lakamba, his tricksy sidekick Babalatchi – they are painted with a foreignness or otherness which seems utterly plausible – the scenes in which they meet and conspire against the stupid white men are vivid and intricate.

Style In his not-quite-English style, his uneven way with English idioms regularly leads to odd but expressive forms, the askew angle of his prose adding to the exoticism of the subject matter.

In his unnervingly precise physical details, the way a man stumbles or hesitates or is distracted mid-sentence by a cloud or a fly, the way raindrops fall from wet hair or puddles form in mud, or cutlery clatters in a bowl:

The nose bled too. The blood ran down, made one moustache look like a dark rag stuck over the lip, and went on in a wet streak down the clipped beard on one side of the chin. A drop of blood hung on the end of some hairs that were glued together; it hung for a while and took a leap down on the ground. Many more followed, leaping one after another in close file. One alighted on the breast and glided down instantly with devious vivacity, like a small insect running away; it left a narrow dark track on the white skin.

Bad

But – twice the length of the first novel turns out to be just long enough for Conrad to reveal his weaknesses and for them to begin to really grate. These are:

Obscure plotting It is sometimes hard to understand what’s going on, since the events are often told from different people’s perspectives and new chapters leap back and forward in time. And when you do finally understand, it’s often disappointing. Weak white man is duped into falling for exotic siren who leads him to ruin. Hmmm.

Style Conrad’s rhetorical habits begin to grate. There’s a lot of repetition, a lot of drama and melodrama, a lot of passages which tip over from lush into overripe, into the frankly hysterical.

Psychology 300 pages is long enough to become a bit sick with Conrad’s worldview, which is one of overwhelming negativity, depression and despair. It would be one thing is one of the characters was rather depressive, but ALL the characters experience the same overwrought levels of fear, dread, despair, terror and existentialist angst, and all the time.

And the narrating voice, Conrad, is as depressed, disillusioned and defeated as the characters he describes:

They moved, patient, upright, slow and dark, in the gleam clear or fiery of the falling drops, under the roll of unceasing thunder, like two wandering ghosts of the drowned that, condemned to haunt the water for ever, had come up from the river to look at the world under a deluge.

How dark it was! It seemed to him that the light was dying prematurely out of the world and that the air was already dead.

He laughed. His laugh seemed to be torn out from him against his will, seemed to be brought violently on the surface from under his bitterness, his self-contempt, from under his despairing wonder at his own nature.

He felt a great emptiness in his heart. It seemed to him that there was within his breast a great space without any light, where his thoughts wandered forlornly, unable to escape, unable to rest, unable to die, to vanish—and to relieve him from the fearful oppression of their existence. Speech, action, anger, forgiveness, all appeared to him alike useless and vain, appeared to him unsatisfactory, not worth the effort of hand or brain that was needed to give them effect.

The anger of his outraged pride, the anger of his outraged heart, had gone out in the blow; and there remained nothing but the sense of some immense infamy—of something vague, disgusting and terrible, which seemed to surround him on all sides, hover about him with shadowy and stealthy movements, like a band of assassins in the darkness of vast and unsafe places.

It’s too much. Eventually a healthy reader reacts badly to being so continuously hectored by what are clearly Conrad’s own personal demons. He doesn’t just intrude his angsty worldview into the story, he soaks every sentence in negativity and slaps you in the face with it.

Is Conrad the most miserable novelist in English?

As he wrote in a letter to R. B. Cunninghame Graham in January 1898:

There is no morality, no knowledge and no hope; there is only the consciousness of ourselves which drives us about a world that whether seen in a convex or a concave mirror is always but a vain and floating appearance.

The epigraph of the book is a cheery quote from the Spanish playwright Calderon: Pues el delito mayor Del hombre es haber nacito, meaning: ‘Man’s greatest crime is to have been born’. Google tells me this quote is also referenced by Samuel Beckett, patron saint of depressives.

Maybe when I read this when I was 18 or 21 it had a powerful impact on me. Now it sounds silly and immature. Now that we are born, it makes sense to try and live with as much dignity and self respect as we can. In fact, you could try enjoying yourself, from time to time. Do some exercise. Go for a swim!

The relentlessness of Conrad’s despair also overloads his next novel, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus‘. That short tale was meant to be the story into which Conrad poured all his knowledge of the sea. If so, it is deeply disappointing since the barely detectable plot is overwhelmed by thousands of passages of Conradian despair and misery at the wretched fate of forlorn men abandoned in a heartless universe etc.

On the other hand, all the above helps explains the enduring appeal of Heart of Darkness which, in contrast to Outcast:

  1. Is short – so you don’t have a chance to get sick of Conrad’s ornate style and relentless negativity.
  2. Has a subject, the Belgians’ evil management of their Congo colony, which actually justifies the most extreme and witheringly misanthropist sentiments anybody could express. The subject, for once, matches the constant near-hysteria of his style.
  3. Conrad shapes a narrative arc, helped by the frame narrative of Marlow on the director’s yacht moored in the Thames, which gives an element of detachment and control to the horror. It makes the central narrative all the more aesthetically impactful, unlike the raw, unmediated emotions of the overwrought protagonists of Almayer and Outcast.

Movie 

The book was made into a movie in 1952, directed by Carol Reed, starring Trevor Howard, Ralph Richardson and Robert Morley. Sadly, the reviews on Amazon say it’s rubbish. The posters are great, though. They appear to have dropped the interminable moralising and gone for ‘the soft beautiful body of a woman’.


Related link

Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

Almayer’s Folly: A Story of an Eastern River by Joseph Conrad (1895)

Reading Joseph Conrad after Edgar Rice Burroughs is like leaving a cheap disco and walking into a quiet church. Or maybe an ornate eastern temple… You can feel the civilisation, the depth and human dignity, pouring through every cell in your body…

Almayer’s Folly was Conrad’s first novel. Born in 1857 to Polish parents in a part of the Ukraine administered by the Russian Empire, Józef Teodor Conrad Korzeniowski left home to join the French merchant marine in 1874, aged 17. In 1886 he earned his Master’s certificate in the British Merchant Service, becoming a British Citizen, and anglicising his name to Joseph Conrad. His next few years of service took him to the Malay Archipelago, the Gulf of Siam and the Belgian Congo. It was for the Societe Anonyme pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo in 1890 that Conrad first visited the ‘dark continent’ and wrote the ‘Congo Diary’ that would later become The Heart of Darkness.

The harsh conditions of travelling to the Congo Free State and working on a paddle-steamer aggravated Conrad’s already fragile health. He suffered from gout and depression and returned to England weakened and suffering from fever and was hospitalised. In 1894, aged 37, he signed off from his last ship and devoted himself to completing the novel he’d been working at since 1889.

Plot The Dutchman Kaspar Almayer settles on the bank of the river Pantei on the Borneo coast. Trade fails. The pirate Lingard promises him money if he will marry a young girl, only survivor of a pirate massacre Lingard was involved in. Almayer marries her on the understanding that Lingard will share some of the gold and treasure he plans to accumulate. but Lingard’s plans come to nothing and Almayer sinks into a depression, continually outwitted at trade and strategy by the neighbouring Arab and Muslim traders. His wife gives him a daughter, Nina, then settles into sullen antagonism. Nina is sent to convent school in Singapore and returns a beautiful young woman, who is immediately wooed both by the nephew of the Rajah of the river, and by a dashing Brahmin, Dain Maroola, who arrives out of nowhere and, once again, promises the gullible Almayer riches and wealth.

This wooing is the climax of the novel, all the rest having been scene-setting, for it turns out Dain is smuggling gunpowder, but he is betrayed, attacked and pursued by a Dutch warship, back to Almayer’s compound, where all concerned must make some life-changing choices!

The story is slender but spooled out in a long lazy meandering fashion which moves backwards and forwards in time. Is this clumsy, or a crafty emulation of the forward and backward rhythm of the great river upon which the novel is set?

Characters Deceptively slight (167 pages) and simple, the story follows the same characters over quite a long period, well over 20 years, and Conrad depicts them at different moments of their lives, giving detailed descriptions of their characters and psychological motivations:

  • Kaspar Almeyer, the (Dutch) middle-aged white failed trader gone to seed and living off pathetic dreams
  • Lingard the English pirate who persuades him to marry the Malay girl survivor of a pirate battle in exchange for riches which never materialise
  • the Malay girl who bears him a daughter and then sinks into contemptuous sloth
  • Abdulla the pious and successful old Arab who dominates trade along the river
  • Lakamba, the Malay ‘rajah’ of the river, who conspires with Abdulla to monopolise the trade and keep Almayer down
  • Dain Maroola, the handsome young Malay prince who falls deeply in love with Nina
  • Nina, the young woman whose passionate love for Dain stands at the heart of the novel and who is forced to choose between “savage” love and “civilised” hypocrisy.

The river Almayer’s folly is built at the confluence of two branches of the mighty Pantei river, enormous muddy brown, swollen by monsoon floods, which dominates the imagery of the book and whose slow, impassive, endless rolling symbolises the heedless unfolding of Time, careless of all human activity. (The centrality of the river again anticipating ‘Heart of Darkness’).

Style Two points:

  • Conrad doesn’t quite write standard English. His sentences are long, lush with unnecessary adjectives and disconcerting with askew phraseology. The first publisher’s readers worried about his frequent infelicities and errors of grammar or phraseology; but Unwin decided, correctly, that they actively helped make Conrad a unique and poetic stylist.
  • Conrad brings to his writing an unashamedly European sensibility, especially when it comes to describing big negative emotions, despair, futility, collapse. Completely unlike the stiff upper lip style of, say, Haggard or Kipling, when a firm handshake says all that needs saying.

The following excerpt from chapter 5 shows Conrad’s long sentences, his lush description of tropical scenery, his un-English phraseology, and his un-English nihilism:

He stood up attentive, and the boat drifted slowly in shore, Nina guiding it by a gentle and skilful movement of her paddle.  When near enough Dain laid hold of the big branch, and leaning back shot the canoe under a low green archway of thickly matted creepers giving access to a miniature bay formed by the caving in of the bank during the last great flood.  His own boat was there anchored by a stone, and he stepped into it, keeping his hand on the gunwale of Nina’s canoe.  In a moment the two little nutshells with their occupants floated quietly side by side, reflected by the black water in the dim light struggling through a high canopy of dense foliage; while above, away up in the broad day, flamed immense red blossoms sending down on their heads a shower of great dew-sparkling petals that descended rotating slowly in a continuous and perfumed stream; and over them, under them, in the sleeping water; all around them in a ring of luxuriant vegetation bathed in the warm air charged with strong and harsh perfumes, the intense work of tropical nature went on: plants shooting upward, entwined, interlaced in inextricable confusion, climbing madly and brutally over each other in the terrible silence of a desperate struggle towards the life-giving sunshine above—as if struck with sudden horror at the seething mass of corruption below, at the death and decay from which they sprang.

Civilisation and savagery The word ‘savage’ is used 35 times in the text, harshly to describe Almayer’s Malay wife and half-caste daughter, Nina. It would be easy to object to the racism implicit in its use, except that the entire novel highlights the dichotomy between civilisation and barbarism – solely to question and undermine it.

Here, in his first novel, Conrad raises the issue he will pursue for years, and which is crystallised in his most famous work, Heart of Darkness (1899). The Western world of his day made a shibboleth of the distinction between the superior, white, advanced races, and the rest – the various forms of ‘savage’ or ‘semi-savage’ dark-skinned peoples; and yet Conrad thought he had seen through it; realised that beneath the veneer of ‘civilisation’ the white man was the same godless animal as the brown, driven by the same primal fears and greeds, and capable – as in Heart of Darkness – of far worse atrocities. It is the ‘savage’ Dain who behaves nobly, it is the ‘savage’ Nina whose love is depicted as pure and constant as Juliet or any Victorian heroine.

Conrad, unprotected by the insulating imbecilities of the English public school system, brings to the unsettling realities of the colonisation of the remote parts of the earth a palette of Slavic pessimism and European existentialist philosophy. Result: Conrad the man tried to commit suicide in his 20s, and then used his writing as therapy to exorcise his vision of decay and despair in book after book after book, bringing order to his chaotic feelings by rehearsing them again and again in long French sentences.

Compare and contrast with Kipling, thoroughly innoculated and imbued with the pukkah certainties of the English public school system (see Stalky and Co.), who sometimes writes about white men going bad, and the strange horrors encountered in colonial life – and with, admittedly, a genuinely eerie impact – but always, ultimately, from the outside, uncontaminated by Doubt, as the laureate of Empire and white racial superiority.

Steady on, old chap Conrad was careful not to write about the Empire of the British, his adopted nation, among whom he wanted to be accepted and a success; his first stories all concern Dutch colonisers and traders who experience alienation, failure and despair, thus neatly leaving us Brits off the hook. Good chap!


Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ by Joseph Conrad (1897)

In August 1897, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee year, a few months after Captains Courageous was published in book form,  Joseph Conrad’s novella ‘The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’‘ began to appear in The New Review. (This was a literary journal edited by WE Henley, major editor and minor poet, remembered for his poem Invictus, quoted by Nelson Mandela upon his release from prison and so used as the title of a recent movie about South Africa. Henley was an important player in 1890s literature. As editor of the Scots Observer he’d brought Robert Louis Stevenson to national attention. After Stevenson surprised the literary world by decamping to the South Seas, Henley was the first in London to recognise The Next Big Thing – Kipling – and helped him establish his reputation by publishing the Barrack Room Ballads in 1892.)

The Nigger is a novella, only 140 pages in the Penguin edition, a study of men isolated on a merchant ship on a long sea voyage who live through a terrifying storm which pitches the ship right onto its side and nearly drowns them all. It is directly comparable in length, publication date and subject matter to Kipling’s Captains Courageous.

Both books are, frankly, hard to read, but for different reasons. Kipling is concerned to show you he has mastered the terminology of sea fishing, so his text is stuffed with technical terms. When he’s not showing off his expertise, his characters are talking in a phonetically rendered version of New England fisherman slang which is almost unreadable:

“‘Ver’ good. Ver’ good don,’ said Manuel ‘After supper I show you a little schooner I make, with all her ropes. So we shall learn.’ ‘Fust-class fer a passenger,’ said Dan, ‘Dad he’s jest allowed you be wuth your salt maybe fore you’re kaownded. Thet’s a heap fer Dad. I learn you more our next watch together.” (Chapter 3)

In terms of meaning or purpose, Kipling’s book is a ‘coming of age’ tale in which a spoilt American brat is transformed into a Man by learning discipline and duty and comradeship from the fishermen he’s fallen among. Though all the characters are American, the message is British public school: Become a Man through Responsibility, Hard Work, through doing your Duty.

Conrad’s vision and style are far removed from this. His vision is one of European existentialism, of despair at the meaninglessness of human existence. His pages are overwhelmed with mournful asides about the immensity of the sea and the pettiness of human concerns.

A heavy atmosphere of oppressive quietude pervaded the ship. In the afternoon men went about washing clothes and hanging them out to dry in the unprosperous breeze with the meditative language of disenchanted philosophers. Very little was said. The problem of life seemed too voluminous for the narrow limits of human speech, and by common consent it was abandoned to the great sea that had from the beginning enfolded it in its immense grip; to the sea that knew all, and would in time infallibly unveil to each the wisdom hidden in all the errors, the certitude that lurks in doubts, the realm of safety and peace beyond the frontiers of sorrow and fear. (Chapter 5)

And as you can see, this vision is conveyed in a baroque style of exceeding wordiness – a seemingly limitless litany of boom words and big phrases, all circling hopelessly round his one big perception – the horror of existence. The word ‘horror’ is repeated a number of times.

Kipling’s bright, shallow British optimism. Or Conrad’s doom-laden European pessimism. Posterity – and literature courses everywhere – have favoured Conrad. But is that right?

As to the ‘nigger’ of the title, the novella centres on a black sailor – James Wait – who ships with the Narcissus knowing he is dying (presumably of TB, though this is never made explicit).

Various crew members – Old Singleton, the sneak Donkin, the youth Charley, sturdy Captain Allisoun, the first mate Baker – are described at length and become fairly ‘real’, but Wait is an allegorical figure, the man doomed to Death who melodramatises his plight, and becomes the psychological centre of the ship, mesmerising the crew.

I think the book is a failure. I didn’t understand from the text or from Conrad’s preface the point of Wait. Conrad keeps calling him a fake, an imposter, but Wait does, truly, die of illness, exactly as he’d been worrying.

I think Conrad is wrestling in a confused manner with the issues which obsess him: his sincere love of the sea and his sailor comrades is brought up against his just-as-powerful personal vision of the heartless universe, and the failure of the story is Conrad’s failure to make them coalesce in any coherent manner.

To my mind Conrad sorted these confused feelings out in his next book, also a novella, Heart of Darkness, published in 1899 – whose key quote, ‘The horror, the horror’, has become part of the culture thanks to the movie adaptation, ‘Apocalypse Now’, and whose critique of the mindless brutality of western Imperialism has never been surpassed. Here the horror of Conrad’s vision finds its ‘objective correlative’ – the publicly understandable image or symbol of Conrad’s private feelings – in the story of Kurtz, the exemplary imperialist servant gone grotesquely rotten in the depths of the jungle.

In the same year as Heart of Darkness, Kipling published his volume of stories about jolly public schoolboys, Stalky and Co., learning through their wily japes the ways of Brotherhood and Service which will stand them in good stead when they go out to run the British Empire.

The contrast couldn’t be starker.

All Hands to the Pumps by Henry Scott Tuke (1889) © Tate

All Hands to the Pumps by Henry Scott Tuke (1889) © Tate


Related links

Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

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