Why Poles don’t get Conrad

October 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

Partly, it’s translation.  Almayer and Lord Jim contain some of the most beautiful passages of English prose ever written (I am thinking of the cruise of Patna, or the view of Georgetown harbor from Strawberry Hill in Lord Jim, or the river covered with red fallen flowers in the elopement scene in Almayer); and though I have not checked whether these passages read well in translation, I suspect they do not because I do remember clearly having great difficulty working my way through Conrad in Polish many years ago, and switching, in frustration, to reading him in my then very poor English, because that went better (however slow).   Certain important passages in Personal Record for instance — such as the bit about letting the cat out of the bag — were actually incomprehensible in Polish translation — yet proved perfectly legible in English.

I do not mean that Conrad is somehow untranslatable, but merely that the current translations are quite bad; as there seems to be afoot a kind of universal movement to re-translate, sooner or later these will be re-translated; perhaps then Conrad will fare better.

Another problem could be Conrad’s Englishness.  Most of Conrad’s sea books are about man’s men who talk the way English man’s men do: sarcasm, understatement, elision, brevity, black and acerbic humor, and standoffish refusal to engage in touchy-feelies are all laconically elevated to the status of virtues.  Conrad’s heroes do not explain anything, ever:  in court, Jim testifies about the moment of horror on a sinking ship — the horror which made him lose his mind and act foolishly — in two word:  he says “I jumped”.  He refuses to explain precisely when he absolutely should.

This is emphatically not the Polish way:  I have lost Polish friends because I have become too English, too Conradian.  My sense of humor is too biting, my interpretation of human character too uncharitable.  I tend to wish people to “break a leg” instead of “good luck”.

But mainly, perhaps, it is his topics.  Lord Jim is a novel about shame, for chrissake; who ever feels ashamed of anything?  In The Island of Day Before the (aristocratic, i.e. exceptional, i.e. old-fashioned) pater makes a speech to his (ordinary, with-it, your average bloke) peons, whom he is ordering to go out and fight (I paraphrase):  “We have always been loyal to our lord and we will be loyal now because to be loyal in good times and disloyal in hard times is to be a pig.  Now, if any of you scum don’t like it, better tell me now while I have this convenient tree to hand on which to hang you”.  In other words, the connoisseur of men that he is, he does not expect his peons to be moved by feelings of loyalty.  Perhaps it is equally unreasonable to expect people to be moved by a novel of shame.

Finally, what to make of a novel like The Shadow Line?  It has no romantic interest.  They haven’t killed him and he hasn’t run away.  There are no screeching tires or ticking time-bombs.  It is a novel about a man’s first independent command at sea — and one which goes horribly wrong.

In the author’s note Conrad explains that he meant it to be, more broadly, a novel about one’s passage into manhood.  Perhaps even he felt his readers were liable not to get it; so he went out and did something no man’s man should:  he explained.

It didn’t work because, like Jim, he explained badly:  it is not a novel about passage into adulthood; it is a novel about a man’s love for the sea:

A sudden passion of anxious impatience rushed
through my veins, gave me such a sense of the in-
tensity of existence as I have never felt before or
since. I discovered how much of a seaman I was,
in heart, in mind, and, as it were, physically–a
man exclusively of sea and ships; the sea the only
world that counted, and the ships, the test of man-
liness, of temperament, of courage and fidelity–
and of love.


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