What were the linguistic influences of one of the greatest English language literary figures? Culture.pl presents an academic paper by Tanya Gokulsing that addresses Conrad's knowledge of French and Polish and the impact on his writing style.
Polishness, Modernism, and the Manipulation of Time: Conrad's Use of 'Now' in Almayer's Folly
Tanya Gokulsing, Worcester College (University of Oxford)
In recent years, a concern for the linguistic influence of Polish and French on Joseph Conrad's written English has been developing within Conradian criticism, and is perhaps most evident in the publication of Mary Morzinski's Linguistic Influence of Polish on Joseph Conrad's Style (1994) and Michael Lucas' Aspects of Conrad's Literary Language (2000). As these two volumes highlight, however, much of the commentary on linguistic interference from both Polish and French assumes an overriding negative influence: while Morzinski underscores three areas (aspect, voice, and word order) in which Conrad's prose was affected by his Polish linguistic inheritance, Lucas habitually refers to the stylistic features under discussion in his work as 'eccentricities'. Morzinski's and Lucas' volumes both provide invaluable insights into, to borrow Lucas' title for a moment, aspects of Conrad's literary language, and there is no doubt justification for assuming some degree of negative linguistic interference with Conrad's English style.
However, both Morzinski and Lucas adopt methodologies derived specifically from linguistics, considering Conrad's style in relation to various relevant linguistic theories and contributing to advances in the linguistic description of Conrad's prose. Indeed, in the tradition more of linguistics than literature, Lucas dedicates his efforts towards compiling a statistical account of Conrad's literary language. Thus, while both volumes reveal a wealth of localised information, such linguistics-focused approaches used by these critics necessarily limit the possibility of exploring the ambiguities inherent in Conrad's language use. Accordingly, their analyses are perhaps most usefully relied upon as foundations from which we might begin to consider these ambiguities, and hence make broader judgements, rather than simply offer information, about his use of literary language.
Indeed, the idea that Conrad's familiarity with both Polish and French impacted negatively on his written English can be found as early as the first reviews of Almayer's Folly; in particular, an anonymous reviewer for the Bookman, writing one of the first biographical sketches of the author, observed an 'unfamiliar something in its tone', which, he claimed, 'is explained by the fact that Mr. Conrad, for all his skilful adoption of our language, is not an Englishman' (41). Arguing against this critical trend, however, and drawing on the evidence of close stylistic scrutiny, this paper will assert that, as Zdzisław Najder has also written, the Polish and French influences on Conrad's prose were not 'purely negative' (CPB 29).
Through a look at the first chapter of Almayer's Folly, I will argue that Conrad's use of tense sequencing suggests an interesting combination of, on the one hand, his struggle with the English tense system, and, on the other, the way in which this struggle simultaneously allowed him to 'make new' the language of English fiction. I propose that Conrad was far more self-conscious in his handling of even the very grammar of English than has previously been suggested, and thus establish the need to reconsider the appearance of Polonisms and Gallicisms in his fiction as self-conscious inclusions rather than errors or idiosyncrasies.
Ultimately, this paper moves towards answering the question of whether the unfamiliarity that Conrad's contemporaries detected arose from a 'modernist' impulse, or whether it was more specifically the result of Conrad's 'foreignness'.
The issue of tense – and, perhaps more broadly, of time – in Conrad's fiction is an intriguing one. Indeed, while this paper will focus on the impact of Polish on Conrad's manipulation of temporality in Chapter 1 of Almayer's Folly, there are additional various philosophical questions to be considered. Perhaps most interesting in this regard is Henri Bergson's theory of duration, as put forward in Time and Free Will (Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience, 1889). We do not know whether Conrad read Bergson's text – which was not published in English until 1910 – and yet there is a striking similarity between Conrad's representation of time in his first novel and the French philosopher's argument for recognising the disparity between reality and the human perception of reality. Bergson used the example of the pendulum and the clock to illustrate his argument.
When I follow with my eyes on the dial of a clock the movement of the hand which corresponds to the oscillations of the pendulum, I do not measure duration, as seems to be thought; I merely count simultaneities, which is very different. Outside me, in space, there is never more than a single position of the hand and the pendulum, for nothing is left of the past positions. Within myself a process of organisation or interpretation of conscious states is going on, which constitutes true duration. It is because I endure in this way that I picture to myself what I call the past oscillations of the pendulum at the same time as I perceive the present oscillation.
Now, let us withdraw for a moment the ego which thinks these so-called successive oscillations: there will never be more than a single oscillation, and indeed only a single position of the pendulum, and hence no duration. Withdraw, on the other hand, the pendulum and its oscillations; there will no longer be anything but the heterogeneous duration of the ego, without moments external to one another, without relation to number. Thus, within our ego, there is succession without mutual externality; outside the ego, in pure space, mutual externality without succession: mutual externality, since the present oscillation is radically distinct from the previous oscillation, which no longer exists; but no succession exists solely for the conscious spectator who keeps the past in mind and sets the two oscillations or their symbols side by side in auxiliary space. (107-09)
We will see below that, in the first chapter of Almayer's Folly, Conrad repeatedly presents us with a new present moment in the reading experience; recurringly, he inserts into the text the word 'now'. With each 'now', the present moment is seen to be disconnected from the previous 'now' – even when the space between those 'now’s' constitutes only a matter of seconds or minutes of text time. Although I will argue below that this strange use of 'now' is connected with Conrad's Polish linguistic heritage, it is equally the case that his experiments with time in this first novel relate to Henri Bergson's theory of time and duration. A recognition of this fact, however, only urges the belief that Conrad's manipulation of time in the novel was deliberate rather than solecistic, and that, as I will illustrate below, he consciously drew on his Polish past in order to imbue his fiction with something new.
Discussing Conrad's struggle with tense sequencing in relation to specific quotations from Almayer's Folly, Ian Watt writes that, in the text, 'one could no doubt trace the equally complicated but much more definite rules for tense agreements in French, and the quite different but equally categorical rules in Polish' (47). Yet this struggle with tense sequencing which Watt points to is played out on a much larger scale throughout Almayer's Folly as a whole, and Conrad's manipulation of time, which is unmistakeable at story-level, is in addition mirrored in the microstructure of the tale.
The first chapter of the novel begins and ends in the present but moves backwards in time to plot the main events of Almayer's early adult life. There is also some projection towards the future in the form of Almayer's dreams. The constant interaction between past, present, and future contrasts future dreams to past failings. Indeed, Allan Simmons has noted that these temporal movements, in his words, 'contribute towards the sense of Almayer's being trapped in the present – between a past he wishes to escape and a dream future which appears increasingly unrealisable'. Simmons continues,
For instance, we learn that Almayer's dream of wealth is itself based upon Lingard's failed dream of wealth; we learn that his vision of Europe is based upon his mother's memories of the 'lost glories' of Amsterdam; and we learn how Almayer expects to blind people to Nina's skin colour when he himself was not blinded to his own prospective wife's skin colour by the promise of Lingard's wealth. (5-6)
Such time shifting as we find in Almayer's Folly, now recognised as a characteristic feature of modernism, is facilitated by an extensive use of temporal cohesion; yet the sequencing of events put forward by temporal markers is at times surprising.
Conrad's representation of temporality throughout the chapter and, indeed, in the work as a whole is worth a brief moment of consideration here. Gérard Genette has identified three major aspects of temporal manipulation in the transfer of story to text, which he entitles order, duration, and frequency. Of these, Conrad manipulates both order, with an external analepsis moving backwards in time to recount events that occurred prior to the opening of the text, and duration, since the text opens with a descriptive pause before recounting the events of Almayer's youth with relative speed.
Interestingly, even within the recounting of these more condensed events (Almayer's departure from home, his induction into the warehouses of Hudig, his meeting with Lingard and his arrangement with him to marry his adopted daughter) there appear moments of descriptive pause, the best example of which is perhaps Conrad's description of Hudig's warehouses and all that takes place within them. It is perhaps from this rather dramatic manipulation of both order and duration that some of the obstacles to easy processing of the text arise, and the matter is not cleared up by Conrad's use of cohesive temporal markers.
Now and now
Temporal cohesion, a sub-type of conjunction cohesion, is defined quite simply by Halliday and Hasan as 'the relation of the theses of two successive sentences... by... a sequence in time. One is subsequent to the other' (261), and it may be divided into two sub-types, external and internal, where the former is concerned with the events of the story, or the events being talked about, and the latter inheres within the communication process. Here, we will only be concerned with the first type, external temporal cohesion. This first type can be further sub-divided into various temporal relations, from sequential relations (such as 'then... and then'...) to simultaneous relations (for instance, 'at the same time') and previous relations (such as 'earlier').
There are a number of more complex external temporal relations, the labels of which I will not describe here since they are not relevant to the ensuing discussion. What is significant, however, is that, in all, sixty-one uses of temporal cohesion are employed by Conrad in this first chapter of his first novel, and, moreover, of the five sub-types of conjunction cohesion (additive, adversative, causal, temporal, and continuative), temporal cohesion is, with the exception of additive conjunction, by far the most extensively used. In particular, Conrad repeatedly inserts the temporal marker 'now' into his prose, but its use is often unhelpful since the reader cannot always be clear to which 'now' the marker refers. Is it the 'now' of the present time or the 'now' of some past time? If the latter, is it the 'now' of Almayer's arrival on the dusty jetty of Macassar, the 'now' of his time spent with Hudig, or the 'now' of his time aboard the Flash with Lingard?
Interestingly, the cause of Conrad's repetitive use of 'now' may inhere in his Polish linguistic unconscious. Although Polish does possess temporal adverbs ('now' in Polish, for instance, is teraz), already inherent at a deep level in Polish grammar is a distinction between complete and incomplete or durative action. That is, for the most part, each Polish verb exists as one half of a pair. While both verbs in the pair have almost the same meaning (for instance, przeczytać and czytać both mean 'to read'), one verb will form the perfective aspect (which denotes a finished action) while the other will form the imperfective (which denotes an unfinished action). Thus, in Polish, the presence of a verbal prefix limits the meaning of that verb to denote completion. Accordingly, I can explain to my supervisor,
Przeczytałam Almayera. I have read (and finished) Almayer's Folly.
Or I might attempt to excuse myself thus:
Czytałam Almayera. I was/have been reading Almayer's Folly.
So, if in Polish Conrad wished to explain that 'now he could hear the paddles distinctly' (AF 11), he could use the imperfective (Almayer słyszał), which is literally translated as 'Almayer was hearing', and would not need the compound verbal structure 'could hear' that is required in English to suggest continuity (in English, 'Almayer was hearing' is clearly an awkward construction). Although it is possible in Polish to use temporal adverbs alongside the imperfective – indeed, it might be desirable to insert one here, and thus to write Teraz Almayer słyszał ('Now Almayer was hearing') – they serve in addition to the verbal prefix to limit the meaning and thus they help to situate the process in time.
The following sentence from the opening chapter of Almayer's Folly, describing Almayer as he watches a tree drifting downriver, contains three temporal markers and merges sequential events with the here-and-now of the punctiliar temporal 'now', forcing the reader to adjust her vision, and see events through the eyes of Almayer, the perceiver: 'It did; then he drew back, thinking that now its course was free down to the sea, and he envied the lot of that inanimate thing now growing small and indistinct in the deepening darkness'. (6)
Conrad's use of the first temporal marker, 'then' presents no problems to the reader who views Almayer's movements in sequence, from leaning over the balustrade of the verandah, lost in his dream, to drawing back to reflect on the course of nature. The first use of 'now' is also relatively uncomplicated, and brings the sequence of events emphatically into the here-and-now of the present moment. Following the introduction of this emphatic present, however, it is unusual that another 'now' should occur so rapidly, for it suggests that the narrative had been recounting events from the past immediately prior to its appearance – when, in fact, as the quotation shows, the narrative has explicitly been describing the present moment.
The effect of piling up these punctiliars is to indicate a present time that marches forward swiftly and emphatically, from the 'now' in which the tree's route 'was free down to the sea', to the 'now' in which it grows 'small and indistinct in the deepening darkness'. The two 'nows' seem to indicate different presents; yet in reality, only a matter of seconds has passed between them. This effect is again created at a later stage in the narrative.
Almayer descended the ladder carefully, now thoroughly recalled to the realities of life by the care necessary to prevent a fall on the uneven ground where the stones, decaying planks, and half-sawn beams were piled up in inextricable confusion... Now he could hear the paddles distinctly, and even a rapidly exchanged word in low tones, the heavy breathing of men fighting with the current, and hugging the bank on which he stood. (11)
Again, the sequencing of the 'nows' provides the effect of a present time that marches forward without hesitation; the 'now' of the time when Almayer descends the ladder is seen to be disconnected from the 'now' in which he hears the paddles of a boat upon the Pantai river. This effect is further emphasised as the text moves forward and the frequency of this punctiliar marker increases:
'Arabs, no doubt', muttered Almayer to himself, peering into the solid blackness. 'What are they up to now? Some of Abdulla's business; curse him!'
The boat was very close now.
'Oh, ya! Man!' hailed Almayer.
The sound of voices ceased, but the paddles worked as furiously as before. Then the bush in front of Almayer shook, and the sharp sound of the paddles falling into the canoe rang into the quiet night. They were holding onto the bush now; but Almayer could hardly make out an indistinct dark shape of a man's head and shoulders above the bank. (11-12)
As in the first example, the punctiliar markers are mingled with temporal markers of progression (while 'as before' suggests the immediate past, 'then' indicates the sequence of events), which has the effect of intensifying the force of the punctiliar temporals, making the 'now' of the present time not only more immediate and explicit, but also more specific.
Such specificity is further accentuated by the repeated use of 'now', so that the first 'now' represents an earlier time than the second, and the second an earlier time than the third. The use of repeated temporal punctiliars occurs again at the close of the chapter, where it is observed that the night is 'now made more intense by a heavy thunder-cloud', and subsequently that 'Almayer was in his hammock now, already half asleep' (16). Moreover, it is not only 'now' which obscures the sense of time in the chapter; other temporal punctiliars – such as 'as yet' in the following sentence – are equally confusing: 'Bold, reckless, keen in business, not disinclined for a brush with the pirates that were to be found on many a coast as yet, making money fast, they used to have a general 'rendezvous' in the bay for purposes of trade and dissipation' (7).
Indeed, the very meaning of 'as yet' is not entirely clear; we assume, perhaps, that Conrad wishes to imply 'still' ('that were still to be found on many a coast'), although 'as yet' actually suggests more specifically 'at present' – and perhaps simply 'yet', and a modified word order, would have been more appropriate: ('that were yet to be found on many a coast'). It is interesting that the Polish phrase jak na razie, which is literally translated into English as 'as yet', might have been appropriate in a Polish translation of this passage. In addition, the Polish word jeszcze is translated into English as meaning both 'still' and 'yet', and it is possible that this conflation of the two words in Polish was the source of Conrad's confusion over their use in English.
Indeed, as Mary Morzinski has shown, non-native speakers frequently make errors such as these, for 'a basic source of interference or transfer is where one language, either native or target, has morphosyntactic structures not present in the other' (24). In addition, Conrad recurrently made errors with word order in English, for, as Morzinski has likewise made clear, Polish allows for greater flexibility in its word order. To make matters more complicated, however, Conrad's use of 'as yet' refers not to the here-and-now of the present time, but, rather to some twenty years previous. Yet this information can only be gathered from the preceding co-text in which appears the temporal specific 'at that time'. The use of a temporal punctiliar to indicate the here-and-now of some past time is, as this very description suggests, somewhat incongruous, and yet a similar occurrence appears again in Chapter Two of the novel, when Conrad writes, 'It was currently believed at that time'... (21).
Ultimately, and although perhaps rather strange, Conrad's use of temporal markers in Almayers' Folly serves as a device to portray Almayer as a man eclipsed by an emphatic and sweeping sense of time. Indeed, the contrast provided by the constant acceleration and deceleration of pace, and the interchange of events between past and present offers the impression of Almayer trapped in a present he abhors between a past for which he grieves and a future about which he dreams.
In addition, the effect created by the repetition of 'now', of time marching on unwaveringly, contrasts sharply with Conrad's presentation of the plot of the tale – the events of just three days – over the course of the entire novel, and it is clear that the manipulation of order which is evident at story-level is mirrored at a microstructural level in the text. While it is true that the repeated appearance of 'now' and strange use of 'as yet' muddy the reading process somewhat – the former perhaps unwittingly provides too great a sense of specificity, while the latter appears entirely mistaken – it also seems apparent that the disparity between the Polish and English means of expressing temporality suggested to the author a manner in which in English system might be exploited to create certain effects.
Indeed, the constant use of time shifts in the tale provides an outlet through which Conrad may present his characters with irony; the structural parallelisms noted above, for example, allow Conrad to illustrate Almayer dreaming of a 'splendid future' while in fact currently living that same splendid future – in reality an abhorrent existence – that he dreamed of so long ago. Such ambiguities and ironies that the time shifts in Almayer's Folly allow for, encourage, to quote Simmons again, 'simultaneous and often contrasting readings. For Conrad, such contrasts were essential' (18).
In addition to providing an outlet for irony, the innovative juxtaposition of different temporal levels and the frequent re-establishment of a new present moment in the reading experience illustrate the influence on Conrad of contemporary philosophy. Indeed, it is this use of narrative techniques – informed by contemporary thought, and urged by his status as polyglot and as foreigner – which implicate Conrad in the modernist endeavour. Yet Conrad's contemporary critics, whose responses are generally characterised by a lack of critical objectivity – an issue which Susan Jones has also highlighted in relation to contemporary accounts of women in Conrad's fiction (18) – failed to detect his proto-modernism; moreover, they failed to identify his Polishness – and it is this Polishness which, I believe, lay at the crux of what was 'unfamiliar' to them.
Nevertheless, the critics perhaps came nearer to perceiving this Polishness than they themselves realised, for they repeatedly remarked on the 'poetry' of Conrad's fiction (Bookman 41), referring to his 'poetic power' (Illustrated London News 172) and 'poetical description' (New York Times 96) – and the Polish Romantic tradition out of which Conrad himself was writing was itself a poetic one. Thus, although ignorant of Polish literary traditions, and despite being 'influenced by a somewhat different literary tradition from that of his Polish Romantic heritage' (Jones 20-21), the English critics unknowingly alluded to Conrad's Polish past in their accounts of his 'unfamiliar' English fiction. Indeed, in his 1914 interview with Marian Dąbrowski, Conrad himself both affirmed the fundamental importance of his Polish past to his English fiction and simultaneously observed that the British critics were ignorant of this Polishness within his writing.
And thus I end with Conrad's own assertion of the centrality of his Polish past to his English fiction; he argued:
The English critics – and indeed I am an English writer – when speaking of me always add that there is in my work something incomprehensible, unfathomable, elusive. Only you can grasp this elusiveness, understand the incomprehensible. It is Polishness. (CPB 28)
- Bergson, Henri. Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness. 1889. Transl. F.L. Pogson. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1910.
- Bookman. 9 (May 1896): 41.
- Conrad, Joseph. Almayer's Folly: A Story of an Eastern River. Cambridge: CUP, 1994.
- Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980.
- Halliday, M.A.K. and Ruqaiya Hasan. Cohesion in English. London: Longman, 1976.
- Illustrated London News, 112 (5 February 1898): 172.
- Jones, Susan. Conrad and Women. Oxford: OUP, 1999.
- Lucas, Michael. Aspects of Conrad's Literary Language. Lublin: UMCS, 2000.
- Morzinski, Mary. The Linguistic Influence of Polish on Joseph Conrad's Style. Lublin: UMCS, 1994.
- Najder, Zdzisław. Conrad's Polish Background: Letters to and from Polish Friends. Transl. Halina Carroll. London: OUP, 1964.
- New York Times: Saturday Review of Books and Art. (11 February 1899): 96.
- Simmons, Allan H. 'Ambiguity as Meaning: The Subversion of Suspense in Almayer's Folly'. The Conradian 14.1-2 (1989): 1-18.
- Watt, Ian. Essays on Conrad. Cambridge: CUP, 2000.