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A Note on a Borrowing by Conrad

The Return” (in Tales of Unrest, 1898) is an early story by Conrad. It is about 20,000 words long, and Conrad worked on it for four or five tormenting months in 1897. The labor was not really rewarded. “The Return” was too long and too difficult for the magazines Edward Garnett, Conrad’s friend and adviser, didn’t like it. And Conrad himself seems later to have felt that the story was a failure—though he welcomed kind words about it (“for I know how much the writing of that fantasy has cost me in sheer toil, in temper and in disillusion”).

Conrad’s three previous short stories had been set in Malaysia or Africa. “The Return” was set in London and it was about English people. It was, specifically, about the passionlessness and shallowness of the English middle class. How well did Conrad know these people in 1897? The answer, on the evidence of this story, is that he hardly knew them. He saw them from the outside; he saw them with the help of what he had read about them.

A line of doors flew open and a lot of men stepped out headlong. They had high hats, healthy pale faces, dark overcoats and shiny boots, they held in their gloved hands thin umbrellas and hastily folded evening papers…. Between the bare walls of a sordid staircase men clambered rapidly; their backs appeared alike—almost as if they had been wearing a uniform; their indifferent faces were varied but somehow suggested kinship, like the faces of a band of brothers who through prudence, dignity, disgust, or foresight would resolutely ignore each other…. Outside the big doorway of the street they scattered in all directions, walking away fast from one another with the hurried air of men fleeing from something compromising….

The writer appears to see only what the traveler sees. He has no pertinent social knowledge to draw on, and he appears to be making epigrams about a class. The most striking epigram—the one I carried in my head for years—occurs in the third paragraph of the story. It is a description of the male protagonist, a City man.

He moved on in the rain with careless serenity, with the tranquil case of someone successful and disdainful, very sure of himself—a man with lots of money and friends. He was tall, well set-up, good-looking and healthy; and his clear pale face had under its commonplace refinement that slight tinge of overbearing brutality which is given by the possession of only partly difficult accomplishments; by excelling in games, or the art of making money; by the easy mastery over animals and over needy men.

A striking epigram. And something very like it struck Leonard Woolf, but in another book. In Sowing, the first volume of his autobiography, Leonard Woolf—grandson of a successful Jewish “tailor and outfitter,” and son of a lawyer—describes his introduction to the artistocracy during his Cambridge days—not long after Conrad had written “The Return.”

The aristocratic class and way of life to which Leonard Campbell belonged could scarcely have been more different from or more antagonistic to mine, but I have always enjoyed plunging, with a shudder and shiver into a strange and alien society of people, as into an icy sea. To aristocratic societies I know that I am ambivalent, disliking and despising them and at the same time envying them their insolent urbanity which has never been more perfectly described than in Madame Bovary. Here is Flaubert’s description of the old and young men whom Emma met when she was invited to stay with the Marquis d’Andervilliers—so like the old and young men whom I met at lunch in the Campbells’ house in Manchester Square in 1903: “Leurs habits, mieux faits, semblaient d’un drap plus souple, et leurs cheveux, ramenés en boucles vers les tempes, lustrés par des pommades plus fines. Ils avaient le teint de la richesse, ce teint blanc que rehaussent la pâleur des porcelaines, les moires de satin, le vernis de beaux meubles, et qu’entretient dans sa santé un régime discret de nourritures exquises…. Ceux qui commençaient a vieillir avaient l’air jeune, tandis que quelque-chose de mûr s’étendait sur les visages des jeunes. Dans leurs regards indifférents flottait la quiétude des passions journellement assouvies; et, à travers leurs manières douces, perçait cette brutalité particulière que communique la domination de choses à demi faciles, dans lesquelles la force s’exerce et où la vanité s’amuse, le maniement des chevaux de race et la société des femmes perdues.”

This can be roughly translated:

Their clothes, better made, seemed to be of softer material, and their hair, curling towards their temples, seemed to shine with finer pomades. They had the complexion of wealth, the white complexion that is set off by the whiteness of porcelain, the shimmer of satin, the sheen of good furniture, the clear complexion that is kept in all its good health by an exquisite diet…. Those who had begun to age looked young, while there was something experienced in the faces of the young. In their indifferent faces there was the serenity of passions daily assuaged; and in their gentle manners there could be detected that special brutality that comes from the mastery of halfeasy things, where a proven power is exercised and where vanity is at play, the handling of thoroughbred horses and the company of fallen women.

So Conrad’s “healthy pale faces” of London and the “indifferent faces” of his City men turn out to have a French provincial origin. And Conrad’s rendering of la domination de choses à demi faciles—“the possession of only partly difficult accomplishments”—is better than the translation I have given above.

Ford Madox Ford tells this story of Conrad in 1893, four years before “The Return” was written:

Conrad then was first mate of a sailing-ship called the Torrens…. Conrad already had ideas of leaving the sea and making a living by his pen. It was before the days of typewriters. He had begun a novel, writing trial passages on the fly-leaves and margins of Madame Bovary and L’Education sentimentale. I used to possess his copy of the latter book…. There was a passage, that was afterwards incorporated into Almayer, pencilled on the front and back of the half-title page.*

Flaubert illuminated the aristocracy for Leonard Woolf. To Conrad, recently settled in England, Flaubert appeared to illuminate, or did indeed illuminate, the English middle class: he gave the apprentice writer—never a social writer, an observer of manners—a way of looking, an illusion of knowledge.

And the Flaubertian phrases are memorable. Seven years after reading the Conrad versions in “The Return,” I was able to spot the originals in the French quoted by Leonard Woolf. To concentrate on Flaubert’s French, as I have just done for the first time in my adult life, for the purpose of translation, is to admire the writing even more. In translation (any translation) the Flaubertian inspiration of Conrad’s words would be disguised—as it almost certainly was for Conrad himself. Translation is a taxing business: Conrad could legitimately feel that words like “the possession of only partly difficult accomplishments” were his own.

As interesting as the borrowing (or perhaps, in Conrad’s case, the creative memory) is the demonstration yet again that art seeds art, writing seeds writing, that in the development of the imagination there is an unbroken chain—Montaigne to Shakespeare (in The Tempest), the caricaturist Daumier to Dickens the novelist, Hoffmann to Balzac, among many others, Balzac perhaps even to Lermontov, Balzac certainly to Proust. On this subject of borrowing or influences Proust has a passage in Cities of the Plain.

A master, whoever he may be, however exclusive his school, judges in the light of his untutored instincts, does justice to talent whereever it be found, or rather not so much to talent as to some agreeable inspiration which he has enjoyed in the past, which reminds him of a precious moment in his adolescence. Or, it may be, because certain artists of an earlier generation have in some fragment of their work realized something that resembles what the master has gradually become aware that he himself meant at one time to create. Then he sees the old master as a sort of precursor; he values in him, under a wholly different form, an effort that is momentarily, partially fraternal. There are bits of Turner in the work of Poussin, we find a phrase of Flaubert in Montesquieu.

  1. *

    Memories and Impressions (Penguin, 1979), page 362.

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