A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
by Yiyun Li
Random House, 205 pp., $21.95
Ford Madox Ford remembered Joseph Conrad trying to write in English as they collaborated on a novel:
He used to come in in the mornings and, having climbed the many stairs to my small, dreadful, study, would sit for hours motionless and numb with a completely expressionless face. Every now and then he would say:
“I can’t do it. It can’t be done. Je suis foutu!” Then he would launch out into a frightful diatribe against the English language. It was a language for dogs and horses. It was incapable of conveying human thoughts….
He would groan: “No, it’s no use. I’m going to France. I tell you I am going to set up as a French writer. French is a language; it is not a collection of grunted sounds.”
Although Conrad, as Ford remembered, spoke a heavily accented English, once he had a pen in his hand he “could write English with a speed, a volubility and a banal correctness that used to amaze me.” Despite his ease with the written word, Conrad in England remained an outsider and his subjects would always be the exotic and the faraway. Nonetheless, he was deeply alert to the work of his contemporaries, outsiders too, who had made their way into the center of English letters. Conrad’s relationship with Henry James is a sign, in case we needed one, of the sheer brittleness of his position and the susceptibility of his imagination once he had mastered the language and published his first book.
He sent James his second book, An Outcast of the Islands, in 1896 with an elaborately flattering inscription. James admired the book and responded by sending him The Spoils of Poynton, a novel which dealt with English manners. Conrad thought that “the delicacy and tenuity” of James’s novel “was a great sheet of plate glass—you don’t know it’s there till you run against it.” Ford reported the “rapturous and shouting enthusiasm of Conrad over the story,” suggesting that it “must have been the high water mark of Conrad’s enthusiasm for the work of any other writer.”
Conrad and James met for lunch in February 1897. James was fifty-three, Conrad thirty-nine. Immediately after their meeting, Conrad attempted a story which was his most Jamesian in tone and content, almost comically so, and one of his most directly English in manner and background. It seemed briefly as though he was ready to discard his foreign subject matter, his tales of the sea and of foreign adventurers, and try to move into the heart of brightness—a large house in London with not a foreigner in sight, in “the impenetrable and polished discretions of closed doors and curtained windows.”
He worked over and over on this story, called “The Return,” which dealt with the sexual betrayal of a man who enjoyed “the delightful world of crescents and squares.” When Conrad had finished it, he found that no magazine would print …