Hisham Matar on the Migratory Fictions of Joseph Conrad

The Author of The Return Reconsiders the Story, “Amy Foster”

Joseph Conrad was not a man who came at things directly. Nearly every story he wrote was rendered through a filter. He had a passion for subjectivity, for the half visible detail. He was fascinated by the vicissitudes of partially known facts, believing always that by merely standing to look at a situation one cannot help but cast one’s own shadow on the scene.

If indeed there exists a dynamic relationship between our nature and our autobiography, that we are both authored by the facts of our life but also the authors of those facts, then the strange life and times of Joseph Conrad did nothing to protect him from his tendency to privilege the subjective point of view and to eventually lose faith all together in any sense of a unitary perspective.

After all, to come at things directly, one would have to be from the place, a native, confident of shared assumptions, enjoying the unbroken line, permitted to walk into certain rooms without knocking. But well before he ever sat to write a story, Conrad had lived several lives and from within different languages. First, his native Polish; then French, in which he contemplated writing and continued to write letters in till the very end; and, finally, English, the language he learnt in his twenties and from which he would sculpt some of the most remarkable works of literature ever written.

He was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, on the 3rd of December, 1857, into a prominent Polish family. His mother, Ewa Bobrowska, died of tuberculosis when he was just seven. His father, Apollo Korzeniowski, was a noted figure, a man of letters devoted to the cause of Polish national liberation. Young Conrad had to endure his father’s obsessions. Allegedly, the first lullaby Korzeniowski ever sang to his son recounted the suffering of the motherland. The Russian authorities arrested and imprisoned him more than once, before he was sent, together with his son, into exile, where he died of poor health at the age of forty-nine, making of Conrad an orphan at eleven.

A father like that, at once monumental and fragile, a revolutionary but also a sensitive poet, the author of several plays—he had also translated Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare—and, most consequentially for his son, was a victim of an injustice and therefore an open wound, would have cast a very long and troubling shadow over Conrad’s life. And the young boy, who undoubtedly even then must have been a great observer, would have watched at close quarters the downfall of his father and been deeply affected by it. One would assume the experience bound him irredeemably to Poland.

But, in fact, one of Joseph Conrad’s perhaps strangest and greatest achievements, which helped form his work, not least of all “Amy Foster,” is the extent to which the man and the artist managed to leave much of the past behind, or else bury it so deep that whenever its light appeared, it came out diffuse and deflected, touching us not because of its cultural or geographical or even historical particularities—although it is not short on all these—but rather because of the way he makes room for us in his stories, places where the imagination can settle and roam.

What is clear is that from the moment he came of age, Conrad wanted to get away. Without any past history of seafaring in the family, he joined the French and then British merchant navies, living in that broad liquid country of the globe’s seas for close to twenty years. He then settled in England, where he began to chart a singular literary career, writing not one but several masterpieces in his third language.

One of Joseph Conrad’s perhaps strangest and greatest achievements, which helped form his work, is the extent to which the man and the artist managed to leave much of the past behind.

To not live among your people or in your language is to always be elsewhere. The sea informed much of Conrad’s work, but it would be inaccurate to describe him as a writer of maritime life. He disliked the description and, I think, for good reason. Conrad was as much a writer of the sea as, say, Shakespeare was of kings and queens. It would be more accurate to describe him as a writer of displacement, of individuals subjected to situations to which they are not suited. But even this narrows his range. The miraculous thing is that what with his literary obfuscations and a life lived in autonomous spheres, worlds that rarely met or intersected, as though the man were several persons in one, Joseph Conrad had one of the most direct voices and one, I believe, that has become only more pertinent to our migratory present, where so many of us are having to leave our ancestral homes in search for a better life or simply, a life, elsewhere.

Perhaps no one is more in need of translation or more vulnerable to its infidelities than the immigrant. “Amy Foster,” a story published a long time after Conrad settled in Britain—in fact, fifteen years after he applied for and was granted British nationality—plays out the exile’s deepest fears. Yanko Goorall, a native of the Carpathians, a mountain range in East Europe that runs from the Czech Republic and Slovakia into Romania, is shipwrecked while on his hopeful voyage to a new life in America. Possibly the sole survivor, he lands, half dead, on the shores of a Kentish village on the southern coast of England. The locals are frightened of him. They are disturbed by his hunger and need and, most of all, by the fact that he does not speak English. But these obvious objections are not resolved once Yanko Goorall learns English, marries Amy Foster and becomes a contributing member of the community. He is tolerated and they are, these English villagers, including Amy Foster, very much a tolerant people—an expression that today remains, in Britain and elsewhere, to be regarded as a positive attribute of a host country. But who among us would wish to be tolerated? And Yanko’s foreignness, which he is not good at hiding, is the blade that hung over him, his mortal act of mistranslation.

His rapid, skimming walk; his swarthy complexion; his hat cocked on the left ear; his habit, on warm evenings, of wearing his coat over one shoulder, like a hussar’s dolman; his manner of leaping over the stiles, not as a feat of agility, but in the ordinary course of progression—all these peculiarities were, as one may say, so many causes of scorn and offence to the inhabitants of the village. They wouldn’t in their dinner hour lie flat on their backs on the grass to stare at the sky. Neither did they go about the fields screaming dismal tunes. Many times have I heard his high-pitched voice from behind the ridge of some sloping sheep-walk, a voice light and soaring, like a lark’s, but with a melancholy human note, over our fields that hear only the song of birds. And I should be startled myself. Ah! He was different: innocent of heart, and full of good will, which nobody wanted, this castaway, that, like a man transplanted into another planet, was separated by an immense space from his past and by an immense ignorance from his future.

The person speaking is Kennedy, a country doctor. He is telling this to his nameless friend, our good narrator, who, on his return from abroad—and there are hints here that he is familiar with the sea—has come to visit his friend. As Kennedy cannot be expected to neglect his patients, the narrator is taken along on the doctor’s rounds, “thirty miles or so of an afternoon, sometimes.” He waits for him on the roads, watching the horse as it “reached after the leafy twigs.” With very few deft strokes, we are given a sense of our narrator’s sensibility, not so much the details of his life but the temperament of his soul. He is a man accustomed to waiting, a patient listener whose interest in the diabolical details that Kennedy tells him is both that of the impartial but also privately involved observer. And this friend is narrating to us years after the fact, which hints at the lasting and growing effects of what he is about to tell us.

This is an example of Conrad’s method. Our narrator tells us a story that Kennedy told to him, which, in turn, Kennedy learnt partly from Yanko Goorall himself and partly from snippets he gathered from his other patients in the village, because, as he tells his friend, “the story has been a legitimate subject of conversation about here for years.” This is how Conrad opens the narrative to the vagaries of hearsay, to gossip and supposition.

There is the Conrad—there must have been—who struggled to comprehend, who underlined each new English word, making lists of them in notebooks, on the back of envelopes, who needed to unlock each door in this adopted tongue. Like a good guest, he left those doors ajar, as his sentences often read like cracks opening onto a new idea, revealing only part of the whole. And there must have been also the Conrad who, regardless of all of his efforts, sometimes could not find the right word, who was stirred by some dream in the middle of a moonless night and his first utterance was not in English, but in that other secret language, the mother tongue, a word from childhood perhaps, a simple word, something like, “when,” or “where,” words that try to locate, and which now had no function whatsoever, made not the slightest sense, not even to his English wife lying beside him. And we know also that there was the Conrad, like Yanko Goorall, who, in less dramatic ways, lost his anchor a little on becoming a father. Conrad confessed to his friend and admirer, the English philosopher Bertrand Russell, “how he sometimes feels he ought not to have had any children, because they have no roots or traditions or relations.”

Perhaps the most elusive and yet powerful character in the story is language itself. “Amy Foster” is a lament of being lost in tongue.

But while “Amy Foster” perhaps utilizes its author’s private panic, its interest is much broader. The title is a good clue, for surely it would have been more obvious to call it “Yanko Goorall.” But what happens to Amy Foster, her ability to love and then abandon, is the muted centre of the story. She succumbs, as Kennedy puts it, to “that fear of the Incomprehensible that hangs over all our heads.”

Apart from its human characters, the story has three other crucial protagonists. The first is a geographical one. “Amy Foster” opens with a description of the setting of Eastbay from the sea, as though, if it were a film, the camera is offshore, panning in slowly, very much the way Yank arrived to it and, in a different way, Kennedy, who has retreated into his provincial existence after a successful career abroad and, less definitively, our narrator, who tells us that he too has been abroad. The sea is the point of arrival but also, and certainly for Yanko, who feels trapped by it, is both the way out and the prison.

And then we have the faculty of the human imagination. Conrad proposes several times in the story that compassion and kindness are predicated on the ability to imagine the other and that the lack of this is behind Yanko’s demise. But perhaps the most elusive and yet powerful character in the story is language itself. “Amy Foster” is a lament of being lost in tongue. It shows how language can create and destroy, how because it retains traces of usage it is both inexact and marked by all those who have come before. That, in other words, Yanko is searching for the right word—to say, for example, “water,” as he desperately believes he is in fact saying when he frightens his wife away—but is also wanting to advance the markings of his language by teaching it to his son. Note that Kennedy describes Yanka as a man separated “from” his future.

Strangely though, and notwithstanding the mortal dangers of being misunderstood, of perishing “in the supreme disaster of loneliness and despair”, Conrad was also fascinated by the quiet imperfections and imprecisions of language—any language. One of the ways we can therefore read “Amy Foster,” rendered here in a new translation, is not only as Conrad’s working out of a nightmare and to do so as it were, both metaphysically and linguistically, in translation, but also as praise for the uncertainty of things, the vast unknowability of the human spirit stripped of its moorings.

Dead reckoning, the process used to calculate a ship’s position against fixed points, incorporating estimations of speed, heading direction and course over time—of when and where—is a skill that was even more crucial to sailors in Conrad’s time, before modern navigation technology. Reading Conrad today, one sometimes senses him using his extraordinary imagination as a tool to locate himself in the distances but also to show us the ways in which we are all implicated in one another’s kind.

Hisham Matar
Hisham Matar
Hisham Matar is the award-winning author of two novels “In the Country of Men” and “Anatomy of a Disappearance”. His memoir “The Return” won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Biography and PEN/Jean Stein Book Award. His most recent book, “A Month in Siena” was published in 2019 by Random House.





More Story
The Literary Case for Slasher Films and the Horrors of Reality TV When the low-budget Canadian horror film Black Christmas was released in 1974, Gene Siskel hated it. “The picture has only...