Imagine, as a native English speaker, having a passable knowledge of French and German. Now, though, try to envisage being asked to write an article in Greek. Improbable? Inconceivable seems a more apposite adjective under the circumstances.
Writers, usually because of exile from their native land, have made such seismic shifts over the years. A recent example is the Czech Milan Kundera, many of whose marvellous works were written in French after several years of living in Paris.
One of the best examples of someone writing in English is Joseph Conrad, born in Ukraine to a Polish family. Growing up under the Tsarist autocracy, he was forced to learn Russian as a youngster, so those languages came well before English.
Conrad served on French merchant ships, so it is highly probable that he spoke some French as well. English, therefore, would have been (at least) a fourth language for him. Despite that, one can certainly count him as one of the finest novelists in the English language. He has left behind a hugely impressive body of work.
Heart of Darkness still causes debate. The great writer Chinua Achebe always deemed it racist. Far be it for someone of considerably less talent like me to argue, but I don’t agree. Yes, the work uses words we wouldn’t dream of using now, but so did Mark Twain, Harper Lee and many other authors of that era. I don’t regard them as racist. Any work is of its time and my view is that Conrad appears a great deal more sympathetic to Africans than the European colonialists about whom he is generally scathing.
Interestingly, I once lent the novel to an African colleague in Eritrea. He, with no prompting from me, said much the same as I have just remarked after he had read the novel and returned it to me.
It has always intrigued me that Conrad met Roger Casement in Africa. Both men had originally formed the opinion that colonialism would be a good thing in terms of the benefits that it would bring to the colonised.. Both soon took a very different view. It’s easy to believe that each exerted a certain influence on the other.
Casement would be knighted for his work in exposing the appalling conditions in the Belgian Congo. That knighthood would end, as did his life, when he became a convert to the cause of Irish liberation, no doubt affected powerfully by what he had seen and experienced of colonial oppression in action.
A personal footnote to this: as someone with a strong Irish background who went to school in England, I was not thrilled when Casement was casually dismissed as an English traitor. I suspect that I gave my history teacher something of a shock one day when, at the age of about fourteen, I put up my hand and said, “Not in Ireland he isn’t!”
Perhaps it’s that sense of being an outsider. Many of Conrad’s works revolve around such characters. In Heart of Darkness, all of the Europeans are, by necessity, outsiders. The sailor/narrator Marlow is an outsider and the mysterious Kurtz even more so.
The outsider is a character beloved of novelists. Virtually anyone who has written a book or even a story will have one lurking somewhere. Albert Camus even went so far as to give pride of place in a title to one. L’Etranger can, in its most simple translation, be interpreted as The Stranger, but a better translation is The Outsider. An outsider is more complex than a mere stranger; he or she has that air of mystery, the thing that sets them apart and very possibly a darker element. The Heart of Darkness does not necessarily refer to the continent of Africa.
For a sense of Conrad’s own sense of alienation and isolation, read one of his short stories, Amy Foster. A shipwrecked sailor from Eastern Europe, Yanko, finds himself alone and stranded in Kent. It is little coincidence that Conrad made his home in that county and it is hard to imagine that Yanko’s attempts to assimilate himself into a close-knit and suspicious community is other than a reflection of Conrad’s own struggles. Amy Foster is the simple, but kind-hearted girl whom Yanko will eventually marry, but even that relationship is marked by incomprehension and misunderstanding.
The Secret Agent, Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness and Nostromo rank among the greatest novels of all time, the latter widely regarded as his finest work. Any single one of these would be, quite rightly, regarded as a masterpiece by any author writing in the English language. To know that they are the output of a man who, born Josef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, only acquired British nationality at the age of twenty-nine is something extraordinary.