Joseph Conrad’s Third Language

by Matthew Sitman

Remarkably, it was English. Theodore Dalrymple points to this passage from Conrad’s 1902 short story, “The End of the Tether,” as an example of his literary chops:

For a long time after the course of the steamer Sofala had been altered for the land, the low swampy coast had retained its appearance of a mere smudge of darkness beyond a belt of glitter. The sunrays fell violently upon the calm sea—seemed to shatter themselves upon an adamantine surface into sparkling dust, into a dazzling vapour of light that blinded the eye and wearied the brain with its unsteady brightness.

How, then, did the author of Heart of Darkness come to be a virtuoso stylist in his adopted language?

Of course, the writer must have a fine command of English, far beyond that of the vast majority of native speakers of the language. Ford Madox Ford, Conrad’s friend and collaborator, makes an interesting, but not indubitably true, point in Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance, published immediately after Conrad’s death in 1924. He says that Conrad to the end of his life was more comfortable speaking and writing French than English, and actually thought in that language. He therefore had to take special care when composing prose in English, which accounted for its superb quality. In other words, it was Conrad’s lack of mastery that, overcome, gave him his mastery.