The Conradian: Review

By Richard Niland, Imperial College London

Jean M. Szczypien, “Sailing towards Poland” with Joseph Conrad. (London: Peter Lang, 2017), xx + 269 pp. £69.30.

Jean M. Szczypien’s “Sailing towards Poland” with Joseph Conrad brings together and also supplements the author’s scholarly interventions on Conrad and his Polish background from the last few decades, offering a detailed analysis of how particular facets of Conrad’s writing, especially individual phrases, objects, scenes, and moments draw upon, reconfigure and/or echo passages in important works of Polish literature, especially by celebrated poets of the Romantic canon.

This connection was something attested to by Conrad throughout his life and has also been explored by the late Zdzisław Najder in his seminal biographical and critical studies of Conrad and Poland. What is different here is the sharpness of the focus and Szczypien’s enmeshing of the subject in theoretical approaches to intertextuality, ranging from the work of Harold Bloom and Julia Kristeva to that of Jonathan Culler and Michael Riffaterre, each of whose words inform the study, albeit in a scriptural fashion, in an effort to wrestle with the shadow of precursor texts.

Part one is entitled “Polish Nuggets Buried in English Books,” where Szczypien explores the functions and meanings of aspects of Conrad’s fiction and autobiography that draw from Polish literature, isolating the “Polish signs that he secreted into his work for later discovery” (6). Part one analyzes Almayer’s Folly, Lord Jim, Nostromo, The Secret Agent, A Personal Record and Under Western Eyes alongside Polish Romantic poetry and 19th century Polish art, while also assessing the influence of Tadeusz Bobrowski, all of which adds important granular topographical detail to the wider 19th century Polish cultural landscape that Conrad traversed in his youth.

Part 2 turns to the composition of A Personal Record, especially the manuscript of “A Familiar Preface,” drawing particular attention to Conrad’s repeated inscriptions of the letter K in the margins of his work (something also found in the manuscript of Almayer’s Folly) as a means of suggesting a residual national, cultural, familial, and individual Polish agency charging through the currents of his imagination. A brief concluding section then examines “An Image from The Undivine Comedy in Heart of Darkness,” expanding upon the political and stylistic links forged between the work of Zygmunt Krasiński and The Secret Agent earlier in the book.

In terms of the comprehensiveness of the study, all this is rewarding, as Szczypien admirably, and in a rigorously documented fashion, takes us beyond Conrad’s wider cultural and political Polishness to the specifics of individual texts, offering a range of foci, from a critical challenge to typical readings of Stein’s character in Lord Jim to a treatment of the possibly Polish intellectual, artistic, and literary hinterland of Nostromo’s otherwise fictional and composite Latin American world. Elsewhere, Słowacki’s Kordian is demonstrated to shape the treatment of Russia and the Russian character in Under Western Eyes in ways that take us beyond the usual Dostoevskian parallels that frequently occupy critics’ estimations of the novel’s political consciousness.

These critical sections, which explore Mickiewicz, Słowacki and Krasiński alongside lesser-studied poets such as Franciszek Dionizy Kniaźnin, consistently relate Polish elements in Conrad’s writing to the study’s title, taken from an early letter written by Conrad to his guardian Stefan Buszczyński, in which the future author declares his adherence to the notion of sailing towards Poland throughout his life; in other words, thinking of it in all his undertakings and, it is claimed, never losing sight of it in his later creative expression as a writer.

Conrad’s Polishness is unquestionably an integral part of his identity, but if Szczypien establishes this in detail she also a little too dogmatically insists that without this Polish “key” to his stories and novels, previous critics have fundamentally misread or fallen short in their understanding of Conrad. Touching upon the studies of Paul Kirschner and Ian Watt, the introduction informs us that Conrad’s other borrowings and reconfigurations from a range of French and Russian literature “do not affect his ultimate meanings. The Polish references do” (21). Such exclusivity runs the risk of casting the critic as one who wants to take their Polish ball, so to speak, to go off to play alone instead of engaging with the international game already underway. What is more, it is also quite unnecessary given the illuminating instances of borrowings from Polish literature that feature here, all of which neatly complement, rather than overturn wholesale the ways already known to us that Conrad draws upon different literary traditions.

While Szczypien is clearly attuned to European Enlightenment and Romantic thought in its Polish manifestations, she also asserts that by “weaving references to the nineteenth-century Polish poets, for whom God is not dead, into his narratives, Conrad provides a rich and vivid contrast to his pitiless modernist world” (11), implicitly setting Conrad’s Polish borrowings somewhat against the currents of modernity. However, throughout his life, and especially to his English-speaking audience, Conrad insisted upon the modern and essentially Western nature of Polish culture, presenting it as a bulwark against the aggressively backward forces he saw seated upon the Russian throne and sleeping in the Russian soul.

Critically speaking, Conrad has long been both celebrated and scrutinized as a participant in, and observer of the emergence of the modern world, someone we can set against the shaping events of unfolding history to better understand them. An inextricably related convergence of factors, from modern imperial designs to the growth of the nation-state in Europe, played a major role in the initial suppression and subsequent re-emergence of the Polish state, operating as crucial European and world influences upon Conrad’s Polish cultural heritage. One effect of this study, however, despite its valuable attention to comparatively recondite elements of Conrad’s Polish literary awareness, is to counter this global positioning through an insistence on the centrality of Polish motifs, themes, and texts in isolation, thereby, arguably, limiting Conrad’s interpretive openness and his semantic inclusivity.

One example of this approach to Conrad’s Polish engagement emerges in Szczypien’s study of Polish journalism of the 1860s, which delves originally into periodicals that cast their eye on world politics, notably events in South America, especially the Paraguayan War as reported in The Warsaw Library in 1868. While an interesting, albeit difficult to substantiate claim is made for the Polish origins of selected passages in Nostromo being based on Conrad’s memory of articles on the conflict between Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina in the Warsaw press, these accounts were originally written in French and published in the Revue des Deux Mondes; something acknowledged in passing, but which does not perhaps do full justice to the elaborate network of literary and political exchanges between Poland and France during the period.

While Polish literature and culture engaged with, and also helped shape a significant matrix of European writing, there are ways of approaching it that fail to account for this expansiveness in a determination to place Conrad in an exclusively Polish box. What the study overlooks to some extent in its focus on Poland as the only light to truly illuminate Conrad’s literary world, is the weight that Conrad, and many of his readers, give to his sailing away from Poland in his development, a destiny already outlined to him through Polish culture’s necessary receptiveness to the political, geographical, and cultural call of the wider world.

Still, despite this – something that will inevitably be a fault line for readers depending on how Polish they want or need their Conrad to be – the book is impressively researched and illustrated and will prove rewarding to scholars who are intent on exploring further the ways in which Polish literature informs Conrad’s language and style. Szczypien makes it clear that in a highly specific literary way “Conrad never forgot his Polish past” (27). The details of many of Szczypien’s investigations are unquestionably striking, and even if the larger claims made for the connections remain to some degree opaque owing to the intermittent ways in which theories of intertextuality figure throughout, no reader will fail to see that an awareness of “the cache of Polish references that Conrad buried” in his works helps “helps to enhance our aesthetic and intellectual appreciation” (49) of his powerfully transformative literary imagination.

© 2021 Richard Niland

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