The Conradian: Review
Proofs of Romance

By Hugh Epstein, London

Michael Lucas, Aspects of Conrad’s Literary Language. Conrad: Eastern and Western Perspectives, Vol. 9. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. 236 pp.

As a teacher of English language and linguistics, Michael Lucas’s concern in this book is to examine “the nuts and bolts – the syntax and pragmatics – of the language of (Conrad’s) fiction” and to offer information rather than judgements about Conrad’s style, particularly his heavy use of extended noun phrases. In a scientific study, Lucas re-examines some of the claims made by impressionistic critics by taking selected passages from six stages of Conrad’s writing career in order to isolate the markers that characterise his idiosyncratic style.

To do so, he focuses on five linguistic elements: nominal modifiers, verb phrase and clause modifiers, parataxis, semblance and resemblance, and speech frames. Each of these is explained for the reader having only a slim grounding in grammar and linguistics; and the book is consciously addressed to such a reader – though one prepared to become conversant with about twenty terms of modern descriptive grammar. The book is a product of long acquaintance with the whole corpus of Conrad’s works and of a fascination with Conrad as a non-native-English-speaking writer of highly distinguished and distinctive English.

In the five linguistic aspects listed above, Lucas compares Conrad with a control group of eight native-English-speaking writers (Dickens, Eliot, Stevenson, Haggard, James, Hardy, Bennett, and Lawrence) and finds that Conrad’s writing displays marked eccentricities: “The immediate purpose of this study,” he says, “is to expose these eccentricities of syntax in a systematic way.” The study’s central section does exactly this, quantifying variations from the practice of the other writers to show particularly that Conrad is denser in his use of modifiers to the head noun, leading typically to complex sentences that extend themselves through prepositional phrases and past participial structures, extensive use of coordination and apposition, and, most notably, through his use of adjectives, a feature of his writing that has long attracted comment.

Lucas is especially interesting when showing how the characteristic ambiguity that makes Conrad’s texts so beguiling often arises from a reader’s temporary uncertainty as to whether an adjectival or participial phrase functions simply to identify a noun or to comment on it. For instance, he takes the passage from Almayer’s Folly, “she listened to Dain’s words giving up to her the whole treasure of love and passion his nature was capable of” to explore how a reader responds to Conrad’s slight eccentricity in the modifying phrase “giving up to her.”

In the acuteness of many such small, local readings as these, Lucas’s study offers the reader a convincing linguistic grounding for some of his impressionistic reactions to Conrad’s writing. It will, however, take a reader of fairly secure grammatical competence and confidence to go on and apply Lucas’s techniques to new areas of text that is the service that his book offers to other Conradians.

For the less technically-minded reader the most engaging aspect of this book is the substantial Chapter 5: “Conrad’s Development,” in which Lucas plots his “Indices of Eccentricity” through twenty-four texts representing six stages of Conrad’s writing career, from Almayer’s Folly through to The Rover. Lucas makes some very interesting observations and claims about each stage, and turns up some surprising eccentricity counts. For instance, while most will not be surprised to find the adjectivally-laden prose of "The Lagoon" and An Outcast of the Islands taking first and second place as Conrad’s most “eccentric” texts, it comes as a surprise to find Nostromo in third place, equal with the first part of The Rescue. “Heart of Darkness,” on the other hand, comes in at number twenty, equal with The Shadow-Line.

Lucas offers a broad picture of Conrad’s writing as being high in syntactic eccentricity in the early part of his career, at its least eccentric in the period after Nostromo, and then slipping back into old habits of composition in his final years. He is particularly good on the early years, comparing Almayer’s Folly with An Outcast of the Islands, and showing that Conrad did not immediately respond to Wells’s criticism of his style in the latter. In fact, he sees Conrad as initially resisting the pressure to “normalise” his style, using the famous “Preface” to The Nigger of the “Narcissus” as a defence of his presentation of his fiction in answer to charges of the slow-moving mistiness of his “haze of sentences” (Wells).

Lucas’s most arresting point is that it is Falk which “reveals a more or less wholesale change in Conrad’s style,” and he goes on to examine the stylistic modifications of 1901-02, the “peaks of achievement” (which he dates as lying between 1904 and 1910), and the “slackening off” of 1910-15. In this latter section, Lucas is acute in his depiction of how “The Planter of Malata,” although not a heavily “eccentric” story, begins the reversion to an earlier style of writing that he usefully sees as a characteristic of Conrad’s final works.

Chapters on stylistic variations in some of the early works and on the representation of oral narration, both containing some enlightening individual and comparative observations (for instance, about the different sorts of importance to the development of Conrad’s style of Edward Sanderson, Ford Madox Hueffer, and Pierre Loti), leave me wanting equivalent chapters on the later works and the presentation of written narrative.

There is a sense here of a gathering together of different papers written over the years rather than a comprehensive, fully planned study. However, the final chapter very effectively collects the major points Lucas wishes to make about the characteristics of Conrad’s nominal style and answers the charge of prolixity by demonstrating instead his lexical density. A style “characterized by the noun phrase carrying such a heavy semantic load” and in which “information is presented in a condensed manner in large units of information” is one that challenges the reader to cope with its “semantic compression,” one that perhaps tries “to tell us too much in too short a space – trying to give us too much detailed information all at once in order to ensure that he conveys as clear, accurate and instantaneous impression as he possibly can.”

And after so much detail, we can readily appreciate what Lucas means when he compares Conrad’s front-loading of clauses to a typically English “end-weighted” clause pattern, leading to the major claim of his book: “Conrad is, in a very real sense, not an English but a European novelist, and some of his critics have not fully come to terms with this fact.”

The aim of this book is modest: to test some impressions about Conrad’s style against a factual analytic framework drawn from (largely Hallidayan) linguistics. Its strength lies in the convincing precision with which Lucas has carried this out. Some might question his concept of “an index of eccentricity,” but Lucas’s data certainly give rise to some provocative insights and an enlightening account of Conrad’s development.

This study’s limitation is that what is the linguist’s completed piece will leave the literary critic still demanding a stronger application of these factual perceptions within an aesthetic or theoretical approach to the novels. The enterprise thus seems incomplete. For instance, on his penultimate page Lucas begins a fascinating discussion of the relative infrequency of finite verbs of action in these novels, yet he does not engage with Conrad’s philosophy of action, a major topic that seems to demand attention after the initial linguistic perception. Equally, Lucas takes Baines and Leavis to task for their failure to appreciate Polish and French components in Conrad’s style, but does not estimate the contribution of modern, more linguistically acute, critics such as Ian Watt, Jeremy Hawthorn, and Aaron Fogel.

Despite these shortcomings, we should be grateful to Michael Lucas for doing some “real work” in a Conradian spirit in this book and adding to our knowledge of Conrad’s use of language in a manner similar to Mary Morzinski’s study of the influence of Polish on Conrad’s writing, published in this series a few years ago. Lucas has cleared a space for some of us to do more work in this area and provided tools that may very well prove useful and durable in broader narratological approaches in the future.

© 2005 Hugh Epstein






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