11 January 2009
Wikipedia summarizes the current view of the way Joseph Conrad wrote in English: "Conrad's third language remained inescapably under the influence of his first two — Polish and French. This makes his English seem unusual. It was perhaps from Polish and French prose styles that he adopted a fondness for triple parallelism, especially in his early works ('all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men'), as well as for rhetorical abstraction ('It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention')." This is a good example of the way literary critics should approach the issue of non-mother-tongue literature. The non-mother tongue should be compared with the mother tongue. Of course, this places a tremendous burden on the literary critic, who has to know a lot of languages intimately (in this case, Polish, French, and English), but if a writer can handle two or three (or more) languages with ease, so should a critic. Frankly, one of the things I can't stand is reading an essay on Conrad by someone who knows only English and is clueless about where the rhetorical devices are coming from.