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A Personal Record


The re-issue of this book in a new form does not, strictly speaking,
require another Preface. But since this is distinctly a place for
personal remarks I take the opportunity to refer in this Author's Note
to two points arising from certain statements about myself I have
noticed of late in the press.

One of them bears upon the question of language. I have always felt
myself looked upon somewhat in the light of a phenomenon, a position
which outside the circus world cannot be regarded as desirable. It needs
a special temperament for one to derive much gratification from the fact
of being able to do freakish things intentionally, and, as it were, from
mere vanity.

The fact of my not writing in my native language has been of course
commented upon frequently in reviews and notices of my various works and
in the more extended critical articles. I suppose that was unavoidable;
and indeed these comments were of the most flattering kind to one's
vanity. But in that matter I have no vanity that could be flattered. I
could not have it. The first object of this Note is to disclaim any
merit there might have been in an act of deliberate volition.

The impression of my having exercised a choice between the two
languages, French and English, both foreign to me, has got abroad
somehow. That impression is erroneous. It originated, I believe, in an
article written by Sir Hugh Clifford and published in the year '98, I
think, of the last century. Some time before, Sir Hugh Clifford came to
see me. He is, if not the first, then one of the first two friends I
made for myself by my work, the other being Mr. Cunninghame Graham, who,
characteristically enough, had been captivated by my story An Outpost of
Progress. These friendships which have endured to this day I count
amongst my precious possessions.

Mr. Hugh Clifford (he was not decorated then) had just published his
first volume of Malay sketches. I was naturally delighted to see him and
infinitely gratified by the kind things he found to say about my first
books and some of my early short stories, the action of which is placed
in the Malay Archipelago. I remember that after saying many things which
ought to have made me blush to the roots of my hair with outraged
modesty, he ended by telling me with the uncompromising yet kindly
firmness of a man accustomed to speak unpalatable truths even to
Oriental potentates (for their own good of course) that as a matter of
fact I didn't know anything about Malays. I was perfectly aware of
this. I have never pretended to any such knowledge, and I was moved--I
wonder to this day at my impertinence--to retort: "Of course I don't
know anything about Malays. If I knew only one hundredth part of what
you and Frank Swettenham know of Malays I would make everybody sit up."
He went on looking kindly (but firmly) at me and then we both burst out
laughing. In the course of that most welcome visit twenty years ago,
which I remember so well, we talked of many things; the characteristics
of various languages was one of them, and it is on that day that my
friend carried away with him the impression that I had exercised a
deliberate choice between French and English. Later, when moved by his
friendship (no empty word to him) to write a study in the _North
American Review_ on Joseph Conrad he conveyed that impression to the
public.

This misapprehension, for it is nothing else, was no doubt my fault. I
must have expressed myself badly in the course of a friendly and
intimate talk when one doesn't watch one's phrases carefully. My
recollection of what I meant to say is: that _had I been under the
necessity_ of making a choice between the two, and though I knew French
fairly well and was familiar with it from infancy, I would have been
afraid to attempt expression in a language so perfectly "crystallized."
This, I believe, was the word I used. And then we passed to other
matters. I had to tell him a little about myself; and what he told me of
his work in the East, his own particular East of which I had but the
mistiest, short glimpse, was of the most absorbing interest. The present
Governor of Nigeria may not remember that conversation as well as I do,
but I am sure that he will not mind this, what in diplomatic language is
called "rectification" of a statement made to him by an obscure writer
his generous sympathy had prompted him to seek out and make his friend.

The truth of the matter is that my faculty to write in English is as
natural as any other aptitude with which I might have been born. I have
a strange and overpowering feeling that it had always been an inherent
part of myself. English was for me neither a matter of choice nor
adoption. The merest idea of choice had never entered my head. And as
to adoption--well, yes, there was adoption; but it was I who was adopted
by the genius of the language, which directly I came out of the
stammering stage made me its own so completely that its very idioms I
truly believe had a direct action on my temperament and fashioned my
still plastic character.

It was a very intimate action and for that very reason it is too
mysterious to explain. The task would be as impossible as trying to
explain love at first sight. There was something in this conjunction of
exulting, almost physical recognition, the same sort of emotional
surrender and the same pride of possession, all united in the wonder of
a great discovery; but there was on it none of that shadow of dreadful
doubt that falls on the very flame of our perishable passions. One knew
very well that this was for ever.

A matter of discovery and not of inheritance, that very inferiority of
the title makes the faculty still more precious, lays the possessor
under a lifelong obligation to remain worthy of his great fortune. But
it seems to me that all this sounds as if I were trying to explain--a
task which I have just pronounced to be impossible. If in action we may
admit with awe that the Impossible recedes before men's indomitable
spirit, the Impossible in matters of analysis will always make a stand
at some point or other. All I can claim after all those years of devoted
practice, with the accumulated anguish of its doubts, imperfections and
falterings in my heart, is the right to be believed when I say that if I
had not written in English I would not have written at all.

The other remark which I wish to make here is also a rectification but
of a less direct kind. It has nothing to do with the medium of
expression. It bears on the matter of my authorship in another way. It
is not for me to criticize my judges, the more so because I always felt
that I was receiving more than justice at their hands. But it seems to
me that their unfailingly interested sympathy has ascribed to racial and
historical influences much, of what, I believe, appertains simply to the
individual. Nothing is more foreign than what in the literary world is
called Sclavonism, to the Polish temperament with its tradition of
self-government, its chivalrous view of moral restraints and an
exaggerated respect for individual rights: not to mention the important
fact that the whole Polish mentality, Western in complexion, had
received its training from Italy and France and, historically, had
always remained, even in religious matters, in sympathy with the most
liberal currents of European thought. An impartial view of humanity in
all its degrees of splendour and misery together with a special regard
for the rights of the unprivileged of this earth, not on any mystic
ground but on the ground of simple fellowship and honourable
reciprocity of services, was the dominant characteristic of the
mental and moral atmosphere of the houses which sheltered my hazardous
childhood:--matters of calm and deep conviction both lasting and
consistent, and removed as far as possible from that humanitarianism
that seems to be merely a matter of crazy nerves or a morbid conscience.

One of the most sympathetic of my critics tried to account for certain
characteristics of my work by the fact of my being, in his own words,
"the son of a Revolutionist." No epithet could be more inapplicable to a
man with such a strong sense of responsibility in the region of ideas
and action and so indifferent to the promptings of personal ambition as
my father. Why the description "revolutionary" should have been applied
all through Europe to the Polish risings of 1831 and 1863 I really
cannot understand. These risings were purely revolts against foreign
domination. The Russians themselves called them "rebellions," which,
from their point of view, was the exact truth. Amongst the men concerned
in the preliminaries of the 1863 movement my father was no more
revolutionary than the others, in the sense of working for the
subversion of any social or political scheme of existence. He was simply
a patriot in the sense of a man who believing in the spirituality of a
national existence could not bear to see that spirit enslaved.

Called out publicly in a kindly attempt to justify the work of the son,
that figure of my past cannot be dismissed without a few more words. As
a child of course I knew very little of my father's activities, for I
was not quite twelve when he died. What I saw with my own eyes was the
public funeral, the cleared streets, the hushed crowds; but I understood
perfectly well that this was a manifestation of the national spirit
seizing a worthy occasion. That bareheaded mass of work people, youths
of the University, women at the windows, school-boys on the pavement,
could have known nothing positive about him except the fame of his
fidelity to the one guiding emotion in their hearts. I had nothing but
that knowledge myself; and this great silent demonstration seemed to me
the most natural tribute in the world--not to the man but to the Idea.

What had impressed me much more intimately was the burning of his
manuscripts a fortnight or so before his death. It was done under his
own superintendence. I happened to go into his room a little earlier
than usual that evening, and remaining unnoticed stayed to watch the
nursing-sister feeding the blaze in the fireplace. My father sat in a
deep armchair propped up with pillows. This is the last time I saw him
out of bed. His aspect was to me not so much that of a man desperately
ill, as mortally weary--a vanquished man. That act of destruction
affected me profoundly by its air of surrender. Not before death,
however. To a man of such strong faith death could not have been an
enemy.

For many years I believed that every scrap of his writings had been
burnt, but in July of 1914 the Librarian of the University of Cracow
calling on me during our short visit to Poland, mentioned the existence
of a few manuscripts of my father and especially of a series of letters
written before and during his exile to his most intimate friend who had
sent them to the University for preservation. I went to the Library at
once, but had only time then for a mere glance. I intended to come back
next day and arrange for copies being made of the whole correspondence.
But next day there was war. So perhaps I shall never know now what he
wrote to his most intimate friend in the time of his domestic happiness,
of his new paternity, of his strong hopes--and later, in the hours of
disillusion, bereavement and gloom.

I had also imagined him to be completely forgotten forty-five years
after his death. But this was not the case. Some young men of letters
had discovered him, mostly as a remarkable translator of Shakespeare,
Victor Hugo and Alfred de Vigny, to whose drama _Chatterton_, translated
by himself, he had written an eloquent Preface defending the poet's deep
humanity and his ideal of noble stoicism. The political side of his life
was being recalled too; for some men of his time, his co-workers in the
task of keeping the national spirit firm in the hope of an independent
future, had been in their old age publishing their memoirs, where the
part he played was for the first time publicly disclosed to the world. I
learned then of things in his life I never knew before, things which
outside the group of the initiated could have been known to no living
being except my mother. It was thus that from a volume of posthumous
memoirs dealing with those bitter years I learned the fact that the
first inception of the secret National Committee intended primarily to
organize moral resistance to the augmented pressure of Russianism arose
on my father's initiative, and that its first meetings were held in our
Warsaw house, of which all I remember distinctly is one room, white and
crimson, probably the drawing room. In one of its walls there was the
loftiest of all archways. Where it led to remains a mystery, but to this
day I cannot get rid of the belief that all this was of enormous
proportions, and that the people appearing and disappearing in that
immense space were beyond the usual stature of mankind as I got to know
it in later life. Amongst them I remember my mother, a more familiar
figure than the others, dressed in the black of the national mourning
worn in defiance of ferocious police regulations. I have also preserved
from that particular time the awe of her mysterious gravity which,
indeed, was by no means smileless. For I remember her smiles, too.
Perhaps for me she could always find a smile. She was young then,
certainly not thirty yet. She died four years later in exile.

In the pages which follow I mentioned her visit to her brother's house
about a year before her death. I also speak a little of my father as I
remember him in the years following what was for him the deadly blow of
her loss. And now, having been again evoked in answer to the words of a
friendly critic, these Shades may be allowed to return to their place of
rest where their forms in life linger yet, dim but poignant, and
awaiting the moment when their haunting reality, their last trace on
earth, shall pass for ever with me out of the world.

J. C.

1919.

Joseph Conrad

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