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Reviewed by:
  • Conrad, Language, and Narrative
  • William Deresiewicz (bio)
Michael Greaney . Conrad, Language, and Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 194 pp. ISBN 0521807549

The paradox that Michael Greaney explores in Conrad, Language, and Narrative is neatly encapsulated in the brief oxymoronic phrase he uses to characterize Marlow's performance in Chance: "modernist storytelling" (106). It is an epithet that applies to many, if not all, of Conrad's works, for the paradox it bespeaks lies at the heart of his fiction. On the one hand is his insistence on the self-consciously traditionalist, even retrograde, act of storytelling, with its projection of a face-to-face community of listeners, its assertion of the primacy of speech over writing, and its implicit belief in the living voice as guarantor of meaning. On the other is his status as the great harbinger of high-modernist textuality, producer of fictions in which the written nature of the text is continually underscored, bottomless ironies hold the audience at bay, meaning is endlessly deferred, and language itself is finally called into question. That Conrad tried to have it both ways, to be at once storyteller and modernist—or to be more precise, that his linguistic intuitions dragged him from storytelling idealism willy-nilly into modernism—is the burden of Greaney's patient, inventive, insightful study.

Conrad, Language, and Narrative joins what is by now a long line in Conrad criticism of linguistic studies in general and studies of speech and the voice in particular. This is as it should be. Conrad's trilingualism, the fact that he wrote in a language with which he was never fully comfortable, the polyglot settings of so many of his works (along with his trick of implicitly translating foreign speech by rendering it, without comment, in English), his profusion of compulsively talkative characters—Marlow, Kurtz, Victor Haldin, Schomberg—along with an equal number of tongue-tied or willfully reticent ones—Jim, Stevie, Charles Gould, Razumov: all this and much more points to the centrality of spoken language to his imagination. The major work in this lineage is Aaron Fogel's 1985 Coercion to Speak: Conrad's Poetics of Dialogue, [End Page 175] and Greaney occasionally struggles with its priority. But he succeeds in putting together an original and valuable (if at times somewhat disorganized) study by taking up unexplored questions and approaching old ones from unexpected angles. While he is by skill and temperament a close reader, he draws on an eclectic array of thinkers, principally Jacques Derrida, Walter Benjamin, and Mikhail Bakhtin and other narratologists, to produce a raft of fresh readings. The language in which he articulates these readings is sometimes witty, often forceful, and always lucid and alert.

Greaney, as I suggested, makes a chronological argument, describing Conrad's career as moving from premodern storytelling to modernist textuality. Conrad's fiction, he says, "is haunted by the dream of a community of speakers sharing a language of transparent referentiality and self-present meaning" (2). Such a community is actually more or less present, he argues, in the early Malay novels, which pit the power of speech as wielded by natives like Babalatchi against the impotence of the written instruments Kaspar Almayer and other Western authorities try to employ. Meanwhile, in short stories written around the same time ("The Lagoon," "Karain"), Conrad begins to develop the narrative model that would eventuate in Marlow: the framing of the text as a primary narrator's report on a storyteller's oral performance. Conrad sought, in other words, "to negate writing, to found a writerly aesthetic on the principles of oral or communal storytelling" (15). The act of speaking becomes crucial, but so, Greaney says, does the act of listening. It is a highly suggestive insight, and it leads to one of his happiest ideas. Adapting Bakhtin's characterization of nineteenth-century fiction—with its "realism of eavesdropping and peeping"—as involving a kind of "alcove realism," Greaney speaks of Conrad's move towards "veranda modernism" (25). The veranda—that most privileged space in Conrad's fiction all the way through Lord Jim, a space of overhearing, mishearing, confession, and yarn-spinning—becomes, as Greaney says, thinking of Derrida...


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