Thursday, June 5, 2008

the necessity of style

Joseph Conrad to Edward Garnett

29th March. [1898]

My Dear Garnett.
I am ashamed of myself. I ought to have written to you before, but the fact is I have not written anything at all. When I received your letter together with Part II of R. I was in bed--this beastly nervous trouble. Since then I've been better but have been unable to write. I sit down religiously every morning, I sit down for eight hours every day--and the sitting down is all. In the course of that working day of 8 hours I write 3 sentences which I erase before leaving the table in despair. There's not a single word to send you. Not one! And time passes--and McClure waits--not to speak of Eternity for which I don't care a damn. Of McClure however I am afraid.

I ask myself sometimes whether I am bewitched, whether I am the victim of an evil eye? But there is no "jettatura" in England--is there? I assure you--speaking soberly and on my word of honour--that sometimes it takes all my resolution and power of self control to refrain from butting my head against the wall. I want to howl and foam at the mouth but I daren't do it for fear of waking that baby and alarming my wife. It's no joking matter. After such crises of despair I doze for hours still half conscious that there is that story I am unable to write. Then I wake up, try again--and at last go to bed completely done-up. So the days pass and nothing is done. At night I sleep. In the morning I get up with the horror of that powerlessness I must face through a day of vain efforts.

In these circumstances you imagine I feel not much inclination to write letters. As a matter of fact I had a great difficulty in writing the most commonplace note. I seem to have lost all sense of style and yet I am haunted, mercilessly haunted by the necessity of style. And that story I can't write weaves itself into all I see, into all I speak, into all I think, into the lines of every book I try to read. I haven't read for days. You know how bad it is when one feels one's liver, or lungs. Well I feel my brain. I am distinctly conscious of the contents of my head. My story is there in a fluid in an evading shape. I can't get hold of it. It is all there to bursting, yet I can't get hold of it no more than you can grasp a handful of water.

There! I've told you all and feel better. While I write this I am amazed to see that I can write. It looks as though the spell were broken but I hasten, I hasten lest it should in five minutes or in half an hour be laid again.

I tried to correct Part II according to your remarks. I did what I could--that is I knocked out a good many paragraphs. It's so much gained. As to alteration, rewriting and so on I haven't attempted it--except here and there a trifle--for the reason I could not think out anything different to what is written. Perhaps when I come to my senses I shall be able to do something before the book comes out. As to the serial it must go anyhow. I would be thankful to be able to write anything, anything, any trash, any rotten thing--something to earn dishonestly and by false pretences the payment promised by a fool.

That's how things stand today; and tomorrow would be more mysterious if it were not so black! I write you a nice cheery letter for a good-bye:* don't I, dear old fellow. That's how we use our friends. If I hadn't written I would have burst.

Good luck to you and buon' viaggio signore. Think of me sometimes. Are you going to Milan? It's 24 years since I saw the Cathedral in moonlight. Tempi passati I had young eyes then. Don't give all your time to the worship of Boticelli. Somebody should explode that superstition. But there, you know better. It is good of you to think of the boy. He is bigger every day. I would like to make a bargeman of him: strong, knowing his business and thinking of nothing. That is the life my dear fellow. Thinking of nothing! O' bliss. I had a lunch with Blackwood good old smoothbore. Also Cunning: Graham came down to see me the day before dining with your father. Has been in bed since but writes every second day. Recommend my short stories to your friend. Have you seen the Nigger notice in Literature of last week Amazing. Jess sends her best love.
Vale frater
Yours ever
J. C.

*Edward Garnett was off to Italy on holiday.

-from Letters from Joseph Conrad 1895-1924 edited with introduction and notes by Edward Garnett (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill) p.130-32.

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