In the second part of the Birmingham Post's series on the art of novel writing, author Josie Barnard, course leader for Tindal Street Press's new masterclasses, examines the importance of knowing your setting with reference to Joseph Conrad.
Joseph Conrad described his “task” as a writer like this: “to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see.”
A strong sense of place can make a critical difference in fiction. The faster a reader is taken into the story’s setting so that he or she is walking around it and noticing details, the sooner they are hooked.
Conrad is someone who can evoke location brilliantly. I’m going to focus on how he uses this ability in his short story Amy Foster.
A key concern through Conrad’s fiction is the plight of the outsider. And Amy Foster – the tale of Yanko Gooral, a man from Central Europe who is ship-wrecked near an English harbour town – is no exception.
It is stating the obvious perhaps, but if someone is an outsider, they don’t exist in a vacuum, bobbing about in nothingness. To be clear about what it is to be outside you have to be able to see what is considered inside. Ground, walls, things that might otherwise seem superfluous such as the vegetation can prove central in stories about outsiders, because it’s where the character is that’s paramount.
Amy Foster opens with a long (very long) description of the shores of Eastbay, the area where the story takes place. In the opening paragraph we are told that the country inland is “low and flat” but the bay is “well sheltered”.
We find out that ships moor “a mile and a half due north from you as you stand at the back door of the Ship Inn”.
Why do we need so many specifics? Before we meet either the main character of the story or the woman he marries who he thinks can save him, Amy Foster, Conrad gives us such a precise geography of the area that we could draw a map of where the towns of Darnford and Colebrook are in relation to a “barren beach” of shingle, a squat Martello tower, a dilapidated windmill and the village of Brenzett. The description is so detailed that at times it feels almost excessive, indulgent perhaps.
Yet through it all, Conrad’s purpose is sure. Colebrook considers itself important, but it is “little”. Brenzett too has a full sense of itself, but its lighthouse is from a distance “no bigger than a lead pencil”.
As central as each Eastbay inhabitant feels he or she is to the universe, they are on a patch of land that is labelled on official Admiralty charts merely “mud and sea shells”.
In the larger scheme of things, Conrad shows us, the community is insignificant. The very houses appear to huddle in defiance of this fact.
The town of Colebrook “rises abruptly” behind “the wall which defends it from the sea”.
The townspeople’s desire to make their homes important and impregnable is stressed from the story’s outset. Every bit of this opening description of the landscape makes clear: the townsfolk have a deep, motivating “fear of the incomprehensible”.
And so when we are taken to the spot where Yanko is cast ashore, the scene is all the more poignant. We know the people he’s soon to meet will not want to let him in.
After the ship went down, having survived the storm by keeping hold of a floating hen coop, in the dark, from the beach, Yanko crawls over the sea-wall, rolls down the other side into a dyke, alone, exhausted.
Despite his difference – despite his olive complexion and “high-pitched”, “incomprehensible” voice – he achieves, it seems, the impossible. One woman, Amy, is won over by his exotic good looks and gives him bread; then Yanko saves old Swaffer’s grand-daughter from drowning and as a result is given work, regular meals and proper shelter.
Yet, even once he has been, on the face of it, included, he still can’t feel he belongs. He struggles to understand the locals’ language; he is baffled by their customs. He is “like a man transplanted into another planet”. He cannot feel at ease in the physical environment.
And again, the story is driven by its setting. The place Yanko’s from is mountainous and vast. The roads of the English countryside to him resemble “garden walks”.
“There was nothing here the same as in his country! … The very grass was different, and the trees. All the trees but the three old Norway pines on the bit of lawn before Swaffer’s house, and these reminded him of his country.
He had been detected once, after dusk, with his forehead against the trunk of one of them, sobbing, and talking to himself.” Yanko gains more solace from a tree than from any human being around him, even the kinder ones.
He can’t go home, that’s certain. His father sold everything they could spare – a cow, two ponies and “a cleared plot of pasture land on the sunny slope of a pine-clad pass” – to pay for his son’s passage. Yanko’s home holds only poverty and humiliation for him. And, Amy Foster wants to marry him. They have a child.
Yanko realises he can talk to the child in his own language. He can look ahead to a time when he will have someone who makes him feel that he truly belongs.
At this point, Amy turns. Despite their marriage, Yanko is still perceived in the locality as an outsider (he can’t write his name in the marriage register, only an “x”, a “crooked” one at that); if their son speaks Yanko’s language, he will be an outsider too.
At least near Swaffer’s house there was the pine tree that reminded Yanko of the land he came from. In the cottage, with Amy Foster – in domesticity – his surroundings conspire mercilessly to keep Yanko from human comfort. He falls ill. By now, Amy won’t help him, she’s too frightened of the alienation he represents.
He only wants a glass of water. In their cottage, clutching their baby, staring at her husband lying sick on the couch, she sits with furniture as a barricade. His feverish shouts in his own language petrify her. She runs out of the cottage doorway, and he is prevented in his weakened state from following by nothing more than the presence of a table.
It is a tragic story, gutting, even. But the reader does come away with hope. And this too comes from descriptions of the landscape.
Yanko was never, really, going to belong in Eastbay.
Had he relinquished that illusion, he could have been alright. When he had the bread and kindness – while he was still clearly an outsider but tolerated – the other people looked “heavy” whereas the soles of Yanko’s feet did not seem to “touch the dust of the road. He vaulted over the stiles, paced these slopes with a long elastic stride”.
The truth is, Conrad tells us, you may never feel you properly belong.
But if you can instead embrace that sense of being on the move and remain a “soft and passionate adventurer”, you too could be like the hero of Amy Foster, “lithe, supple and strong-limbed, straight like a pine, with something striving upwards in his appearance as though the heart within him had been buoyant.”