1.English novelist (born in Poland) noted for sea stories and for his narrative technique (1857-1924)
definition of Wikipedia
man of letters; essayist; litterateur; writer; author[ClasseHyper.]
écrivain britannique. (fr)[ClasseParExt.]
Joseph Conrad (n.)
|Born||Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski
3 December 1857
Berdychiv, Kiev Governorate, Russian Empire
|Died||3 August 1924
|Resting place||Canterbury Cemetery, Canterbury|
|Genres||Psychological realism, Modernism|
Heart of Darkness
The Secret Agent
Conrad is regarded as one of the great novelists in English, though he did not speak the language fluently until he was in his twenties (and then always with a marked Polish accent). He wrote stories and novels, predominantly with a nautical setting, that depict trials of the human spirit by the demands of duty and honour. Conrad was a master prose stylist who brought a distinctly non-English tragic sensibility into English literature. While some of his works have a strain of romanticism, he is viewed as a precursor of modernist literature. His narrative style and anti-heroic characters have influenced many authors.
Films have been adapted from or inspired by Conrad's Victory, Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, An Outcast of the Islands, The Rover, The Shadow Line, The Duel, Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, and Almayer's Folly.
Writing in the heyday of the British Empire, Conrad drew upon his experiences in the French and later the British Merchant Navy to create short stories and novels that reflect aspects of a worldwide empire while also plumbing the depths of the human soul.
Joseph Conrad, a major novelist in the English language, did not spring full-blown, out of the British merchant navy, without a rich earlier personal history. By the time he had left Poland, aged sixteen, for the wider world to become a sailor, he had absorbed enough of the history, culture and literature of his native land to be able eventually to develop a distinctive world view and make unique contributions to the literature of his adoptive Britain. It was tensions that originated in his childhood in Poland and grew in his adulthood abroad that would give rise to Conrad's greatest literary achievements.
Conrad was born on 3 December 1857, in the Russian Empire at Berdichev (Polish: Berdyczów; now Berdychiv, Ukraine), in Podolia, a part of Ukraine that had belonged to Poland until the Second Partition of Poland, of 1793. (What had remained of Poland was expunged from the map of Europe in the Third Partition, in 1795.) The great majority of the area's inhabitants were Ukrainians, but most of the land was owned by a Polish upper class of szlachta (nobility). Both of Conrad's parents, Apollo Korzeniowski, of Nałęcz coat-of-arms, and Ewa (Polish for "Eve") née Bobrowska, belonged to that nobility, which, in the virtual absence of a higher bourgeoisie, was the sole repository of polite culture. Literature, particularly patriotic literature, was held in high esteem.
The 123 years of Poland's occupation by the three partitioning powers, Russia, Austria and Prussia (later, Germany), until the restoration of the country's independence in 1918 courtesy of World War I, were broken at least once in each generation by an uprising, directed mainly against the severest oppressor, Russia. "The Polish tradition of patriotic conspiracies," writes Najder, "was almost uninterrupted, and it strengthened the social and cultural role of the heroic virtues of duty, fidelity, and honor." Polish literature took over the functions of suppressed national institutions, and works of literature were circulated, often in handwritten copies, reminding readers of the past glory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth — in the 16th century, the largest political entity in Europe — and of Poles' duty to restore their country's independence. In the first half of the 19th century, many Polish leaders, virtually all of noble origin, coupled demands for national independence with advocacy of democratic political reforms (Najder 2007, p. 4).
Apollo Korzeniowski's father Teodor, a landowner, had served as a lieutenant in the army of the Duchy of Warsaw which defeated Austrian forces at the Battle of Raszyn (1809), part of the War of the Fifth Coalition during the Napoleonic Wars. In the Polish 1830 Uprising against Russia, he formed his own cavalry squadron, was promoted to colonel, and was decorated for valor. His second son of four children, Apollo, was born in 1820 and was eleven when Teodor lost his inherited estate in the wake of the 1830 Uprising. Subsequently Teodor accepted a post as an estate manager (Najder 2007, p. 5).
Apollo's education took him to various towns in Ukraine; Russian educational authorities harassed him continually for his freethinking. He completed his secondary education in 1840 at Żytomierz and enrolled at St. Petersburg University, where he spent a year studying Oriental languages, and five years — law and literature. He read widely and cultivated his long-standing interest in literature and the theater (Najder 2007, pp. 5-6).
In 1846 Apollo returned to his home province and for several years helped his father Teodor manage successive leaseholds, though — following an inauspicious poetic debut in 1844 and the translation of Victor Hugo's Les Burgraves in 1846 — he devoted ever more time to literary endeavors. About 1847 he met Ewa (then fashionably called Ewelina, "Eveline") Bobrowska (born 1831), the adolescent sister of an acquaintance from Żytomierz, Tadeusz Bobrowski (born 1829). Apollo was immediately smitten with Ewa, but faced opposition from her family — not so much due to the difference in their ages as because of a basic difference in outlook between the two families (Najder 2007, p. 6). While Apollo Korzeniowski's father Teodor wasted his money and health fighting for Poland, Ewa's father Józef Bobrowski increased his wealth and held himself aloof from freedom movements; however, possibly due to his wife's patriotism, he succeeded fully in inculcating only one of his eight children with "sensible," "realistic" views: Ewa's brother, Tadeusz Bobrowski (Najder 2007, pp. 6-7).
Apollo continued giving himself over to literature and increasingly, with time, to active politics. His literary work shows a conventionally derivative poetic imagination, but also lively, often original social and political perceptions. His earliest play, Komedia (A Comedy, 1854), condemned the hypocrisy and egoism of newly-rich landowners and presented a nucleus of the radical social program that would be advocated by the Polish "Reds" in the 1860s. The play caused something of a scandal and earned Apollo the reputation of a radical (Najder 2007, pp. 8-9).
During the Crimean War (1854-56) Apollo supported the idea of insurgent action in Ukraine, in cooperation with the allied armies, to cut Russian supply lines — an insurrection which Apollo, who championed the rights of the region's Ukrainian majority, characteristically wanted to base on a peasant revolt. Due to British and French indifference, the plan fell through (Najder 2007, p. 9).
In July 1855, their father Józef now being dead, Tadeusz Bobrowski gave his sister Ewa permission to become engaged to Apollo Korzeniowski. Nearly a year later, on 4 May 1856, the couple were married at the Bobrowski family estate. On 3 December 1857 their only child was born, and was named Józef Teodor Konrad for his grandfathers Józef and Teodor and for Konrad, the hero of Adam Mickiewicz's dramatic poem Dziady (Forefathers' Eve, 1832). "Thus," writes Najder, "three traditions were united...: those of the two families, so different from each other, and the great tradition of Polish Romantic poetry (Najder 2007, pp. 10-12).
Apollo's efforts to operate rural estates failed, even as he produced his best translation, of Alfred de Vigny's 1835 drama, Chatterton, and the family moved to Żytomierz (Najder 2007, pp. 10-14). His satirical comedy, Dla miłego grosza (For the Love of Money), attacking nouveau riche landowners and opportunists, was successfully staged in several major ciites, he wrote for several newspapers, and he translated his favorite author, Victor Hugo. In Ukraine he became a leading patriotic activist, demanding the abolition of serfdom, education in the national language, and equal rights for the Ruthenians (i.e., Ukrainians) (Najder 2007, p. 15).
Before 1862, Apollo was the leading Red activist, though a moderate one. As Russification efforts intensified, in May 1861 Apollo moved to Warsaw to participate in the resistance movement. In early October, shortly before a state of emergency was declared in the Congress Kingdom of Poland, Ewa Korzeniowska and their son Konrad joined him. On 17 October the underground Committee of the Movement — the kernel of the future Central Committee and National Government — was formed in their apartment on ulica Nowy Świat. Three days later, on 21 October 1861, Apollo was imprisoned by Russian authorities in historic Pavilion X ("Ten") of the Warsaw Citadel. Conrad would later write: "in the courtyard of this Citadel — characteristically for our nation — my childhood memories begin" (Najder 2007, pp. 17-19).
The Russian military tribunal did not know the actual nature of Apollo's underground activities, accused him of things he had not done, and on 9 May 1862 sentenced Apollo and Ewa "to be sent to settle in the town of Perm under strict police supervision." In the event, they and four-year-old Konrad were diverted to Vologda, known for its unhealthy climate (Najder 2007, pp. 19-20). In January 1863 the family was transferred to Chernihiv in northeast Ukraine, where the conditions and climate were much better, but here news reached them of the outbreak of the Polish January 1863 Uprising against Russia and the uprising's first defeats. Here Apollo, obliged to work hard for his living, completed Polish translations of Charles Dickens' Hard Times, Victor Hugo's Les Travailleurs de la mer (Toilers of the Sea), Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors. On 18 April 1865, amid the privations of their life in exile, Ewa died of tuberculosis (Najder 2007, pp. 19-25).
His wife's death was devastating to Apollo, himself gravely ill with tuberculosis. He wrote a friend: "My deepest beliefs are shaken; doubts consume all my thoughts. When... all I dream about is to see her again... doubts overwhelm me and call out: [what] if my faith is but deluded imagination?... If death does end everything?" (Najder 2007, p. 26) Apollo, given to fits of melancholy like his son later, (Najder 2007, p. 27) initiated a journey into skepticism that would be completed by his novelist son.
Apollo did his best to home-school Konrad. The boy's early reading introduced him to the two elements that later dominated his life: in Victor Hugo's Toilers of the Sea he encountered the sphere of activity to which he would devote his youth; Shakespeare brought him into the orbit of English literature. Most of all, though, he read Polish Romantic poetry. Half a century later he explained that "The Polishness in my works comes from Mickiewicz and Słowacki. My father read [Mickiewicz's] Pan Tadeusz aloud to me and made me read it aloud.... I used to prefer [Mickiewicz's] Konrad Wallenrod [and] Grażyna. Later I preferred Słowacki. You know why Słowacki?... [He is the soul of all Poland]" (Najder 2007, p. 27).
In December 1867, thanks to his family's efforts, the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs gave Apollo permission to leave Russia with Konrad. The mortally ill man took his son to Austrian-held Poland, which for two years had been enjoying considerable internal freedom and a degree of self-government. After sojourns in Lwów and several smaller localities, on 20 February 1869 they moved to Kraków, likewise in Austrian Poland, where Apollo could work with the recently founded democratic daily, Kraj (Homeland). In Kraków, on 23 May 1869, Apollo Korzeniowski died, leaving Konrad orphaned at age eleven (Najder 2007, pp. 31-34).
Young Konrad was placed in the care of his maternal uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski — a more cautious person than Konrad's parents. Over the next quarter-century, as Bobrowski supported Konrad and then heavily subsidized his efforts to establish himself in the French and British merchant marines, he exhorted his nephew in long missives to be practical, to stick to a single occupational resolve, not to be profligate in his expenditures (which Konrad was prone to be), and to be like his maternal Bobrowski, rather than his romantic, impractical Korzeniowski, relatives. Contrasting Konrad's hot-headed "Nałęcz" clan with the sensible Bobrowskis, he forgot that all his own brothers were hotheads, and that his brothers Kazimierz and Stefan had held political views similar to Apollo's; and in evoking the memory of Konrad's mother he consistently effaced her patriotic ardor.
Attempts to secure Austrian citizenship for Konrad were to no avail — probably because Konrad had no permission from Russian authorities to remain abroad permanently and had not been released from Russian subjection. The possibility of his returning to Ukraine was never considered; the son of political exiles would have been liable to harassment and to many years' military service.
In the autumn of 1871, thirteen-year-old Konrad announced his intention to become a sailor. He later recalled that as a child he had read (apparently in French translation) Leopold McClintock's book about his 1857-59 expeditions in the Fox, in search of Sir John Franklin's lost ships Erebus and Terror. It was still an age of exploration, in which Poles participated: Paweł Edmund Strzelecki mapped the Australian interior; the writer Sygurd Wiśniowski, having sailed twice around the world, described his experiences in Australia, Oceania and the United States; Jan Kubary, a veteran of the 1863 Uprising, explored the Pacific islands. Conrad later recalled having read books by the American James Fenimore Cooper and the English Captain Frederick Marryat.
A playmate of his adolescence recalled that Konrad spun fantastic yarns, always set at sea, presented so realistically that listeners thought the action was happening before their eyes. Konrad was not a good student; despite tutoring, he excelled only in geography.
In August 1873 Bobrowski sent fifteen-year-old Konrad to Lwów to a cousin who ran a small boarding house for boys orphaned by the 1863 Uprising. Conversation at the establishment was in French. The owner's daughter recalled:
He stayed with us ten months... Intellectually he was extremely advanced but disliked school routine, which he found tiring and dull; he used to say... he... planned to become a great writer.... He disliked all restrictions. At home, at school, or in the living room he would sprawl unceremoniously. He... suffer[ed] from severe headaches and nervous attacks...
For uncertain reasons, in September 1874 Bobrowski removed Conrad from school in Lwów, and they returned to Kraków. On 13 October the sixteen-year-old set off for Marseilles, for the sea and a life of adventure. His health was poor, his schoolwork unsatisfactory, his upbringing caused his uncle constant problems and no end of financial outlays; Konrad could not return to Ukraine; and a principal goal that Bobrowski set for him was to obtain the passport of another country. Since the boy's illness was clearly of nervous origin, the physicians supposed that fresh air and physical work would harden him; his uncle hoped that well defined duties and the rigors of work would teach him discipline. Since he showed little inclination to study, it was essential that he learn a trade; Bobrowski saw him as a sailor-cum-businessman who would combine his maritime skills with commercial activities.
When Konrad left Poland, he had not completed secondary school. His accomplishments included fluency in French (spoken with a correct accent), some knowledge of Latin, German and Greek, probably a good knowledge of history, some geography, and probably already an interest in physics. He was well read, particularly in Polish Romantic literature. He belonged to only the second generation in his family that had to earn a living outside the family estates: he was a member of the second generation of the intelligentsia, a social class that was starting to play an important role in Central and Eastern Europe.
Najder, himself an emigrant from Poland, observes:
Living away from one's natural environment — family, friends, social group, language — even if it results from a conscious decision, usually gives rise to... internal tensions, because it tends to make people less sure of themselves, more vulnerable, less certain of their... position and... value... The Polish szlachta and... intelligentsia were social strata in which reputation... was felt... very important... for a feeling of self-worth. Men strove... to find confirmation of their... self-regard... in the eyes of others... Such a psychological heritage forms both a spur to ambition and a source of constant stress, especially if [one has been inculcated with] the idea of [one]'s public duty...
Conrad's adventurous life included dabbling in gunrunning and political conspiracy, which he later fictionalised in his novel The Arrow of Gold. He apparently experienced a disastrous love affair that plunged him into despair. A voyage down the coast of Colombia would provide material for Nostromo; the first mate of Conrad's vessel became the model for that novel's hero.
In 1878 Conrad was wounded in the chest. Some biographers say he had fought a duel in Marseille, others that he had attempted suicide. He then took service on his first British ship, bound for Constantinople before its return to Lowestoft, his first landing in Britain.
Barely a month after reaching England, he signed on for the first of six voyages between July and September 1878 from Lowestoft to Newcastle on a coaster misleadingly named Skimmer of the Sea. Crucially for his future career, he "began to learn English from East Coast chaps, each built to last for ever and coloured like a Christmas card."
On 21 September 1881 Conrad sailed from London for Newcastle as second mate on the small vessel Palestine (13 hands) to pick up a cargo of 557 tons of "West Hartley" coal bound for Bangkok. From the outset, things went wrong. A gale hampered progress (sixteen days to the Tyne), then the Palestine had to wait a month for a berth and was finally rammed by a steam vessel. At the turn of the year, the Palestine sailed from the Tyne. The ship sprang a leak in the English Channel and was stuck in Falmouth, Cornwall, for a further nine months. On 17 September 1882, the ship sailed from Falmouth, reaching the Sunda Strait in March 1883. Finally, off Java Head, the cargo of coal ignited, and fire engulfed the ship. The crew, including Conrad, reached shore safely in open boats. The Palestine is renamed Judaea in Conrad's famous story "Youth", which covers all these events. This voyage from the Tyne was Conrad's first fateful contact with the exotic East, the setting for many of his later works.
In 1886 he gained both his Master Mariner's certificate and British citizenship, officially changing his name to "Joseph Conrad."
A childhood ambition of Conrad's to visit central Africa was realised in 1889, when he contrived to reach the Congo Free State. He became captain of a Congo steamboat, and the atrocities he witnessed and his experiences there not only informed his most acclaimed and ambiguous work, Heart of Darkness, but served to crystallise his vision of human nature – and his beliefs about himself. These were in some measure affected by the emotional trauma and lifelong illness that he had contracted there. During his stay, he became acquainted with Roger Casement, whose 1904 Casement Report detailed the abuses suffered by the indigenous population.
The journey upriver made by the narrator of Heart of Darkness, Charles Marlow, closely follows Conrad's own, and he appears to have experienced a disturbing insight into the nature of evil. Conrad's experience of loneliness at sea, of corruption, and of the pitilessness of nature converged to form a coherent, if bleak, vision of the world. Isolation, self-deception, and the remorseless working out of the consequences of character flaws are threads running through much of his work.
In 1891, Conrad stepped down in rank to sail as first mate on the clipper ship Torrens, quite possibly the finest ship ever launched from a Sunderland yard (James Laing's Deptford Yard, 1875). For fifteen years (1875–90), no ship approached her speed for the outward passage to Australia. On her record-breaking run to Adelaide, she covered 16,000 miles (26,000 km) in 64 days. Conrad writes of her:
A ship of brilliant qualities – the way the ship had of letting big seas slip under her did one's heart good to watch. It resembled so much an exhibition of intelligent grace and unerring skill that it could fascinate even the least seamanlike of our passengers.
In 1894, having served a total of sixteen years in the merchant navy, and having received a bequest from his late uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski, (Najder 2007, p. 203) Conrad retired from the sea to devote himself to a literary career. He had already begun writing his first novel, Almayer's Folly, while aboard the Torrens.
In March 1896 Conrad married an Englishwoman, Jessie George, and together they moved into a small semi-detached villa in Victoria Road, Stanford-le-Hope, Essex, and later to a medieval lath-and-plaster farmhouse, "Ivy Walls," in Billet Lane. He subsequently lived in London and near Canterbury, Kent. The couple had two sons, Borys and John.
An insight into Conrad's emotional life is provided by an episode, when he was thirty, which inspired one of his strangest and least known stories, A Smile of Fortune. In September 1888 Conrad put into Mauritius as captain of the sailing barque Otago. The story likewise recounts the arrival of an (unnamed) English sea captain in a sailing vessel, come for sugar. He encounters "the old French families, descendants of the old colonists; all noble, all impoverished, and living a narrow domestic life in dull, dignified decay.... The girls are almost always pretty, ignorant of the world, kind and agreeable and generally bilingual. The emptiness of their existence passes belief."
The tale describes Jacobus, an affable gentleman chandler beset by hidden shame. Extramarital passion for the bareback rider of a visiting circus had resulted in a child and scandal. For eighteen years the daughter, Alice, has been confined to Jacobus' house, seeing no one but a governess. When Conrad's captain is invited to the house, he is irresistibly drawn to the wild, beautiful Alice. "For quite a time she did not stir, staring straight before her as if watching the vision of some pageant passing through the garden in the deep, rich glow of light and the splendour of flowers."
Alice Jacobus' suffering was real enough. A Dictionary of Mauritian Biography unearthed by Zdzisław Najder reveals that the character was a fictionalised version of seventeen-year-old Alice Shaw, whose father, a shipping agent, owned the only rose garden in the town. While Conrad too fell in love in Mauritius, it was not with Alice. He proposed to young Eugénie Renouf, who was already engaged. Conrad left broken-hearted, vowing never to return.
Something of Conrad's own feelings permeates the anonymous captain's recollections. "I was seduced by the moody expression of her face, by her obstinate silences, her rare, scornful words; by the perpetual pout of her closed lips, the black depths of her fixed gaze turned slowly upon me as if in contemptuous provocation."
A striking portrait of Conrad was drawn by the historian and poet Henry Newbolt, who met him about 1903:
One thing struck me at once—the extraordinary difference between his expression in profile and when looked at full face. [W]hile the profile was aquiline and commanding, in the front view the broad brow, wide-apart eyes and full lips produced the effect of an intellectual calm and even at times of a dreaming philosophy. Then [a]s we sat in our little half-circle round the fire, and talked on anything and everything, I saw a third Conrad emerge—an artistic self, sensitive and restless to the last degree. The more he talked the more quickly he consumed his cigarettes... And presently, when I asked him why he was leaving London after... only two days, he replied that... the crowd in the streets... terrified him. "Terrified? By that dull stream of obliterated faces?" He leaned forward with both hands raised and clenched. "Yes, terrified: I see their personalities all leaping out at me like tigers!" He acted the tiger well enough almost to terrify his hearers: but the moment after he was talking again wisely and soberly as if he were an average Englishman with not an irritable nerve in his body (Najder 2007, p. 331).
A decade later, after respective separate visits to Conrad in August and September 1913, two British aristocrats, the socialite Lady Ottoline Morrell and the mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell — who were lovers at the time — recorded their impressions of the novelist. In her diary, Morrell wrote:
I found Conrad himself standing at the door of the house ready to receive me. How different from the [disparaging] picture Henry James had evoked [in conversation with Morrell], for Conrad's appearance was really that of a Polish nobleman. His manner was perfect, almost too elaborate; so nervous and sympathetic that every fibre of him seemed electric... He talked English with a strong accent, as if he tasted his words in his mouth before pronouncing them; but he talked extremely well, though he had always the talk and manner of a foreigner... He was dressed very carefully in a blue double-breasted jacket. He talked... apparently with great freedom about his life — more ease and freedom indeed than an Englishman would have allowed himself. He spoke of the horrors of the Congo, from the moral and physical shock of which he said he had never recovered... [His wife Jessie] seemed a nice and good-looking fat creature, an excellent cook, as Henry James [had] said, and was indeed a good and reposeful mattress for this hypersensitive, nerve-wracked man, who did not ask from his wife high intelligence, only an assuagement of life's vibrations.... He made me feel so natural and very much myself, that I was almost afraid of losing the thrill and wonder of being there, although I was vibrating with intense excitement inside; and even now, as I write this, I feel almost the same excitement, the same thrill of having been in the presence of one of the most remarkable men I have known. His eyes under their pent-house lids revealed the suffering and the intensity of his experiences; when he spoke of his work, there came over them a sort of misty, sensuous, dreamy look, but they seemed to hold deep down the ghosts of old adventures and experiences — once or twice there was something in them one almost suspected of being wicked.... But then I believe whatever strange wickedness would tempt this super-subtle Pole, he would be held in restraint by an equally delicate sense of honour.... In his talk he led me along many paths of his life, but I felt that he did not wish to explore the jungle of emotions that lay dense on either side, and that his apparent frankness had a great reserve. This may perhaps be characteristic of Poles as it is of the Irish (Najder 2007, p. 447).
A month later, Bertrand Russell visited Conrad at Capel House, and the same day on the train wrote down his impressions:
It was wonderful — I loved him & I think he liked me. He talked a great deal about his work & life & aims, & about other writers.... I got him on to Henry James... Then we went for a little walk, & somehow grew very intimate. I plucked up courage to tell him what I find in his work — the boring down into things to get to the very bottom below the apparent facts. He seemed to feel I had understood him; then I stopped & we just looked into each other's eyes for some time, & then he said he had grown to wish he could live on the surface and write differently, that he had grown frightened. His eyes at the moment expressed the inward pain & terror that one feels him always fighting.... Then he talked a lot about Poland, & showed me an album of family photographs of the 60's — spoke about how dream-like all that seems, & how he sometimes feels he ought not to have had any children, because they have no roots or traditions or relations (Najder 2007, p. 448).
Russell's insights, so resonant with Morrell's, reveal the profundity of Conrad's existential loneliness. Russell's Autobiography, published over half a century later in 1968, vividly confirms his original experience:
My first impression was one of surprise. He spoke English with a very strong foreign accent, and nothing in his demeanour in any way suggested the sea. He was an aristocratic Polish gentleman to his fingertips.... At our very first meeting, we talked with continually increasing intimacy. We seemed to sink through layer after layer of what was superficial, till gradually both reached the central fire. It was an experience unlike any other... I have known. We looked into each other's eyes, half appalled and half intoxicated to find ourselves together in such a region. The emotion was as intense as passionate love, and at the same time all-embracing. I came away bewildered, and hardly able to find my way among ordinary affairs (Najder 2007, pp. 448-49).
The two men's subsequent friendship and correspondence lasted, with long intervals, to the end of Conrad's life. In one letter, Conrad avowed his "deep admiring affection, which, if you were never to see me again and forget my existence tomorrow will be unalterably yours usque ad finem " (Najder 2007, p. 449). Conrad in his correspondence often used the Latin expression meaning "to the end," which he seems to have adopted from his faithful guardian, mentor and benefactor, his maternal uncle Tadeusz Bobrowski.
Conrad looked with less optimism than Russell on the possibilities of scientific and philosophic knowledge (Najder 2007, p. 449). In a 1913 letter to acquaintances who had invited Conrad to join their society, he reiterated his belief that it was impossible to understand the essence of either reality or life: both science and art penetrate no further than the outer shapes (Najder 2007, p. 446).
Najder describes Conrad as "[a]n alienated émigré... haunted by a sense of the unreality of other people — a feeling natural to someone living outside the established structures of family, social milieu, and country" (Najder 2007, p. 576).
Throughout almost his entire life Conrad was an outsider and felt himself to be one. An outsider in exile; an outsider during his visits to his family in... Ukraine; an outsider — because of his experiences and bereavement — in [Kraków] and Lwów; an outsider in Marseilles; an outsider, nationally and culturally, on British ships; an outsider as an English writer (Najder 2007, p. 576).
Conrad's sense of loneliness throughout his exile's life found memorable expression in the 1901 short story, "Amy Foster".
Conrad in his private life was predominantly conservative. He maintained a deep abhorrence for socialism ("infernal doctrines born in the continental backslums") and democracy ("I have no taste for democracy"). The latter quote, however, expressed in 1897 in a letter to the baronness de Brunow, refers to the limited commercial appeal of Conrad's literary works at the time rather than constituting a general indictment of democracy as a form of political organisation: "Jen'ai pas le goût de la démocratie,-et la démocratie n'a pas de goût pour moi". In Conrad's literary works, opposition to autocracy is more marked than any explicit anti-democratic stance, as evidenced by The Secret Agent or Under Western Eyes. Some critics argue he despised notions of equality and the liberal values of pacifism and humanitarianism. However, this is subject to debate, given that a great deal of his work focuses on exposing inhumane behaviour and its consequences.
In 1894, aged 36, Conrad reluctantly gave up the sea, partly because of poor health and partly because he had become so fascinated with writing that he decided on a literary career. His first novel, Almayer's Folly, set on the east coast of Borneo, was published in 1895. Its appearance marked his first use of the pen name "Joseph Conrad"; "Konrad" was, of course, the third of his Polish given names, but his use of it – in the anglicised version, "Conrad" – may also have been an homage to the Polish Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz's patriotic narrative poem, Konrad Wallenrod.
Almayer's Folly, together with its successor, An Outcast of the Islands (1896), laid the foundation for Conrad's reputation as a romantic teller of exotic tales – a misunderstanding of his purpose that was to frustrate him for the rest of his career.
Except for several vacations in France and Italy, a 1914 vacation in his native Poland, and a 1923 visit to the United States, Conrad lived out the rest of his life in England.
The 1914 vacation with his wife and sons in Poland, at the urging of Józef Retinger, coincided with the outbreak of World War I. On 28 July 1914, the day war broke out between Austro-Hungary and Serbia, Conrad and the Retingers arrived in Kraków (then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire), where Conrad visited childhood haunts. As the city lay only a few miles from the Russian border, there was a risk of getting stranded in a battle zone. With wife Jessie and younger son John ill, Conrad decided to take refuge in the mountain resort town of Zakopane. They left Kraków on 2 August. A few days after arrival in Zakopane, they moved to the Konstantynówka pension operated by Conrad's cousin Aniela Zagórska; it had been frequented by celebrities including the statesman Józef Piłsudski and Conrad's acquaintance, the young concert pianist Artur Rubinstein (Najder 2007, pp. 458-63).
Zagórska introduced Conrad to Polish writers, intellectuals and artists who had also taken refuge in Zakopane, including novelist Stefan Żeromski and Tadeusz Nalepiński, a writer friend of anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski. Conrad roused interest among the Poles as a famous writer and an exotic compatriot from abroad. He charmed new acquaintances, especially women. However, the double Nobel laureate Maria Skłodowska-Curie's physician sister, Bronisława Dłuska, scolded him for having used his great talent for purposes other than bettering the future of his native land (Najder 2007, pp. 463-64) But thirty-three-year-old Aniela Zagórska, Conrad's niece and future Polish translator, idolized him, kept him company, and provided him with books. He particularly praised the stories and novels of the recently deceased, ten-years-older author Bolesław Prus (Najder 2007, p. 463).
Conrad, who was noted by his Polish acquaintances to be fluent in his native tongue, participated in their impassioned political discussions. He declared presciently, as Piłsudski had earlier in 1914 in Paris, that in the war, for Poland to regain independence, Russia must be beaten by the Central Powers (the Austro-Hungarian and German Empires), and the latter must in turn be beaten by France and Britain (Najder 2007, p. 464).
After many travails and vicissitudes, at the beginning of November 1914 Conrad managed to bring his family back to England. On his return, he was determined to work on swaying British opinion in favor of restoring Poland's sovereignty (Najder 2007, pp. 464-68).
Jessie Conrad would later write in her memoirs: "I understood my husband so much better after those months in Poland. So many characteristics that had been strange and unfathomable to me before, took, as it were, their right proportions. I understood that his temperament was that of his countrymen" (Najder 2007, p. 466).
Financial success long evaded Conrad, but eventually a Civil List pension of £100 per annum stabilized his affairs, and collectors began to purchase his manuscripts. Though his talent was early on recognized by the English intellectual elite, popular success eluded him until the 1913 publication of Chance—paradoxically so, as that novel is not now considered one of his better ones.
Thereafter, for the remaining years of his life, Conrad was the subject of more discussion and praise than any other English writer of the time. He enjoyed increasing wealth and status. He had a true genius for companionship, and his circle of friends included authors such as Henry James, Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, John Galsworthy, Edward Garnett, Stephen Crane, Hugh Walpole, T.E. Lawrence. In the early 1900s he composed a short series of novels in collaboration with Ford Madox Ford. He knew, but was not on the friendliest terms with, George Bernard Shaw, (Najder 2007, pp. 325-26) H.G. Wells (Najder 2007, pp. 325-26) and Arnold Bennett.
In April 1924 Conrad, who possessed a hereditary Polish status of nobility and coat-of-arms (Nałęcz), declined a (non-hereditary) British knighthood offered by Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald (Najder 2007, p. 570) 
Shortly after, on 3 August 1924, Conrad died of a heart attack. He was interred at Canterbury Cemetery, Canterbury, England, under a misspelled version of his original Polish name, as "Joseph Teador Conrad Korzeniowski" (Najder 2007, p. 573). Inscribed on his gravestone are the lines from Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene which he had chosen as the epigraph to his last complete novel, The Rover:
As an artist, he famously aspired, in his preface to The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' (1897), "by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel... before all, to make you see. That – and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm – all you demand – and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask."
Writing in what to the visual arts was the age of Impressionism, Conrad showed himself in many of his works a prose poet of the highest order. For instance, in the evocative Patna and courtroom scenes of Lord Jim; in the "melancholy-mad elephant" and gunboat scenes of Heart of Darkness; in the doubled protagonists of The Secret Sharer; and in the verbal and conceptual resonances of Nostromo and The Nigger of the 'Narcissus'.
Conrad used his own memories as literary material so often that readers are tempted to treat his life and work as a single whole. His "view of the world", or elements of it, are often described by citing at once both his private and public statements, passages from his letters, and citations from his books. Najder warns that this approach produces an incoherent and misleading picture. "An... uncritical linking of the two spheres, literature and private life, distorts each. Conrad used his own experiences as raw material, but the finished product should not be confused with the experiences themselves" (Najder 2007, p. 576-77).
Many of Conrad's characters are inspired by actual persons he had met, including, in his first novel, Almayer's Folly (completed 1894), William Charles Olmeijer, the spelling of whose name Conrad, probably inadvertently, alters to "Almayer." The historic trader Olmeijer, whom Conrad encountered on his four short visits to Berau in Borneo, subsequently haunted Conrad's imagination. "If I had not got to know Almayer pretty well it is almost certain there would never have been a line of mine in print."
Apart from Conrad's own experiences, a number of episodes in his fiction were suggested by past or contemporary publicly-known events. The first half of the 1900 novel Lord Jim (the Patna episode) was inspired by the real-life 1880 story of the S.S. Jeddah; the second part, to some extent by the life of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak. In Nostromo (completed 1904), the theft of a massive consignment of silver was suggested to Conrad by a story he had heard in the Gulf of Mexico and later read about in a "volume picked up outside a second-hand bookshop." The Secret Agent (completed 1906) was inspired by the French anarchist Martial Bourdin's 1894 death while apparently attempting to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. The plot of Under Western Eyes (completed 1910) is kicked off by the assassination of a brutal Russian government minister, modeled after the real-life 1904 assassination of Russian Minister of the Interior Vyacheslav von Plehve. Conrad's story "The Secret Sharer" (completed 1909) was inspired by an 1880 incident when Sydney Smith, first mate of the Cutty Sark, had killed a seaman and fled from justice, aided by the ship's captain.
The singularity of the universe depicted in Conrad's novels, especially compared to those of near-contemporaries like John Galsworthy, is such as to open him to criticism similar to that later applied to Graham Greene. But where "Greeneland" has been characterised as a recurring and recognisable atmosphere independent of setting, Conrad is at pains to create a sense of place, be it aboard ship or in a remote village. Often he chose to have his characters play out their destinies in isolated or confined circumstances.
For the natural surroundings of the high seas, the Malay Archipelago and South America, which Conrad described so vividly, he could rely on his own observations. What his brief landfalls could not provide was a thorough understanding of exotic cultures. For this he resorted, like other writers, to literary sources. When writing his Malayan stories, he consulted Alfred Russel Wallace's The Malay Archipelago (1869), James Brooke's journals, and books with titles like Perak and the Malays, My Journal in Malayan Waters, and Life in the Forests of the Far East. When he set about writing his novel Nostromo, set in the fictitious South American country of Costaguana, he turned to The War between Peru and Chile; Edward Eastwick, Venezuela: or, Sketches of Life in a South American Republic (1868); and George Frederick Masterman, Seven Eventful Years in Paraguay (1869). As a result of relying on literary sources, in Lord Jim, as J.I.M. Stewart writes, Conrad's "need to work to some extent from second-hand" led to "a certain thinness in Jim's relations with the... peoples... of Patusan..." This prompted Conrad at some points to alter the nature of Charles Marlow's narrative in order to "distanc[e] an uncertain command of the detail of Tuan Jim's empire."
Nevertheless, in the view of Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis, it was not until the first volumes of Anthony Powell's sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time, were published in the 1950s, that an English novelist achieved the same command of atmosphere and precision of language with consistency, a view supported by later critics like A. N. Wilson. This is the more remarkable, given that English was Conrad's third language. Powell acknowledged his debt to Conrad.
Conrad's third language remained inescapably under the influence of his first two – Polish and French. This makes his English seem unusual.
Zdzisław Najder observes:
[H]e was a man of three cultures: Polish, French, and English. Brought up in a Polish family and cultural environment... he learned French as a child, and at the age of less than seventeen went to France, to serve... four years in the French merchant marine. At school he must have learned German, but French remained the language he spoke with greatest fluency (and no foreign accent) until the end of his life. He was well versed in French history and literature, and French novelists were his artistic models. But he wrote all his books in English—the tongue he started to learn at the age of twenty. He was thus an English writer who grew up in other linguistic and cultural environments. His work can be seen as located in the borderland of auto-translation [emphasis added by Wikipedia] (Najder 2007, p. IX).
T. E. Lawrence, one of many writers whom Conrad befriended, offered some perceptive observations about Conrad's writing:
He's absolutely the most haunting thing in prose that ever was: I wish I knew how every paragraph he writes (...they are all paragraphs: he seldom writes a single sentence...) goes on sounding in waves, like the note of a tenor bell, after it stops. It's not built in the rhythm of ordinary prose, but on something existing only in his head, and as he can never say what it is he wants to say, all his things end in a kind of hunger, a suggestion of something he can't say or do or think. So his books always look bigger than they are. He's as much a giant of the subjective as Kipling is of the objective. Do they hate one another?
In Conrad's time, literary critics, while usually commenting favorably on his works, often remarked that many readers were put off by his exotic style, complex narration, profound themes, and pessimistic ideas. Yet as his ideas were borne out by ensuing 20th-century events, in due course he came to be admired for beliefs that seemed to accord more closely with subsequent times than with his own.
In keeping with his skepticism and melancholy, Conrad almost invariably gives to characters in his principal novels and stories, lethal fates. Almayer (Almayer's Folly, 1894), abandoned by his beloved daughter, takes to opium and dies; Peter Willems (An Outcast of the Islands, 1895) is killed by his jealous lover Aïssa; the ineffectual "Nigger," James Wait (The Nigger of the Narcissus, 1897), dies aboard ship and is buried at sea; Mr. Kurtz (Heart of Darkness, 1899) expires, uttering the enigmatic words, "The horror!"; Captain Whalley (The End of the Tether, 1902), betrayed by failing eyesight and an unscrupulous partner, drowns himself; Tuan Jim (Lord Jim, 1900), having inadvertently precipitated a massacre of his adoptive community, deliberately walks to his death at the hands of the community's leader; Gian' Battista Fidanza, the eponymous respected Italian-immigrant Nostromo (Italian: "Our Man") of the novel Nostromo (1904), illicitly obtains a treasure of silver mined in the South American country of "Costaguana" and is shot dead due to mistaken identity; Mr. Verloc, The Secret Agent (1906) of divided loyalties, attempts a bombing, to be blamed on terrorists, that accidentally kills his mentally-defective brother-in-law Stevie, and Verloc himself is killed by his distraught wife, who drowns herself by jumping overboard from a channel steamer. in Chance (1913), Roderick Anthony, a sailing-ship captain, and benefactor and husband of Flora de Barral, becomes the target of a poisoning attempt by her jealous disgraced financier father who, when detected, swallows the poison himself and dies (some years later, Captain Anthony drowns at sea); in Victory (1915), Lena is shot dead by Jones, who had meant to kill his accomplice Ricardo and later succeeds in doing so, then himself perishes along with another accomplice, after which Lena's protector Axel Heyst sets fire to his bungalow and dies beside Lena's body. In Conrad's 1901 short story, "Amy Foster," a Pole transplanted to England, Yanko Goorall (an English transliteration of the Polish Janko Góral, "Johnny Highlander"), falls ill and, suffering from a fever, raves in his native language, frightening his wife Amy, who flees; next morning Yanko dies of heart failure, and it transpires that he had simply been asking in Polish for water.
When a principal character of Conrad's does escape with his life, he sometimes does not fare much better. In Under Western Eyes (1911), Razumov betrays a fellow University of St. Petersburg student, the revolutionist Victor Haldin, who has assassinated a savagely repressive Russian government minister. Haldin is tortured and hanged by the authorities. Later Razumov, sent as a government spy to Geneva, a center of anti-tsarist intrigue, meets the mother and sister of Haldin, who share Haldin's liberal convictions. Razumov falls in love with the sister and confesses his betrayal of her brother; later he makes the same avowal to assembled revolutionists, and their professional executioner bursts his eardrums, making him deaf for life. Razumov staggers away, is knocked down by a streetcar, and finally returns as a cripple to Russia.
Conrad claimed that he "never kept a diary and never owned a notebook." John Galsworthy, who knew him well, described this as "a statement which surprised no one who knew the resources of his memory and the brooding nature of his creative spirit." Nevertheless, after Conrad's death, Richard Curle published a heavily modified version of Conrad's diaries describing his experiences in Congo; in 1978 a more complete version was published as The Congo Diary and Other Uncollected Pieces.
Conrad's was a starkly lucid view of the human condition – a vision similar to that which had been offered in two micro-stories by his ten-years-older Polish compatriot, Bolesław Prus (whose work Conrad admired): "Mold of the Earth" (1884) and "Shades" (1885). Conrad wrote:
Faith is a myth and beliefs shift like mists on the shore; thoughts vanish; words, once pronounced, die; and the memory of yesterday is as shadowy as the hope of to-morrow....
In this world – as I have known it – we are made to suffer without the shadow of a reason, of a cause or of guilt....
There is no morality, no knowledge and no hope; there is only the consciousness of ourselves which drives us about a world that... is always but a vain and floating appearance....A moment, a twinkling of an eye and nothing remains – but a clot of mud, of cold mud, of dead mud cast into black space, rolling around an extinguished sun. Nothing. Neither thought, nor sound, nor soul. Nothing.
Conrad is the novelist of man in extreme situations. "Those who read me," he wrote in the preface to A Personal Record, "know my conviction that the world, the temporal world, rests on a few very simple ideas; so simple that they must be as old as the hills. It rests, notably, among others, on the idea of Fidelity."
For Conrad fidelity is the barrier man erects against nothingness, against corruption, against the evil that is all about him, insidious, waiting to engulf him, and that in some sense is within him unacknowledged. But what happens when fidelity is submerged, the barrier broken down, and the evil without is acknowledged by the evil within? At his greatest, that is Conrad's theme.
In 1975 the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe published an essay, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'", which provoked controversy by calling Conrad a "thoroughgoing racist". Achebe's view was that Heart of Darkness cannot be considered a great work of art because it is "a novel which celebrates... dehumanisation, which depersonalises a portion of the human race." Referring to Conrad as a "talented, tormented man," Achebe notes that Conrad (via the protagonist, Charles Marlow) reduces and degrades Africans to "limbs," "angles," "glistening white eyeballs," etc. while simultaneously (and fearfully) suspecting a common kinship between himself and these natives—leading Marlow to sneer the word "ugly." Achebe also cited Conrad's description of an encounter with an African: "A certain enormous buck nigger encountered in Haiti fixed my conception of blind, furious, unreasoning rage, as manifested in the human animal to the end of my days." The essay, a landmark in postcolonial discourse, provoked an ongoing debate, and the issues it raised have been addressed in most subsequent literary criticism of Conrad.
According to some critics, Achebe fails to distinguish Marlow's view from Conrad's, which results in very clumsy interpretations of the novella. In their view, Conrad portrays blacks very sympathetically and their plight tragically, and refers sarcastically to, and outright condemns, the supposedly noble aims of European colonists, thereby demonstrating his scepticism about the moral superiority of white men. This, indeed, is a central theme of the novel; Marlow's experiences in Africa expose the brutality of colonialism and its rationales. Ending a passage that describes the condition of chained, emaciated slave workers, the novelist remarks: "After all, I also was a part of the great cause of these high and just proceedings." Some observers assert that Conrad, whose own native country had been conquered by imperial powers, empathised by default with other subjugated peoples.
Conrad scholar Peter Firchow points out that "nowhere in the novel does Conrad or any of his narrators, personified or otherwise, claim superiority on the part of Europeans on the grounds of alleged genetic or biological difference". If Conrad or his novel is racist, Firchow argues, it is only in a weak sense, since Heart of Darkness acknowledges racial distinctions "but does not suggest an essential superiority" of any particular group. Furthermore, some younger scholars, such as Masood Ashraf Raja, suggest that if we read Conrad beyond Heart of Darkness, especially his Malay novels, the issue of racism can be further complicated by foregrounding Conrad's positive representation of Muslims.
Of Conrad's novels, Lord Jim and Nostromo continue to be widely read, as set texts and for pleasure. The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes are also considered to be among his finest books. Arguably Conrad's most influential work remains Heart of Darkness, to which many have been introduced by Francis Ford Coppola's film, Apocalypse Now, inspired by Conrad's novella and set during the Vietnam War. The novella's depiction of a journey into the darkness of the human psyche still resonates with modern readers.
An anchor-shaped monument to Conrad at Gdynia, on Poland's Baltic Seacoast, features a quotation from him in Polish: "Nic tak nie nęci, nie rozczarowuje i nie zniewala, jak życie na morzu" ("[T]here is nothing more enticing, disenchanting, and enslaving than the life at sea" -- Lord Jim, chapter 2, paragraph 1).
In Circular Quay, Sydney, Australia, a plaque in a "writers walk" commemorates Conrad's brief visits to Australia between 1879 and 1892. The plaque notes that "Many of his works reflect his 'affection for that young continent.'"
In San Francisco in 1979, a small triangular square at Columbus Avenue and Beach Street, near Fisherman's Wharf, was dedicated as "Joseph Conrad Square" after Conrad. The square's dedication was timed to coincide with release of Francis Ford Coppola's Heart of Darkness-inspired film, Apocalypse Now.
Notwithstanding the undoubted sufferings that Conrad endured on many of his voyages, sentimentality and canny marketing place him at the best lodgings in several of his destinations. Hotels across the Far East still lay claim to him as an honoured guest, with, however, no evidence to back their claims: Singapore's Raffles Hotel continues to claim he stayed there though he lodged, in fact, at the Sailors' Home nearby. His visit to Bangkok also remains in that city's collective memory, and is recorded in the official history of The Oriental Hotel (where he never, in fact, stayed, lodging aboard his ship, the Otago) along with that of a less well-behaved guest, Somerset Maugham, who pilloried the hotel in a short story in revenge for attempts to eject him.
Conrad is also reported to have stayed at Hong Kong's Peninsula Hotel-- a port that, in fact, he never visited. Later literary admirers, notably Graham Greene, followed closely in his footsteps, sometimes requesting the same room and perpetuating myths that have no basis in fact. No Caribbean resort is yet known to have claimed Conrad's patronage, although he is believed to have stayed at a Fort-de-France pension upon arrival in Martinique on his first voyage, in 1875, when he travelled as a passenger on the Mont Blanc.
A number of works in various genres have been based on, or inspired by, Conrad's writings, including:
|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Joseph Conrad|
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