Joseph Conrad (born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, 3 December 1857 – 3 August 1924) was a Polish-born English novelist. Many critics regard him as one of the greatest novelists in the English language—a fact that is remarkable as he did not learn to speak English fluently until he was in his twenties (and always with a Polish accent).
Conrad is recognized as a master prose stylist. Some of his works have a strain of romanticism, but more importantly he is recognized as an important forerunner of modernist literature. His narrative style and anti-heroic characters have influenced many writers, including Ernest Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Graham Greene, William S. Burroughs, Joseph Heller, V.S. Naipaul, Italo Calvino and J. M. Coetzee.
Conrad's novels and stories have also inspired such films as Sabotage (1936, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, adapted from Conrad's The Secret Agent); Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979, adapted from Conrad's Heart of Darkness); The Duellists (a 1977 Ridley Scott adaptation of Conrad's The Duel, from A Set of Six); and a 1996 film inspired by The Secret Agent, starring Bob Hoskins, Patricia Arquette and Gérard Depardieu.
Writing during the apex of the British Empire, Conrad drew upon his experiences serving in the French and later the British Merchant Navy to create novels and short stories that reflected aspects of a world-wide empire while also plumbing the depths of the human soul. Conrad became a naturalized British citizen in 1886.
Conrad was born in Berdyczów (now Berdychiv, Ukraine) into a highly patriotic, impoverished Polish noble family bearing the Nałęcz coat-of-arms. His father Apollo Korzeniowski was a writer of politically themed plays, and a translator of Alfred de Vigny, Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens and Shakespeare from the French and English. He encouraged his son Konrad to read widely in Polish and French.
In 1861 the elder Korzeniowski was arrested by Imperial Russian authorities in Warsaw for helping organize what would become the January Uprising of 1863–64, and was exiled to Vologda, a city with a very harsh climate, approximately north of Moscow. His wife, Ewelina Korzeniowska (née Bobrowska), and four-year-old son followed him into exile. Due to Ewelina's weak health, Apollo Korzeniowski was allowed in 1865 to move to Chernihiv, Ukraine, where wıthin a few weeks Conrad's mother died of tuberculosis. Conrad's father died four years later in Kraków, leaving Conrad orphaned at the age of eleven. In Kraków, young Conrad was placed in the care of his maternal uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski—a more cautious figure than his parents. Bobrowski nevertheless allowed Conrad to travel to Marseille and begin a career as a seaman at the age of 16. This came after Conrad was rejected for Austro-Hungarian citizenship, leaving him liable to conscription into the Russian Army.
In 1878, after a failed suicide attempt in Marseille by shooting himself in the chest, Conrad 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, Conrad had 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.'
In London on 21 September 1881, Conrad set sail 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.
Palestine sailed from the Tyne at the turn of the year. The ship sprang a leak in the Channel and was stuck in Falmouth for a further nine months. After all these misfortunes, Conrad writes: 'Poor old Captain Beard looked like a ghost of a Geordie skipper.' The ship set sail from Falmouth on 17 September 1882 and reached the Sunda Strait in March 1883. Finally, off Java Head, the cargo ignited and fire engulfed the ship. The crew, including Conrad, reached shore safely in open boats. The ship is re-named 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." Prior to his retirement from the sea in 1894, Conrad served a total of sixteen years in the merchant navy. In 1883 he joined the Narcissus in Bombay, a voyage that inspired his 1897 novel The Nigger of the Narcissus.
A childhood ambition to visit central Africa was realised in 1889, when Conrad 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 crystalise his vision of human nature — and his beliefs about himself. These were in some measure affected by the emotional trauma and lifelong illness he contracted there. During his stay, he became acquainted with Roger Casement, whose 1904 Congo Report detailed the abuses suffered by the indigenous population.
The journey upriver that the book's protagonist, Charles Marlow, made 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. Conrad's own sense of loneliness throughout his exile's life would find memorable expression in the 1901 short story, "Amy Foster."
In 1891, Conrad stepped down in rank to sail as first mate on the 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 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."
Conrad made two voyages to Australia aboard her, but in 1894 he had parted from the sea for ever and embarked upon his literary career—having begun writing his first novel Almayer's Folly on board 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 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, John and Borys.
A further insight into Conrad's emotional life is provided by an episode which inspired one of his strangest and least known stories, "A Smile of Fortune." In September 1888 he put into Mauritius, as captain of the sailing barque Otago. His 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 this daughter, Alice, has been confined to Jacobus’s house, seeing no one but a governess. When Conrad’s captain is invited to the house of Jacobus, 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."
The suffering of Alice Jacobus was true enough. A copy of the Dictionary of Mauritian Biography unearthed by the scholar Zdzisław Najder reveals that her character was a fictionalised version of seventeen-year-old Alice Shaw, whose father was a shipping agent and owned the only rose garden in the town. While it is evident that Conrad too fell in love while in Mauritius, it was not with Alice. His proposal to young Eugénie Renouf was declined, the lady being already engaged. Conrad left broken-hearted, vowing never to return.
Something of his feelings is considered to permeate the recollections of the captain. "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."
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. Together with its successor, An Outcast of the Islands (1896), it 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 journey to Poland, and a 1923 visit to the United States, he lived the rest of his life in England.
Financial success evaded Conrad, though a Civil List pension of £100 per annum stabilised his affairs, and collectors began to purchase his manuscripts. Though his talent was recognized by the English intellectual elite, popular success eluded him until the 1913 publication of Chance—paradoxically so, as it is not now regarded as one of his better novels. 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. Although the quality of his work declined, he enjoyed increasing wealth and status. Conrad had a true genius for companionship, and his circle of friends included talented authors such as Stephen Crane and Henry James. In the early 1900s, he, composed a short series of novels in collaboration with Ford Madox Ford.
In April 1924 Conrad, who possessed a hereditary Polish status of nobility and coat-of-arms (Nałęcz), declined the offer of a (non-hereditary) British knighthood from Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, and he died shortly thereafter, on 3 August 1924, of a heart attack. He was interred at Canterbury Cemetery, Canterbury, England, under his original Polish surname, Korzeniowski.
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 themes of Heart of Darkness, and the depiction of a journey into the darkness of the human psyche, still resonate with modern readers.
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: thus, 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'.
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.
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 present-day 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. It was perhaps from Polish and French prose styles that he adopted a fondness for triple parallelism, especially in his early works ("all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men"), as well as for rhetorical abstraction ("It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention").
T. E. Lawrence, one of many writers whom Conrad befriended, offered some perceptive observations about Conrad's writing:
In Conrad's time, literary critics, while usually commenting favourably on his works, often remarked that his exotic style, complex narration, profound themes and pessimistic ideas put many readers off. Yet as Conrad's ideas were borne out by 20th-century events, in due course he came to be admired for beliefs that seemed to accord with subsequent times more closely than with his own.
Conrad's was, indeed, 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:
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."
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.
Referring to Conrad as a "talented, tormented man," Achebe drew on several instances of apparent racism in Conrad's writings in which the author derided "niggers" as variously "unreasoning," "savage" and "inscrutable. Conrad's advocates, however, in defending his reputation and the ongoing value of his work, have reproached Achebe with disregarding the "historical context" of Conrad's work.
Citing Heart of Darkness, Conrad's advocates have also noted that he refers to the rhetorically noble aims of European colonialists sardonically, thus illustrating his cynicism of the presumption that white men are inherently virtuous—the popular sentiment of his day. This is a central theme of the novel itself. The character Charles Marlow's experiences in Africa expose the brutal reality of colonialism and the falseness of the rationalisations given for it. Ending a passage describing the condition of chained, emaciated slave workers, Conrad remarks, "After all, I also was a part of the great cause of these high and just proceedings."
In San Francisco, California, in 1979, a small triangular square at Columbus and Bay Streets, near Fisherman's Wharf, was dedicated as "Joseph Conrad Square" after Conrad, who had twice visited San Francisco.
Notwithstanding the undoubted sufferings that Conrad endured on many of his voyages, he contrived to put up at the best lodgings at many of his destinations. Hotels across the Far East still lay claim to him as an honoured guest, often naming the rooms he stayed in after him: in the case of Singapore's Raffles Hotel, the wrong suite has been named in his honour, apparently for marketing reasons. His visits to Bangkok are also lodged in that city's collective memory, and are recorded in the official history of the Oriental Hotel, 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. Later literary admirers, notably Graham Greene, followed closely in his footsteps, sometimes requesting the same room. 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.
|1896||An Outcast of the Islands|
|1897||The Nigger of the 'Narcissus'|
|1899||Heart of Darkness|
|1901||The Inheritors (with Ford Madox Ford)|
|1902||Typhoon (begun 1899)|
|1903||Romance (with Ford Madox Ford)|
|1907||The Secret Agent|
|1909||The Secret Sharer (written December 1909; published in Harper's in 1910 and collected in Twixt Land and Sea 1912)|
|1911||Under Western Eyes|
|1917||The Shadow Line|
|1919||The Arrow of Gold|
|1923||The Nature of a Crime (with Ford Madox Ford) |
|1925||Suspense: a Napoleonic Novel (unfinished, published posthumously)|
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