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Selected products from Joseph Conrad
Joseph Conrad, born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, is considered one of the English language’s greatest novelists, though despite being granted British nationality in 1886, he always considered himself Polish. His short stories and novels often involve nautical themes, examining human nature in its most extreme setting and he applied a distinctly European tragedian trend to his writing which subsequently influenced the short story tradition. Often cited as a precursor to the modernist style, his prose features hints of Romanticism and his narrative style and plotting have influenced various authors since, such as D.H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway and Gabriel Garcia Márquez. His writing reflects the prominence of the British Empire, exploring its effect on the world and examining the nature of life in a world dominated by Britain and its exported culture.
He was born on 3rd December 1857, in Berdychiv, Ukraine, to Apollo Korzeniowski and Ewa, née Bobrowska, and his birth there meant he was a Russian citizen. Apollo was a member of the impoverished Polish nobility, and was a writer, translator, political reformer and revolutionary. He was named after his grandfathers Józef and Teodor, and after the heroes Konrad, separate heroes in two poems by Adam Mickiewicz. Though most of the town and surrounding countryside was inhabited by Ukranians, the land itself was owned by the Polish upper class, by whom literature (and particularly that of a patriotic nature) was held in high esteem, and Conrad’s father bore the Polish Nałęcz coat of arms. Owing to Apollo’s political activism, in Conrad’s early life the family moved frequently; to Warsaw in May 1861, where Apollo was imprisoned for his involvement with the resistance against the Russian Empire, then to Vologda on 9th May 1862 in exile, and then to Chernihiv in January 1863 when the sentence was commuted. On 18th April 1885, Ewa died of tuberculosis. Home-schooled by his father, Conrad read Victor Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea which would instill in him the nautical strain which would remain with him for his entire lifetime, while Shakespeare introduced him to English literature. Along with this, he read Polish Romantic poetry.
In December 1867, Apollo took Conrad to the Austrian-held part of Poland, which had a degree of freedom and self-government which was not enjoyed by the rest of the country. They travelled variously for two years before moving to Kraków on 20th February 1869. However, Apollo died a few months later on 23rd May 1869, leaving Apollo an orphan at the age of eleven. He, too, had died of tuberculosis. Following the death of both his parents, Conrad was sent to Ewa’s brother, Tadeusz Bobrowski, who had to deal with the emotional and financial problems of Conrad’s persisting ill-health and poor grades at school. Despite having a tutor for some time he excelled only in geography, and underachieved in everything else. Both his uncle and his doctor agreed that it was his nervous disposition which was causing his illness, and they further agreed that physical work would harden him up while the sense of duty and routine might teach him some discipline. Bobrowski sent him to a cousin who ran a boarding house for
orphaned boys in August 1873, where group conversation was held in French, and the owner’s daughter later 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.
At sixteen, and on 13th October 1874, he set off for Marseilles, France, planning a career at sea. The fluency he had acquired in French while at the boarding house, combined with a good knowledge of history, geography and something of an interest in physics, along with the breadth of his reading, set him in good stead for employment. Having spent two months in Marseilles he began his first voyage on 15th December 1874, as a passenger on the Mont-Blanc, arriving in Saint-Pierre, Martinique in the Caribbean, on 6th February 1875. It is thought he was granted a position as a crew member on the ship’s return, which would prove his first formal experience of sailing duties. A month after their return he sailed again with the Mont-Blanc, this time as an apprentice. His first paid voyage was for the West Indies in July 1876, for a salary of 35 francs as a steward. Many characters and ideas in his literature are taken from these years at sea; the title character in Nostromo is based on the first mate on this voyage for the West Indies, Dominique Cervoni, rendered by Conrad in the character Nostromo in whose eyes
lurked a look of perfectly remorseless irony, as though he had been provided with an extremely experienced soul; and the slightest distension of his nostrils would give to his bronzed face a look of extraordinary boldness. This was the only play of feature of which he seemed capable, being a Southerner of a concentrated, deliberate type.
Moreover, the smuggling and gun-running in The Arrow of Gold is often attributed to Cervoni, either as a perpetrator himself, or as having retold stories of gun-running to the young and imaginative Conrad. In 1877, he realised that he could not serve on French ships without the permission of the Russian consul, permission which he was not going to receive as he was liable for military service in Russia and there was no chance they would exempt him from it. After lengthy discussions with his uncle by letter, it was resolved that he should join the English Merchant Marine where there weren’t such formalities. In order to achieve this it was necessary to gain British citizenship, a lengthy process which was achieved on 19th August 1886, though he was still a subject of Tsar Alexander III. In order to end this subjection he was obliged to make several visits to the Russian embassy and later recalled this process, and the embassy building at Belgrave Square, in his novel The Secret Agent. He finally secured his release from the Russian Ministry of Home Affairs on 2nd april 1889.
He arrive at Lowestoft, England, on 10th June 1878, the first time he set foot on British soil. Having joined the coastal coal schooner Skimmer of the Sea he won popularity with the crew by paying for entertainment out of the allowance he
received from his uncle. After three voyages to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and back he left the schooner on 23rd September for his first real service at sea aboard the clipper ship Duke of Sutherland, which left harbour on 15th October and arrived at Sydney Harbour, Australia on 31st January 1879. Several shorter voyages followed, to Genoa, Naples, Patras and Palerno, after which his uncle encouraged him to take the examination for second mate in the British Merchant Marine, which he passed on 28th May 1880, aged 22. The examination required four years’ service at sea and, despite only really having had seventeen months, he amplified his service to the French to amount to the requirements, risking indictment if the fraud were discovered.
During the succeeding voyages he acquitted himself well as a ship’s mate, serving with various crews and spending time travelling to several important and fascinating ports and destinations. After each voyage, he would find his uncle’s allowance waiting for him, which would invariably prove considerably more than his salary for his service aboard the ship. Indeed, there was the sum of £46 waiting for him on his return from Australia on 25th April 1881, and between receiving this sum and the 10th August he lost almost half a year’s worth of allowance in some kind of disastrous speculation. In order to conceal his embarrassment and avoid reprimand from his uncle he fabricated a story about an accident aboard the clipper Annie Frost, a ship to which he had no connection, resulting in the loss of luggage and several days spent in hospital. His next appointment was with an old barque, the Palestine, on which he undertook a difficult voyage to Bangkok, via Newcastle-upon-Tyne to pick up a cargo of coal. Later, the barque’s first officer, H. Mahon, would describe Conrad to his friend George Fountaine Weare Hope as “a capital chap ... a good Officer, the best Second Mate he had ever shipped with”.
Following this, he undertook the examination for first mate, failing on his fist attempt (and failing to record that he had done so in his A Personal Record in 1912) but passing on his second, on 3rd December 1884. Between the years 1885-88, as the tonnage of individual ships increased owing to developments in manufacturing and design techniques, the space for officers fell along with the number of individual ships. A lengthy search secured him a berth as second officer aboard the clipper Tilkhurst, which set off for Singapore on 22 September 1885. Journeying around the globe, Conrad took in more views of human civilisation, and on 29th July 1886 he undertook the master mariner’s examination on 28th July 1886, again failing his first attempt and not recording so in A Personal Record, but again he passed on his second attempt on 10th November. His first position following this examination success was at first mate, and his first appointment as captain came on 19th January 1888, aboard the barque Otago, which promptly set off for Bangkok. A great many voyages succeeded, along with many of the experiences which would find their way into his literature, and after a naval career spanning some 10 years and 8 months, 9 years of which had been at sea, he disembarked the Adowa on 17th January, 1894, at 36, and ended his service at sea.
By now, his health had been getting steadily poorer and the prospect of a literary career steadily greater. His first novel was Almayer’s Folly, set on the east coast
of Borneo, published in 1895. This was the first use of his pen name, Joseph Conrad, based on an anglicised version of his third given Polish name. Though Edward Garnett, the publisher’s reader, had been impressed by the manuscript, he feared that the English might not be quite strong enough for its audience but, on showing it to his wife Constance, a translator of Russian Literature, she felt the hints of foreignness in his writing were a strength and recommended it be published. It was succeeded by An Outcast of the Islands in 1896, and these served to establish Conrad’s career-spanning reputation as an exotic and Romantic writer, though he felt this a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of his narrative purpose and was duly frustrated at its permanence. Though little is known of Conrad’s intimate relationships, in 1896 he married Jessie George, and Englishwoman, with whom he had two sons, Borys and George. She was sixteen years his junior, uneducated and working-class, proving what was, to his friends, an inexplicable marriage. Though she was the subject of various rather unkind remarks, she proved exactly what Conrad needed, a “straightforward, devoted, quite competent” companion. Indeed, it is argued that “there can be no doubt that the relationship sustained Conrad’s career as a writer.”
Much of his work was published in newspapers and magazines, whether they were important and respected reviews like The Fortnightly Journal and the North American Review, or more avant-garde publications such as the Savoy, the New Review and The English Review. Alongside these, his work graced the pages of the popular short fiction magazines, for example The Saturday Evening Post and Harper’s Magazine, women’s journals like the Pictorial Review and Romance, mass-circulation dailies like the Daily Mail and The New York Herald, and illustrated newspapers like The Illustrated London News. Despite this clear success and demand, it was a long time before he achieved financial security. Eventually he was awarded an annuity pension of £100 from the government, and after a while his manuscripts began to sell to collectors. It was only after the publishing of Chance in 1913 that he achieved popular success, though the novel is, ironically, often considered one of his weaker novels.
The critic Edward Said has identified and described three ages of Conrad’s literary career, which he details in his 1966 work Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography. In brief, he describes the first as that between 1890 and the First World War, during which he wrote most of his great novels including The Nigger of Narcissus (1897), Lord Jim (1900), Nostromo (1904), The Secret Agent (1907) and Under Western Eyes (1911). The second phase comes during the war, and is based on the popular success of Chance, after which Said recognises the advent of his public persona as a “great writer”. Finally, the third phase follows the War and lasts until his death, in which he “finds an uneasy peace”; it is as though “the War has allowed Conrad’s psyche to purge itself of terror and anxiety”.
He died on 3rd August 1924, almost certainly of a heart attack, and is interred at Canterbury Cemetery in Canterbury, England, under a misspelt version of his original Polish name. These lines
Sleep after toyle, port after stormie seas, Ease after warre, death after life, doth greatly please.
From Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene are inscribed on his tombstone, after he had chosen them as the epitaph to his last complete novel The Rover. His funeral was modest, though the streets were lined with supporters of the Cricket Festival of 1924, and his friend Edward Garnett wrote bitterly of the ignorance of the crowd. Garnett would have been heartened to see the enduring legacy of Conrad’s writing today.