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Conrad, Joseph Biography

 
Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) - Jósef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski

Polish-born English novelist and short-story writer, a dreamer, adventurer, and gentleman. In his famous preface to THE NIGGER OF THE 'NARCISSUS' (1897) Conrad crystallized his often quoted goal as a writer: "My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you fell - it is, above all, to make you see. That - and no more, and it is everything." Among Conrad's most popular works are LORD JIM (1900) and HEART OF DARKNESS (1902). Conrad discouraged interpretation of his sea novels through evidence from his life, but several of his novels drew the material, events, and personalities from his own experiences in different parts of the world. While making his first voyages to the West Indies, Conrad met the Corsican Dominic Cervoni, who was later model for his characters filled with a thirst for adventure.

"We live, as we dream - alone." (from Heart of Darkness)

Joseph Conrad was born in Berdichev, in the Ukraine, in a region that had once been a part of Poland but was then under Russian rule. His father Apollo Korzeniowski was an aristocrat without lands, a poet and translator of English and French literature. The family estates had been sequestrated in 1839 following an anti-Russian rebellion. As a boy the young Joseph read Polish and French versions of English novels with his father. When Apollo Korzeniowski became embroiled in political activities, he was sent to exile with his family to Volgoda, northern Russia, in 1861.

By 1869 Conrad's both parents had died of tuberculosis, and he was sent to Switzerland to his maternal uncle Tadeusz Bobrowski, who was to be a continuing influence on his life. On his death in 1894 Tadeusz left about £1,600 to his nephew - well over £100,000 now. Conrad attended schools in Kraków and persuaded his uncle to let him go to the sea. In the mid-1870s he joined the French merchant marine as an apprentice, and made three voyages to the West Indies between 1875 and 1878. During his youth Conrad also was involved in arms smuggling for the Carlist cause in Spain.

After being wounded in a duel or of a self-inflicted gunshot in the chest, Conrad continued his career at the seas for 16 years in the British merchant navy. He had been deeply in debt, but his uncle discharged his debts. This was a turning point in his life. Conrad rose through the ranks from common seaman to first mate, and by 1886 he obtained his master mariner's certificate, commanding his own ship, Otago. In the same year he was given British citizenship and he changed officially his name to Joseph Conrad. Witnessing the forces of the sea, Conrad developed a deterministic view of the world, which he expressed in a letter in 1897: "What makes mankind tragic is not that they are the victims of nature, it is that they are conscious of it. To be part of the animal kingdom under the conditions of this earth is very well - but soon as you know of your slavery, the pain, the anger, the strife . the tragedy begins."

Conrad sailed to many parts of the world, including Australia, various ports of the Indian Ocean, Borneo, the Malay states, South America, and the South Pacific Island. In 1890 he sailed in Africa up the Congo River. The journey provided much material for his novel Heart of Darkness. However, the fabled East Indies particularly attracted Conrad and it became the setting of many of his stories. By 1894 Conrad's sea life was over. During the long journeys he had started to write and Conrad decided to devote himself entirely to literature. At the age of 36 Conrad settled down in England.

Although Conrad is known as a novelist, he tried his hand also as a playwright. His first one-act play was not success - the audience rejected it. But after finishing the text he learned the existence of the Censor of the Plays, which inspired his satirical essay about the obscure civil servant. Conrad was an Anglophile who regarded Britain as a land which respected individual liberties. As a writer he accepted the verdict of a free and independent public, but associated this official figure of censorship to the atmosphere of the Far East and the 'mustiness of the Middle Ages', which shouldn't be part of the twentieth-century England.

"... one wonders that there can be found a man courageous enough to occupy the post. It is a matter of meditation. Having given it a few minutes I come to the conclusion in the serenity of my heart and the peace of my conscience that he must be either an extreme megalomaniac or an utterly unconscious being." (from 'The Censor of Plays', 1907)

Conrad married in 1896 Jessie George, an Englishwoman, by whom he had two sons. He moved to Ashford, Kent and except trips to France, Italy, Poland, and to the United States in 1923, Conrad lived in his new home country. His first novel, ALMAYER'S FOLLY, appeared in 1895. The story depicted a derelict Dutchman, who traded on the jungle rivers of Borneo. It was followed by AN OUTCAST OF THE ISLANDS (1896), less assured in its use of English. The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' was a complex story of a storm off the Cape of Good Hope and of an enigmatic black sailor. Lord Jim was narrated by Charlie Marlow and told about the fall of an young sailor and his redemption. "You have fallen terribly, my boy, fallen, perhaps, through your own self-confident dreams. Get up and try again. No skulking, no evasion! Live this thing down, humbly and hopefully, in the light of day."

Lord Jim was originally intended as a short story, but was then enlarged into a novel. The beginning of the story is partly based on true events: in 1880 a British captain and his crew abandoned the steamship Jeddah, carrying Muslim pilgrims, when the ship started to leak. Jeddah was brought by another steamship safely to port. Particular blame was attached to A.P. Williams, the first mate, who had organized the desertion of the vessel. Lord Jim depicts a British naval officer who is haunted by guilt of cowardice, when he left his ship, Patna, in a storm without taking care of the passengers. During the voyage towards Mecca, the ship had hit a submerged object, and when the small crew lowers a lifeboat, Jim impulsively jumps in it. Contrary to the crew's beliefs, the ship did not sunk and Jim is left to stand in front of the Court of Inquiry. After disgrace Jim moves through a variety of jobs ashore and finds work as an agent at the remote trading post of Patusan. He gains the confidence of chief Doramin and becomes a respected figure. When Gentleman Brown and his fellow European adventurers appear, Jim promises Doramin that Brown and his men will leave the island without bloodshed. He is wrong, Doramin's son is killed, and Jim is finally forced to face his past - Jim allows himself to be shot by the grieving Doramin. "...Jim stood stiffened and with bared head in the light of torches, looking him straight in the face, he clung heavily with his left arm round the neck of a bowed youth, and lifting deliberately his right, shot his son's friend through the chest." In the end Jim become an obscure conqueror of fame. His sinking into romantic day-dreams originally led to the accident at Patna. During the story Jim leaves behind his innocent, moral blindness, and accepts the reality and its consequences. - (Other sailor/adventurers: Ulysses, Sinbad, Hugo Pratt's comic hero Corto Maltese.)

Heart of Darkness was based to a four-month command of a Congo River steamboat, but in the novel the experience become analogous with a quest for inner truths - like in Henry Rider Haggard's novel She (1887). Conrad gave Marlow his boyhood dream about penetrating into the heart of the continent, but he also was knew about Henry Morton Stanley's journey up the Congo river in the mid-1870s. Stanley's revelation of the commercial possibilities of the region had resulted in the setting up of a trading venture. The book was written in 1899 and published in 1902 in YOUTH: A NARRATIVE WITH TWO OTHER STORIES. Also the account of Commander R.H. Bacon, who travelled in Benin, described horrors: "... everywhere death, barbarity and blood, and smells that it hardly seems right for human beings to smell and yet live!"

The narrator, Marlow - who perhaps is not so reliable - depicts to his friends a journey in Africa, where he becomes curious about a man called Kurtz. Marlow works for a company that is only interested in ivory and he witnesses the suffering of the native workers. He goes on a journey to reach Kurtz, an agent whom Marlow expects by his reputation to be a "universal genius," an "emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and devil knows what else." As they near the inner station of the company, they are attacked, and Marlow's helmsman is killed. At the station they meet a Russian who idolizes Kurtz. Marlow finds a man who has made himself the natives' god and who has decorated the posts of his hut with human skulls. Marlow tries to get the seriously ill Kurtz away down the river, but Kurtz dies: 'He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision - he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath - '"The horror! The Horror!" Back in Europe Marlow lies to Kurtz's fiancée, that "the last word he pronounced was - your name." -The book inspired Orson Welles but his film project for RKO never materialized. Kurtz fascinated Welles - a genius destroyed by inner conflicts, greatness gone wrong. During his career as a director and actor, Welles would play this kind of Faustian character repeatedly, starting from Citizen Kane, who also dies with a mysterious phrase on his lips. - In a television performance from 1958 Boris Karloff was seen as Kurtz and Roddy McDowall as Marlow. - Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) was based on the novella, Michael Herr's Dispatches, and John Milius' 1969 script. Nicolas Roeg's adaptation from 1993 followed Conrad's work closely. - "In Apocalypse Now, the "horror" is symbolically repressed (killed), while in Heart of Darkness it is brought into the light, as horrible as it might be to do so. The film, then, accepts as a premise our capacity for evil, and goes ahead to show how the colonialist psychosis of Kurtz, and by extension Western culture, translates into a social nightmare." (from Novels into Film by John C. Tibbets and James M. Welsh, 1999)

In Youth (1902) the title story recorded Conrad's experiences on the sailing-ship Palestine. NOSTROMO (1904) was an imaginative novel which again explored man's vulnerability and corruptibility. It includes one of Conrad's most suggestive symbols, the silver mine. In the story the Italian Nostromo ('our man') is destroyed for his appetite for adventure and glory but with his death the secret of the silver is lost forever. The English director David Lean planned to film the book, and he started to work with the screenplay with Christopher Hampton in the early 1986. Steven Spielberg agreed to produce the movie for Warner Bros. "I thought Conrad was a very good match for David's temperament," Hampton later said, "because he was very positive about individuals, but very pessimistic about the human race in general." Lean died in 1991 and the project was not realized.

"All ambitions are lawful except those which climb upward on the miseries or credulities of mankind." (from A Personal Record, 1912) - "All creative art is magic, is evocation of the unseen in forms persuasive, enlightening, familiar and surprising." (Conrad writing about Henry James)

The period between The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' and UNDER WESTERN EYES (1911) is considered artistically Conrad's most productive. H.G. Wells encouraged Conrad and gave him good reviews and his work was also recognized by John Galsworthy. With Ford Madox Ford he wrote three works - THE INHERITORS (1901), ROMANCE (1903), and THE NATURE OF CRIME (1924). Although Conrad was prolific, his financial situation wasn't secure until 1913 with the publication of CHANGE. Heart of the Darkness was partly based on Conrad's journey up the Congo River some 12 years earlier. He learned about atrocities made by Congo "explorers", and created in the character of Kurtz the embodiment of European imperialism. However, in 1977 the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe described Conrad as "a bloody racist".

"The men who could understand his silence were gone - those men who knew how to exist beyond the pale life and within sight of eternity. They had been strong, as those are strong who know neither doubts nor hopes. They had been impatient and enduring, turbulent and devoted, unruly and faithful. Well-meaning people had tried to represent those men as whining over every mouthful of their food; as going about their work in fear of their lives. But in truth they had been men who knew toil, privation, violence, debauchery - but knew not fear and had no desire of spite in their hearts." (from The Nigger of the 'Narcissus)

Last years of his life were shadowed by rheumatism. He refused an offer of knighthood in 1924 as he had earlier declined honorary degrees from five universities. Conrad died of a heart attack on August 3, 1924 and was buried in Canterbury. Conrad's influence upon 20th-century literature was wide. Ernest Hemingway expressed special admiration for the author, and his impact is seen in among others in the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Arthur Koestler, T.S. Eliot, Marcel Proust, André Malraux, Louis-Ferdiand Céline, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Graham Greene.Several of Conrad's stories have been filmed. The most famous adaptations are Alfred Hitchcock's The Sabotage (1936), based on THE SECRET AGENT (1097), Richard Brooks's Lord Jim (1964) and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979), based on Heart of Darkness. Conrad sold the American screen rights to his fiction in 1919. Next year he composed a screenplay entitled The Strange Man, based on the short story 'Gaspar Ruiz'. He did not like to work for the film business, and did not know about screenwritings. The studio rejected his script.

For further reading: The Sea-Dreamer by G. Jean-Aubry (1957); Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography by J.Baines (1960); The Sea Years of Joseph Conrad by Jerry Allen (1965); Joseph Conrad by Ford Madox Ford (1965); Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives by F.R. Karl (1979); Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle by Z. Najder (1983); Conrad Companion by N.A. Page (1986); Culture and Irony: Studies in Joseph Conrad's Major Novels by A Winner (1988); Joseph Conrad by Jeffrey Meyers (1990); Conrad's Existentialism by O. Bohlmann (1991); Conrad's Fiction as Critical Discourse by Richard Ambrosini (1991); Joseph Conrad and the Adventure Tradition by Andrea White (1993); Joseph Conrad by M. Seymour-Smith (1995); The Invention of the West. Joseph Conrad and the Double-Mapping of Europe and Empire by Christopher Lloyd GoGwilt (1995); Joseph Conrad and the Anthropological Dilemma by John W. Griffith (1995); The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad, ed. by J.H. Stape (1996); One of Us: The Mastery of Joseph Conrad by Geoffrey Galt Harpham (1996); Conrad on Film, ed. by Gene M. Moore (1998); Envisioning Africa: Racism and Imperialism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness by Peter Edgerly Firchow (1999); Conrad, Language, and Narrative by Michael Greaney (2001); Rereading Conrad by Daniel R. Schwarz (2001).


Biography written by Petri Liukkonen. Used with permission from Authors' Calendar.

Works by Conrad, Joseph

A Personal Record
Almayer's Folly
Amy Foster
An Outcast of the Islands
Chance
End of the Tether
Falk
Gaspar Ruiz
Heart of Darkness
Lord Jim
Nostromo
Some Reminiscences
Tales of Unrest
The Arrow of Gold
The Mirror of the Sea
The Rescue
The Secret Agent
The Secret Sharer
The Shadow Line
Tomorrow
Twixt Land and Sea
Typhoon
Under Western Eyes
Victory An Island Tale
Within The Tides
Youth