Joseph Conrad

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Students of Joseph Conrad have long been indebted to Polish critic Zdzisaw Najder, whose Conrad’s Polish Background: Letters to and from Polish Friends (1964) has for two decades proved an indispensable source of information and insight into the novelist’s origins. Now Najder’s Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle (published in Poland in 1983 as Zycie Conrada-Korzeniowskiego), in addition to his other translated volume, Conrad Under Familiar Eyes (1984), makes available to English-speaking readers for the first time not only the primary documents but also the full range of facts and plausible inferences necessary for a truly balanced, comprehensive understanding of Joseph Conrad’s career as man and writer.

Himself a Polish man of letters, a cosmopolitan well versed in several national literatures, a political activist (he is a director of Radio Free Europe), and an exile from his Russian-controlled homeland, the biographer has much in common with his subject—so much, indeed, that one approaches the book half prepared to find a subjective bias or a political slant shaping the account. Before many pages have been turned, however, such fears are dispelled. Najder’s reconstruction of Conrad’s life, a richly detailed chronological narrative anchored by prodigious documentation, is nothing if not objective. In fact, so scrupulous is Najder’s adherence to verifiable facts and so calmly skeptical is his attitude toward Conrad’s autobiographical utterances (full of what Najder calls “auto-mythologizing”) as well as the memoirs left by his family and associates, that Najder takes the risk of seeming at times almost as sober and colorless as an income-tax auditor in carrying out his task. Nevertheless, this patient, no-nonsense approach in the long run pays off handsomely in the general plausibility of his portrayal of a dauntingly elusive subject.

With rare exceptions such as Frederick R. Karl’s Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives (1979), previous biographies have tended to domesticate this elusive-ness, offering up reductive images of Conrad as romantic sea-dreamer, guilt-ridden neurotic, misunderstood aesthete, and so on. In contrast, Najder’s Conrad is a far more complex and contradictory figure, difficult to categorize. Conrad himself, in such works as A Personal Record (1912), contributed to the tendency to reduce his wide-ranging experiences to a kind of logic of teleological necessity, derived from his desire in late middle age to see his life as more the determinate product of conscious choice than it actually was. By emphasizing the episodic, ad hoc circumstantial quality of Conrad’s career on land and sea, Najder’s biographical method calls attention to the conflicting impulses that drove Conrad to try at every stage but especially in retrospect to impose a shape—a fictive role or identity—upon the recalcitrant opaqueness of life.

If there is a keynote to Najder’s Conrad, it is the dynamic tension and the subsequent depression and inertia resulting from the perpetual attempt to recast himself into new personae wherein the illusion of a coherent self continuous with a coherent world might be attained, if only for a brief time. The pattern had its origins in the peculiar conditions of his childhood. Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski was born on December 3, 1857, in the Ukraine. His grandfather Teodor had been a hero in the unsuccessful insurrection of 1830, a distinction that resulted in the confiscation of his estate by the Russians. Teodor’s son, Apollo Korzeniowski, a gentleman or szlachcic, was many other things besides: playwright, poet, academic, translator of Victor Hugo, and an important underground leader of the revolutionary activists whose political activities resulted in his imprisonment on the eve of the brutally suppressed insurrection of 1861. Condemned to exile in a region of northern Russia noted for its severe climate, Apollo suffered from rheumatism, scurvy, and chronic depression, while the health of his wife, Ewa, underwent an even more precipitous decline; she died from consumption in 1865.

If this loss and the apparent hopelessness of his political cause left Apollo a broken, melancholy man, one can imagine the effect on his only son, who was not yet ten years of age. “Poor child,” Apollo confided to a friend back in Warsaw, “he does not know what a contemporary playmate is; he looks at the decrepitude of my sadness, and who knows if that sight does not make his young heart wrinkled or his awakening soul grizzled.” Young Conrad’s only consolation was found in his reading—William Shakespeare, James Fenimore Cooper, and Frederick Marryat were among his favorites—and it is to this early recourse to imaginative escape that one may trace his lifelong fascination with the sea and with English literature as its fittest vehicle of expression. Actual escape, however, was less easily achieved, and when Apollo Korzeniowski died on May 23, 1869, the eleven-year-old orphan walked alone at the head of a massive procession honoring the fallen poet and patriot. This legacy of doomed heroism was a shadow from which he would never completely emerge.

Nevertheless, by the age of fourteen Conrad had decided to become a sailor, an intention staunchly opposed by his pragmatic maternal uncle and guardian, Tadeusz Bobrowski. Within two years, however, Bobrowski relented, and Conrad, supported by a generous two-thousand-franc allowance from his uncle, left Poland for Marseilles to find work aboard ship. Although he had considerable difficulty securing a job as a seaman and drew ever more heavily on Uncle Tadeusz’ support, Conrad was to pursue this livelihood—first as simple crewman, then as third, second, and first mate, and finally as captain—for almost twenty years, most of them spent in the service of the British merchant marine. “If a seaman, then an English seaman,” he would write many years later. Najder...

(The entire section is 2440 words.)