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Joseph Conrad

Friday July 31, 2015 by Guest Blogger

 Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, a great Englishman.

This month we celebrate our multinational ‘diversity’ in the form of a naturalized Englishman, a personal hero and a true literary great, the Polish born writer Joseph Conrad.  

He’s best remembered for novels like Heart of Darkness (I literally used to have the T-shirt), Victory (an awesome book that really kicks into action about halfway through), Chance (another great fave and a very moving story), Nostromo (anyone remember the ship in the movie Alien?), The Secret Agent and Lord Jim. Joseph often drew on his amazing real life experiences as a merchant seaman and he always addressed the most profound themes of nature and existence.


He was actually born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857, to Polish parents living in the Ukraine, but was raised and educated primarily in Poland.  

His early life was difficult although his parents came from the Polish nobility and as they were arrested after conspiring against oppressive Russian rule and were sent to live in the Russian province of Vologda with Joseph who was only 4 at the time. Only when his parents died some time later did he return to Krakow, where he was raised by his uncle.  Due to all the upheaval in his childhood his education was erratic, and after first being taught by his father, he then went to school in Krakow and he also had some private schooling.

Maybe because of his turbulent youth Joseph was an adventurous soul and at just 16 he left Poland behind and travelled to Marseilles in France where he began his ‘career’ as a mariner and this period would provide inspiration for his story telling later in life. Through an introduction to a merchant who was a friend of his uncle, Joseph managed to sail on several French commercial ships, first as an apprentice and then as a steward. He travelled to the West Indies and South America and may even have participated in international gun-smuggling.

It wasn’t an easy life but after a period of debt and a failed suicide attempt (he shot himself but lived), luckily Joseph joined the British merchant navy, where his fortunes changed and he stayed for 16 years. He rose through the ranks and eventually became a British citizen. His voyages around the world ( to far flung places like India, Singapore, Australia and Africa) gave him invaluable experiences and an insight into the universal nature of man that he would later reinterpret in his fiction.

Eventually every troubled youth settles down and after many sea-faring years, Conrad began to put down roots on land and in 1896 he married Jessie George with whom he had two sons. This is when his writing career started to take off and he made friendships with prominent writers such as John Galsworthy, Henry James, Ford Madox Ford (who his wife hated) and H.G. Wells. Conrad began his own literary career in 1895 (the year Wells published The Time Machine) with the publication of his first novel, Almayer's Folly, an adventure tale set in the Borneo jungles (yet more coincidence - I have myself been lost in those very same leech infested jungles).

Conrad then wrote two of his most famous and enduring novels. Lord Jim - the story of an outcast young sailor who comes to terms with his past acts of cowardice and eventually becomes the leader of a small South Seas island and Heart of Darkness - a novella describing a British man's journey deep into the Congo of Africa, where he encounters the cruel and mysterious Kurtz, a European trader who has established himself as a ruler of the native people there. You may recognize the story if you’ve ever seen the movie Apocalypse Now with a young Martin Sheen and an impressive performance by Marlon Brando..

Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness contain the signature elements of Conrad's writing: exotic, faraway settings, dramatic conflicts between very ‘human’ characters and the brutal forces of nature, and themes of individualism, the violent side of human nature and racial prejudice. Conrad was interested in showing "psycho-political" situations that drew parallels between the inner lives of single characters and the broader sweep of human history. Over the last two decades of his life, he produced many autobiographical writings and novels and his final novel, The Rover, was published in 1923.  However during this period he suffered from long fits of depression, “that in a lunatic asylum would be called madness. I do not know what it is. It springs from nothing. It is ghastly. It lasts an hour or a day, and when it departs it leaves a fear.”

Conrad's works of fiction prove just how well he mastered the language and they influenced numerous later 20th century writers, from T.S. Eliot and Graham Greene to Virginia Woolf, Albert Camus and William Faulkner. Fittingly, his books have been translated into dozens of languages and are still taught in schools and universities. 

He tragically died of a heart attack in 1924, at his home in Canterbury in the south of England.  Although he wasn’t born a Briton, he adopted the country as his own and so earns his place in my Best of Britons series.  

To any who have read him…to think that he never even wrote in his mother tongue…wow! To those who haven’t yet…please do.



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