Exploring Joseph Conrad’s World

Maya Jasanoff, The Dawn Watch:

Joseph Conrad in a Global World (Penguin Press) 

               Joseph Conrad, born Konrad Kurzeniowski in 1857 to Polish parents in present-day Ukraine, spent most of his adult life either at sea or writing novels in his adopted homeland, England.   Conrad is one of a handful of authors in the last two centuries who have made their mark writing in an acquired rather than their native language (others include Vladimir Nabokov and Arthur Koestler; I reviewed a biography of Koestler here in 2012).   In The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World, Maya Jasonoff aims, as she puts it, to explore Conrad’s world “with the compass of an historian, the chart of a biographer, and the navigational sextant of a fiction reader” (p.9).  Jasonoff, a professor of history at Harvard University,  skillfully uses each of these tools to produce a masterful account of the late 19th and early 20th century world that shaped Conrad’s personal life and literary output.

Conrad set his novels in the late Victorian period, a time when the British Empire was at its height and Europe’s powers were scrambling for territory in Africa and Asia.  He offered stories about places that his English-speaking readers considered exotic, in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  But they were discomforting stories that in different ways highlighted the darker side of imperialist adventures.  His most famous work, Heart of Darkness, detailed a boat trip into what was then known as the Congo Free State, a trip in which the lines between savagery and civilization, madness and sanity, seemed to blur.   Conrad developed similar themes in The Secret Agent and Nostrodomo, novels about Asia and a fictional Latin American country that resembled Paraguay.  Jasonoff concentrates her study on these works, along with The Secret Agent, a novel about Russian anarchists operating in London.

Jasonoff recognizes a form of international connectivity — globalization — emerging in Conrad’s lifetime.  By the first decade of the 20th century, she writes, there had “never been such global interconnection – and never such manifest division” (p.285).  Democracy advanced, as liberal revolutions challenged autocrats and women stormed for the vote.  “But imperialism intensified as a handful of Western powers consolidated their rule over the majority of the world’s people. Rising prosperity went with increasing inequality. More conversations across cultures came with more elaborate theories of racial difference” (p.285).  Conrad grasped this interconnectedness and elevated it to a central motif for his writings.  Wherever he set his novels, Jasonoff writes, Conrad “grappled with the ramifications of living in a global world: the moral and material impact of dislocation, the tension and opportunity of multi-ethnic societies, the disruption brought by technological change” (p.11).

Jasonoff, who took her own tour down the Congo River as part of her preparations for this book, divides the work into four parts: “Nation,” focusing on Conrad’s youth; “Ocean,” his years at sea; “Civilization,” an ironic reference to Conrad’s trip to the Congo in 1890 and writing Heart of Darkness nearly a decade later; and “Empire,” how Nostrodomo reflected Conrad’s late life views about a globalized world of empires and competitive nation-states.  Throughout, she shows her stripes as an historian with concise,  ingeniously detailed treatment of the times and places depicted in Conrad’s novels, juxtaposed with her analyses of the novels themselves.  As an able biographer, moreover, she does not neglect her subject’s enigmatic personal life.

* * *

               Konrad Kurzeniowski’s father Apollo was a member of the Polish landed nobility, the szlachita. But Apollo was also a fervent Polish nationalist, a political activist who dedicated his life to the cause of independence for Poland, which had been partitioned between Austria, Russia and Prussia in 1795.  The young Konrad’s mother Ewa died when the boy was eight and Apollo passed away when he was 12, leaving the task of raising the orphaned lad to his uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski. To Tadeusz, Apollo had been “feckless, quixotic, and fatally incapable of supporting his family” (p.45). Tadeusz hoped to shape the young Konrad into a “pragmatic Bobrowski, not a dreamy Korzeniowski like his father” (p.45). Uncle Tadeusz continued to support Konrad financially until the young man was well into his adult years (throughout much of the book, Jasonoff uses the birthname “Konrad” interchangeably with “Conrad”).

As Konrad neared twenty, he felt a need to get away from from Kraków, where he was living with his uncle, and especially from the ruling Russians, who were looking to conscript him into military service.  He had grown up “obsessed with the idea of becoming a sailor.”  Sailing may have seemed a “completely fantastical notion for a young man who’d been raised hundreds of miles from the ocean.”  But Konrad had been “adrift his whole life. Going to sea just made it official” (p.49). Surprisingly, Uncle Tadeusz allowed him to leave for Marseille, where Tadeusz had connections with the extensive Polish diaspora there, including a cousin who owned a shipping company.

Bureaucratic hurdles prevented Konrad from working on French ships, and the young man experienced one of the lowest points in his life.  He ran out of money, tried unsuccessfully to get it back in casinos, and even attempted suicide.  Uncle Tadeusz went to Marseille and tried to convince Konrad to return to Kraków.  When the young man refused, he and his uncle decided that he should try to join the English Merchant Marine. Konrad had a bad experience on one ship, the Mavis, left it and departed for London, never writing again about Marseille or this part of his life.

The young man arrived in London in 1878 without a firm command of the English language.  His initial impressions upon arriving in London were “as if he’d wandered into a novel by Charles Dickens. Everything he knew about London he’d learned from Dickens” (p.62).  His Dickensian vision “lit the way from Konrad Korzeniowski, the bookish son of a Polish writer, to Joseph Conrad, a critically acclaimed English novelist . . . On the rare occasions that Conrad wrote about his early life, it was these first years in London that he most often recalled” (p.62).  In an insightful passage, Jasonoff shows how London at the time of Conrad’s arrival was already the center of a globalized empire and a melting pot offering many freedoms that distinguished it from Eastern Europe.  Conrad never lived more than an hour or two from London again. But he spent most of the next decade and a half, to 1894, in various capacities as a professional mariner.

More than in London, it was at sea that Konrad Korzeniowski “turned into Joseph Conrad” (p.93), Jasonoff argues.  For over fifteen years, Conrad sailed to the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, Australia, and Africa on some of the longest routes that sailing ships regularly plied.  He learned to speak English on British ships, where native-born Britons were usually in the minority.  For Conrad, a sailing ship represented a “distinctive – and distinctively British – sense of ethics” that called for “experience, training, courage, perception, creativity, adaptability, and judgment” (p.109).  Conrad “transformed the British sailing ship into a gold standard for moral conduct.  It became for him what Poland had been for his parents, a romantic ideal that served as a guide for life” (p.94).  Sometime toward the end of the 1880s, Conrad started to write fiction – “the beginning of a lifetime of writing about sailors, ships, and the sea” (p.94).  But Conrad resisted the label of “sea writer.”  Stories about the sea were, for him, “stories about life” (p.108).

* * *

                    Conrad’s most famous story about life, Heart of Darkness, was based on his own trip in 1890 down the Congo River as captain of a Belgian steamer.  Conrad kept an extensive journal of what he observed, most of which worked its way into the story he started to write in December 1898.  None of Conrad’s other works of fiction, Jasonoff notes, could be “so closely pegged to contemporary records of his experience” (p.205).  The novel was published in 1898.  Its narrator, Charles Marlow, tells the story to friends aboard a boat anchored on the Thames in London of his effort to locate Kurtz, an ivory trader in the Congo.  Marlow discovered that Kurtz, a “prophet of civilization” who “promised civilization while snatching ivory,” had become a “savage lord” (p.204).

On its face, Heart of Darkness appeared to be what Jasonoff describes as the “quintessential river story, running from here to there: a journey from Europe to Africa, overlaid by metaphorical journeys from present to past, light to dark, civilization to savagery, sanity to madness” (p.205).  But by nesting Marlow’s experience in Africa inside the telling of his story in England, Conrad warned his readers against the complacent notion that “savagery” was far from “civilization.” “What happened there and what happened here were fundamentally connected. Anyone could be savage. Everywhere could go dark” (p.237).

The extent to which Conrad’s fictional portrait of the Congo accurately depicted its actual conditions did not become fully known until years later.  But Jasonoff captures well the “appalling greed, violence, and hypocrisy” (p.3-4) of the regime of Leopold II, King of the Belgians.  She colorfully describes Leopold as an “outsized man, usually the tallest man in the room, with a nose like a mountain slope and a beard like a waterfall foaming over his chest” (p.173-74).  Determined to be a geo-political player on par with those from the larger European powers, Leopold sought to “open up to civilization the only part of the globe which it [had] not yet penetrated, to pierce the darkness in which entire populations are enveloped” (p.173-74).

From 1885 to 1908, Leopold privately controlled and owned what was known as the Congo Free State, about 75 times larger than Belgium.   He used his personal control to strip the county of vast amounts of wealth, especially ivory and rubber.  These labor-intensive industries were serviced by locals who were forced to work through torture, imprisonment, maiming and terror.  Beneath a veneer of idealistic principles, the Congo Free State was, in Jasonoff’s words, the “most nakedly abusive colonial regime in the world” (p.205).

                 Lord Jim, published in serial form in 1899-1900 and in hardcover in 1900 was based loosely on the scandal of the S.S. Jeddah, a British-flagged, Singapore-owned steamship that perished at sea in 1880, carrying Muslims from Singapore to Mecca.  The story revolves around the abandonment of a ship by its British crew, including a young British seaman named Jim.   Jasonoff likens Jim to the main character of Stephen Crane’s 1895 novel, The Red Badge of Courage, a man who had “‘dreamed of battles all his life’ only to run away from the field the very first time he fought” (p.145).  Lord Jim remained Conrad’s most popular work for so long that, twenty years later, he “complained about critics who measure his new books against it” (p.144).  The novel appeared at a time “when Europe and the United States had colonized virtually all of Africa and Asia” (p.144-45).  It told of Europeans in Asia “not from the veranda of a British colonial bungalow, still less an armchair in a London club – but as Conrad had seen them, from the steamer’s deck” (p.145).

Although Nostromo was Conrad’s only major work about a place he had never been, Jasonoff prefers that we look at it as a “novel about every place he’d been” (p.283).  The novel came out in book form in October 1904, with the sub-title, “A Tale of the Seaboard,” a tale of the coast (the novel started out being about Italian immigrants in Argentina; the title is a clumsy translation of  “our man,” nostro unomo, in Italian).   A coast was something new in Conrad’s work, Jasonoff writes. The “border of land and sea, a coast could be both barrier and meeting place – a voyager’s point of departure, the place where an invader lands.”  In Nostromo “outsiders, conspiracies, and families” met the “themes of honor, community, and isolation he had [previously] set at sea” (p.278).

                  Nostromo takes place in Costaguana, a New World creation that Conrad made up, based primarily upon what he had read about Paraguay. The main storyline concerned the poisoning impact of the San Tomé silver mine on individuals and corporations, particularly British and American. Charles Gould, a native of Castaguano of English ancestry, believed the mine could bring peace to a war torn country.  But the extraction of silver only heightened the country’s unrest.

The secret to Nostromo’s “extraordinary prescience,” Jasonoff argues, was that Conrad “folded between its covers his own ‘theory of the world’s future’” (p.283). In Nostrodomo, Conrad anticipated the “ascent of an American-led consortium of ‘material interests,’” which would “dictate the fortunes of new nations” and “make imperialism continue to thrive whether or not it had the word ‘empire’ attached to it” (p.283).  Jasonoff finds it “ironic if not surprising” that Costaguana, a place Conrad had fabricated, “felt so stunningly real to readers.  Conrad had fashioned his ideas of Latin America from precisely the same kinds of books and newspapers his audiences might have read.  Nostromo thus confirmed their stereotypes” (p.279). Readers and reviewers in the United States in particular read Nostromo as a “vindication of all their prejudices about Latin America” (p.279).

                    The Secret Agent was set in London and dealt with anarchists, the only major Conrad novel not set at sea. Based loosely on the plot to kill Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1881, The Secret Agent was Conrad’s “tribute to his beloved Dickens” (p.70-71).  More than anything else Conrad wrote, The Secret Agent “mapped the contours of his early life” (p.81) – the novelist Joseph Conrad writing about Konrad Kurzeniowski, as Jasonoff puts it.  Some critics characterized The Secret Agent as a novel written by a “foreigner,” criticism that stung Conrad badly.  The Secret Agent captured an irony of Conrad’s life: he couldn’t go back to Poland, yet he worried that he didn’t really fit into his adopted country either.

* * *

                   Conrad’s major novels conspicuously lack meaningful roles for women. There are no contemporary clues, moreover, whether he had sexual relationships with any women during his sailing days, in Europe or beyond, Jasonoff indicates.  He had one odd attachment to Marguerite Poradowska, a widow living in Brussels whose recently-deceased husband was a distant cousin of the Kurzeniowski family.   Their relationship appears to have been primarily on paper, in “effusive, emotionally charged correspondence between the two” (p.165).   Eight years older than Conrad, and in a way part of the family, the new widow was a “‘safe’ repository for Konrad’s intimate confessions, and in the coming years he poured them out in sometimes dozens of letters per year.  Marguerite became the first woman with whom the adult Konrad formed a sustained emotional relationship” (p.165).

Then, suddenly, their correspondence ended and, seemingly out of nowhere, Conrad announced “solemnly” (p.227) in a letter in 1896 to another woman he had had his eye on that he was about to marry Jessie George, an 18 year old working class girl from Peckham, nearly twenty years younger than her future husband.  In a letter to a cousin in Poland, Conrad described George as “small, not at all striking-looking person (to tell the truth alas – rather plain!) who nevertheless is very dear to me” (p.228). Marriage did not frighten him, he indicated, because he was “accustomed to an adventurous life and to facing terrible dangers” (p.227).

Conrad’s friends “couldn’t believe he had married such an uneducated, unrefined person” (p.230).  But the marriage worked.  George had qualities that Conrad “needed and craved: an even temper, good humor, patience, an impulse to nurture” (p.230).  The couple had two sons, Borys, born in 1898, and John, born in 1906.  During Conrad’s peak years as a writer, the family lived together in genteel poverty in rural locations outside London (Conrad had long since spent the inheritance he received from his Uncle Tadeusz, who died in 1893).

In the summer of 1914, Conrad took his family of four back to Poland, at precisely the moment when European-wide war broke out.  His son Borys later served in the war.  He was gassed and shell-shocked in the last weeks of the conflict and came home to convalescence.  As an expatriate living in Britain, Conrad became increasingly involved in Polish affairs during the war years and their aftermath.  Following in his father’s footsteps, Conrad sought to protect Poland from what he termed “Russian barbarism” and Germany’s “superficial, grinding civilization” (p.292). He wrote a formal note to the Foreign Office in 1917, advocating “an Anglo-French protectorate” as the “ideal form of moral and material support” (p.297) to defend Poland from its more powerful neighbors.

In April 1923, Conrad arrived in New York for his first visit to the United States, where he was surprised to learn what a celebrity he was. Despite his concerns about American imperial overreach, he enjoyed the visit and appreciated the Americans whom he met.  He died in August 1924 at his home near Canterbury, at a time when the entire family, including his first grandchild, had fortuitously gathered for Bank Holiday weekend.

* * *

               Jasonoff sees many similarities between today’s globalization and the iteration Conrad wrote about.  Ships and sailing remain central to the world’s economy.  Today, “Internet cables run along the seafloor beside the old telegraph wires.  Conrad’s characters whisper in the ears of new generations of anti-globalization protesters and champions of free trade, liberal interventionists and radical terrorists, social justice activists and xenophobic nativists” (p.7-9).   Conrad’s world thus “shimmers beneath the surface of our own” (p.7), she writes.  Conrad’s world may have been  one where cynicism, hypocrisy and cruelty too often prevailed.  But through her formidable use of the tools of the historian, biographer and fiction reader, Jasonoff manages to cast much light on the darkness of that world.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

May 20, 2019

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7 Comments

Filed under British History, History, Literature, World History

7 responses to “Exploring Joseph Conrad’s World

  1. EHRMAN HOPE J

    The summary is worth reading and perhaps argues for us returning to the Secret Agent. Hope J Ehrman ordhope@gmail.com 170 Marion Avenue Lake Forest, Il. 60045 847 235-1981 847 922-7050 cell 970 925-2566/Unit 26, CO

    >

  2. David Gross

    Tom, thanks for the review. I’m glad to learn more about Conrad; he certainly led an interesting life, worthy of biography. As you know, I’ve recently read about Conrad’s time in the Congo, in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost. I subsequently read three of Conrad’s short stories. I disliked Heart of Darkness because I thought the story’s structure was awkward. Also, its stereotypical portrayal of African people is troubling. Your review indicates that Nostromo suffers the same problem. I did enjoy reading Conrad’s Typhoon.

    It seems like Jasonoff’s work on Conrad is a good way to explore the historical context of his time. A sailor who writes stories can tell us a lot about globalization.

  3. Thanks, Dave. Many scholars think that it was not until Hochschild’s Leopold’s Ghost that the full story of the horrors of the Congo in Leopold’s time became fully known. Conrad has been under fire for several decades for alleged racism and, according to some, for being an apologist for imperialism and colonial exploitation. Jasonoff wants to present counterarguments to both. Her book is definitely one that I think you would enjoy.

  4. William D Ehlert

    Among these remarkable books, like most readers, I first remember Heart of Darkness … (Mr. Kurtz, he dead) as such a dark description of our hidden instincts, but ultimately I’ll take Lord Jim’s efforts at atonement and redemption.

    Wonderful books. Thank you, Tom.

  5. Thanks Dirk, was Jim Cox your initial guide to Conrad?

    • Dirk Ehlert

      Yes. He was an insightful guide through all forms of literature, not to mention his florid, entertaining style. He would admire and be proud of your work.

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