Joseph Conrad Biography
Life and Literature of Joseph Conrad
Joseph Conrad was born Teodor Jozef Konrad Korzeniowski on December 3, 1857, the only child of a patriotic Polish couple living in southern Polish Ukraine. Conrad’s father was esteemed as a translator of Shakespeare, as well as a poet and a man of letters in Poland, and Conrad’s mother was a gentle, wellborn lady with a keen mind but frail health.
When Conrad was five, his father was arrested for allegedly taking part in revolutionary plots against the Russians and was exiled to northern Russia; Conrad and his mother went with him. His mother died from the hardships of prison life three years later; she was only thirty-four. Conrad’s father sent him back to his mother’s brother for his education, and Conrad was never to see him again.
The poet-patriot lived only four more years. Conrad was eleven years old, but the emotional bond between him and his father was so strong that a deep melancholy settled within the young boy; much of his writing as an adult is marked by a melancholy undercurrent. Conrad received a good education in Cracow, Poland, and after a trip through Italy and Switzerland, he decided not to return to his father’s homeland. Poland held no promise; already Conrad had suffered too much from the country’s Russian landlords.
Instead, the young lad decided on a career very different from what one might expect of a boy brought up in Poland; he chose the sea as his vocation. Conrad reached Marseilles in October of 1874, when he was seventeen, and for the next twenty years, he sailed almost continually. Not surprisingly, most of his novels and short stories have the sea as a background for the action and as a symbolic parallel for their heroes’ inner turbulence. In fact, most of Conrad’s work concerns the sea. There is very little old-fashioned “romance” in his novels.
Part of this romantic void may be due to the fact that while Conrad was in Marseilles and only seventeen, he had his first love affair. It ended in disaster. For some time, Conrad told people that he had been wounded in a duel, but now it seems clear that he tried to commit suicide. Conrad left Marseilles in April of 1878, when he was twenty-one, and it was then that he first saw England. He knew no English, but he signed on an English ship making voyages between Lowestoft and Newcastle. It was on that ship that he began to learn English.
At twenty-four, Conrad was made first mate of a ship that touched down in Singapore, and it was here that he learned about an incident that would later become the kernel of the plot for Lord Jim. Then, four years later, while Conrad was aboard the Vidar, he met Jim Lingard, the sailor who would become the physical model for Lord Jim; in fact, all the men aboard the Vidar called Jim “Lord Jim.”
In 1886, when Conrad was twenty-nine, he became a British subject, and the same year, he wrote his first short story, “The Black Mate.” He submitted it to a literary competition, but it was unsuccessful. This failure, however, did not stop him from continuing to write. During the next three years, in order to fill empty, boring hours while he was at sea, Conrad began his first novel, Almayer’s Folly.
In addition, he continued writing diaries and journals when he transferred onto a Congo River steamer the following year, making notes that would eventually become the basis for one of his masterpieces, Heart of Darkness. Conrad’s health was weakened in Africa, and so he returned to England to recover his strength.
Then, in 1894, when Conrad was thirty-seven, he returned to sea; he also completed Almayer’s Folly. The novel appeared the following year, and Conrad married Jessie George, a woman seventeen years his junior. She was a woman with no literary or intellectual interests, but Conrad continued to write with intense, careful seriousness. Heart of Darkness was serialized in Blackwood’s Magazine, and soon after it appeared as a single volume, Conrad turned his time to Lord Jim.
it would be his twelfth work of fiction. After only a cursory reading of Lord Jim, it is almost impossible to believe that its author did not learn English until he was twenty-one. The novel has a philosophical depth that is profound and a vocabulary that is rich and exact.
In addition, the structure of the novel is masterfully inventive; clearly, Conrad was attempting a leap forward in the genre of the novel as he constructed his novel with multiple narratives, striking symbolism, time shifts, and multi-layer characterizations. Lord Jim, like many great achievements by many artists, was produced at a time when Conrad was in dire financial straits and was living in a state of great emotional unhappiness.
After Lord Jim, Conrad produced one major novel after another Nostromo, Typhoon, The Secret Agent, Under Western Eyes, Victory, and Chance, perhaps his most “popular” novel. He was no longer poor, and, ironically, he was no longer as superlatively productive. From 1911 until his death in 1924, he never wrote anything that equaled his early works. His great work was done. Personally, however, Conrad’s life was full.
He was recognized widely, and he enjoyed dressing the part of a dandy; it was something he had always enjoyed doing, and now he could financially afford to. He played this role with great enthusiasm. He was a short, tiny man and had a sharp Slavic face which he accentuated with a short beard, and he was playing the “aristocrat,” as it were.
No one minded, for within literary circles, Conrad was exactly that – a master. When World War I broke out, Conrad was spending some time in Poland with his wife and sons, and they barely escaped imprisonment. Back in England, Conrad began assembling his entire body of work, which appeared in 1920, and immediately afterward, he was offered a knighthood by the British government.
He declined, however, and continued living without national honor, but with immense literary honor instead. He suffered a heart attack in August, 1924, and was buried at Canterbury. –
Some Notable Works of Conrad
Regarded as one of the best novelists, Joseph Conrad wrote short stories and novels like Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness and The Secret Agent, which combined his experiences in remote places with an interest in moral conflict and the dark side of human nature. With regard to his thematic preoccupations and literary styles Conrad can certainly be considered a Modernist writer.
However, I would argue that Conrad’s work can be more suitably inserted into the genre of Post/Colonial Writing (though, like many authors, it is more likely that he shifts between two, if not more, retrospectively imposed themes). Why might this be? Conrad’s sceptical critiques and literary interrogations of distinctly Eurocentric conceptions of morality and tradition does not come from within the metropolitan, bourgeois cityscape that was the home of so many self-fashioned, high Modernist authors (think of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, or several members of the Bloomsbury Group).
Instead, they emerge from colonial settings, underdeveloped environments, from contact zones in which colonizing and colonized cultures clash and conflict, such as in Lord Jim, Nostromo and Nigger of the Narcissus. The exploration of the ramifications of a global imperialism upon the metropolitan centre writes the marginalized space into the very heart of the Empire. Conrad’s literature is not simply colonial.
The consistent ambivalence of his prose towards the imperial project marks the beginning of a century-long literary interrogation of what it is to exist in the colonies – what it is to realize that an Empire apparently convinced of its power is in fact slowly entering the period of its decline and fall.
That Conrad’s most famous novella, Heart of Darkness (1899), has been taken up and rewritten by several now canonical postcolonial authors, such as Nigerian author Chinua Achebe in his Things Fall Apart (1958) and Kenyan author Ngig) wa Thiong’o in his The River Between (1965), is a testament to the post/colonial nature of Conrad’s fiction.
The plots of Conrad’s stories often revolve around the relationship between an opinionated but ethical main character-Marlow in Heart of Darkness and Lord Jimand another essentially decent man, tempted and corrupted by the promise of wealth and power.
Nostromo, for example, the head of the longshoreman’s union in a South American country in the midst of a revolution, is entrusted because of his reputation as the most brave and honourable of men to protect a shipment of silver, which the mine owner, Charles Gould, fears will fall into the hands of the revolutionaries. The boat in which Nostromo has hidden the silver is rammed by a warship belonging to the revolutionary forces. Nostromo saves and hides the silver on a deserted island, but he claims it sank with his boat. Embittered by his sense that the elite politicians and businessmen of his nation patronize him .
Nostromo begins to recover the silver for himself until he is shot and killed by the island’s lighthouse keeper who mistakes Nostromo for an intruder. Such plots, conflicts, and moral dilemmas make for complex stories with the characters developed with considerable psychological intensity, anticipating the work of Conrad’s great successors: D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce. Conrad’s style also makes him one of the great novelists of the late-19th and early-20th centuries.
His plots are rich and complex, often forsaking a linear narrative in favour of a recursive one, which adds depth and suspense to the story. He did not learn English until he was in his early twenties, and he always spoke with a heavy accent, yet he mastered the vocabulary and the rhythms of the language so thoroughly that the landscapes and the cityscapes that he renders, often in exquisite detail, come to life. His ear for dialogue is equally true.
After 1911, Conrad continued his impressive pace as a novelist and short story writer. Critics generally agree that his best work was behind him, although opinion on the merits of some of his later novels, Chance (1914), Victory (1915), and The Shadow Line (1917), is divided. Conrad certainly remained a popular novelist, whose works sold well, and who, despite heavy expenses and debts that resulted from a sometimes profligate lifestyle, became a wealthy man.
Sales were helped by the stories’ exotic settings and spirit of romantic adventure, which appealed to an ever-growing late-Victorian readership. Conrad was hard at work, lecturing and writing, until his death in August 1924, with his final novel, Suspense, left unfinished.
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