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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
No one could have expected Joseph Conrad to become one of the great English novelists. His driving ambition as a youth was to be not a writer but a sailor; on top of that, he wasn't English. Incredibly, English was his third language, and he didn't learn it until he was past 20.
The novelist, whose real name was Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, was born on December 3, 1857, at Berdichev, a city in Polish Russia that now belongs to the Soviet Union. Both his parents were committed revolutionaries in the Poles' struggle for independence from Russia. His father's subversive activities led to his arrest in 1861 and the family's exile to the remote Russian city of Vologda. Traveling there, four-year-old Jozef was stricken with pneumonia. Illness dogged his childhood, and as an adult he suffered from recurrent bouts of ill health.
Life was hard in Vologda- too hard for Conrad's mother. The family eventually received permission to move to a less severe climate, but she died of tuberculosis when her son was only seven years old. Conrad's father was broken in health and in spirit. Once an original poet, he turned to translating to make a living; Conrad's first contact with the English language occurred when he observed his father translating Shakespeare. Although the father was finally allowed to return to the Polish city of Cracow, he died after a year there, in 1869, when Conrad was eleven.
Conrad's maternal grandmother took over the job of bringing him up, and a stern but devoted uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski, oversaw his education. Conrad wasn't an easy charge. He was a less than spectacular student. (His talent for languages didn't become apparent till much later. At this stage, even his Polish needed work.) To make matters worse, the boy decided when he was 14 that he wanted to become a sailor- an unusual ambition in landlocked Poland. His uncle sent him on the Grand Tour of Europe with a tutor who was supposed to bring him to his senses. It didn't work. The tutor ended up pronouncing Conrad a "hopeless Don Quixote," and in 1874 the 16-year-old youth journeyed to the French port of Marseilles to learn the ropes as a sailor. Many readers have found echoes of Conrad's youthful idealism and romantic outlook in Lord Jim.
Conrad's four years in the French merchant marine included voyages to the West Indies and, possibly, the Venezuelan coast, as well as a gun-running adventure in Spain. He took advantage of Marseilles' cultural life, but the city's social life proved a little too intense for the young man to handle. Ultimately he found himself desperately in debt, and one evening he invited a creditor to tea and shot himself before the man arrived. In early 1878 an urgent telegram reached Bobrowski saying his nephew was wounded and needed money. Bobrowski went to Marseilles and was relieved to find his nephew's health, if not his pocketbook, in reasonably good shape. Young Conrad was handsome, robust, and well- mannered, and he had become an accomplished, though impoverished, sailor. (The author would later romanticize the bullet mark on his left breast into a dueling scar.)
Since Conrad could no longer remain in the French merchant marine without becoming a French citizen- entailing the peril of conscription into the French military- later in 1878 he signed on an English freighter. He served with the British merchant marine for the next 16 years, becoming a British subject in 1886. Conrad sailed to Asia and the South Pacific, where he collected the raw material for novels that- amazingly- he still had no ambition of writing. However, his irritable and gloomy disposition didn't work to his advantage. He had quarrels with at least three of his captains, and periods of poor health and terrible depression continued to immobilize him.
During the 1880s, Conrad made voyages to such Asian ports as Singapore, Bangkok, and Samarang (on Java). All three have their place in Lord Jim: Singapore as the unnamed city where the Patna inquiry is held; Bangkok as one of the ports where Jim works as a water-clerk (and gets into a fight); and Samarang as another of these ports, and the home of Marlow's friend Stein. On one of his voyages, Conrad was injured during a storm, much as Jim is in Chapter Two, and was laid up in the same Singapore hospital where Jim recuperates. After his recovery, he signed up as mate on the steamship Vidar, which traveled around the islands of the Malay Archipelago. It was in these exotic islands that Conrad found the raw material for his first two novels, Almayer's Folly and An Outcast of the Islands. He transformed one Borneo locale into the fictional Patusan, where the last half of Lord Jim is set.
By 1888 he had risen to the rank of captain, and he received his first command on a small ship sailing out of Bangkok. On his return to England, he was unable to find another command, and so through the influence of relatives in Brussels he secured an appointment as captain of a steamship on the Congo River. But once he reached Africa, Conrad fell prey to fever and dysentery that left his health broken for the rest of his life. Though his experiences there were to form the basis of his most famous tale, Heart of Darkness, he returned to England traumatized. His outlook, already gloomy, became even blacker.
Captain Korzeniowski (as Conrad was still known) didn't realize it, but he was approaching the end of his sea career. In 1889 he had begun a novel based on his voyages to Asia. He continued work on it in Africa and afterward, and in 1895 the book appeared as Almayer's Folly by Joseph Conrad. (After putting up for years with British garblings of "Korzeniowski" he decided to put something they could pronounce on the title page.) Like most of the books he wrote for the next 20 years, the novel was a success with the critics but not the public. It was dedicated to the memory of his uncle Bobrowski, who had died in 1894.
Writing was difficult, even painful, for Conrad. He was agonizingly slow, though financial pressures drove him to work faster than he liked. Consequently, he was almost always dissatisfied with the finished product. (He called Lord Jim, the novel that many regard as his masterpiece, "too wretched for words" and lamented, "How bad oh! HOW BAD!") His already wobbly finances became even shakier after his marriage, in 1896, and the birth of two sons, in 1898 and 1906. There were periods of remarkable productiveness (he completed Heart of Darkness in less than two months), but these alternated with periods of despair in which he could write nothing; in addition, he had recurrent bouts of nervous exhaustion and gout to contend with. Conrad once described his father in words that could have well described himself: "A man of great sensibilities; of exalted and dreamy temperament, with a terrible gift of irony and of gloomy disposition."
Although his income from his books remained low, Conrad's reputation grew steadily higher. He was a "writer's writer" whose friends and admirers included such famous authors as Ford Madox Ford, Stephen Crane, John Galsworthy, W. H. Hudson, H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, and his idol, Henry James. His well-received books included Typhoon (1902), Nostromo (1904), and The Secret Agent (1907). After 1910 he finally became financially secure. In that year, he was awarded a small pension. He was able to begin selling his manuscripts to an American collector. In 1911, Conrad published Under Western Eyes. And he finally attained best-sellerdom with his novel Chance, serialized in 1912 in the New York Herald and published in book form two years later in Great Britain and America. Victory followed in 1915. In 1923 Conrad enjoyed an enthusiastic reception during a visit to the United States. He was dogged by serious illness by this time, however, and died on August 3, 1924, in England.
Conrad's work was crucial to the development of the modern novel. In his use of the limited point of view- that is, presenting a tale through a single consciousness (in the case of Lord Jim, through Marlow)- he was the literary heir of Henry James, the novelist he admired above all others. But Conrad took the device farther than James had, limiting the point of view so strictly to one character (and removing the impersonal "narrator") that he paved the way for such 20th-century writers as James Joyce and William Faulkner, who delved directly into their characters' minds through the device known as interior monologue. Conrad's use of fractured chronology- that is, narrating events out of their time-sequence, a later one before an earlier one- became a major technique in 20th-century fiction. (See this Guide's section on Form and Structure.) His early novels, especially Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, are more experimental in this direction than his later ones. In addition to Conrad's influence on the style and technique of fiction writers, the profundity- and bleakness- of his vision have shaped the outlook of many writers.
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