On Joseph Conrad by Professor Robert Hampson, Chairman of the Joseph Conrad Society
Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski (Joseph Conrad) was born in 1857 in Berdachiv, which is now in Ukraine. At the time of his birth, Poland did not exist: it had been divided up, during the eighteenth century, between Austria, Prussia and Russia. Conrad’s parents, Apollo and Ewa Korzeniowski, were members of the szlachta, the Polish landowning class, and politically active against Tsarist Russia to promote Polish national independence. As a result of their political activities, they were arrested and sent into political exile – first in Vologda, 300 miles north-east of Moscow, and then they were allowed to move south to the slightly milder Chernikhiv, near Kyiv. This period of exile began in 1862, when Conrad was four. His childhood was spent among other political exiles, while his father continued his work as a poet and literary translator.
As a result of the conditions in which they were obliged to live, his mother died in 1865 – and his father in 1869. His father had been allowed to spend his last months in Kraków, where his funeral became the occasion of a display of Polish patriotism. At this point, Conrad went to live with his grandmother. Five years later, when he was sixteen, he left Kraków for Marseilles and, shortly after, entered into service in the French merchant marine. Four years after that, in 1878, he was obliged to give up the French merchant marine – because he hadn’t completed national service in his country of origin. He signed on as an apprentice on the Mavis, a British steamer bound for the Sea of Azov via Constantinople. In June, when he disembarked from the Mavis at Lowestoft, he set foot on English soil for the first time – and promptly headed off to London.
During the period between 1878 and 1894, while Conrad was working his way up the rungs of the professional ladder in the Merchant Navy, he also became a naturalised British subject (in August 1886). This finally released him from Russian subject-hood and allowed him to visit Poland safely. In the autumn of 1889, he had also begun writing what was to be his first novel, Almayer’s Folly. This took him five years, while he continued to work (and look for work) as a ship’s officer. It was published in 1895. The early reviews welcomed Almayer’s Folly for its subject matter – described by one as the ‘annexation’ of Borneo to British fiction. However, if Almayer’s Folly annexed Borneo for British fiction, it doesn’t really fit the mould of imperial fiction established by writers like Kipling and Haggard, and followed by boys’ fiction writers like Ballantyne and Henty. This is not a story of the powerful European exerting power over some alien territory or taking control of a subject people. Almayer has been side-lined in the political and trading life of Sambir, and does not even know what is going on in his own household. Nevertheless, Conrad’s fiction was well-received by reviewers in the 1890s, although he had to wait until the publication of Chance in 1913 for popular success.
Over the course of his writing life, Conrad produced a steady stream of novels, novellas and short stories. The culmination of his early Malay fiction is the novel Lord Jim, which follows the career of a young Englishman who wants to be like a hero in a book. After his failure as a ship’s officer which occupies the first half of the novel, the second half narrates Jim’s subsequent success in Borneo through to its ambiguous ending. Lord Jim was contemporaneous with ‘Heart of Darkness’, in which Conrad drew on his experiences ten years earlier as a ship’s captain on a river steamer in the Congo to expose what the proclaimed ‘civilising mission’ amounted to in practice. These two works were followed by a range of novels on which Conrad’s critical reputation was later established: Nostromo (1904), The Secret Agent (1907), Under Western Eyes (1911) and Victory (1915). Nostromo presents a picture of politics in contemporary South America; The Secret Agent addresses terrorism and the policing of political refugees in London; Under Western Eyes presents Conrad’s engagement with Tsarist Russia and its revolutionary opponents; and Victory returns to the Malay Archipelago for the story of an isolated European and his attempt to trust in life.
Conrad’s reputation within the academy was established by two monographs: Muriel Bradbrook’s Joseph Conrad: Poland’s English Genius (1941) and F.R. Leavis’s The Great Tradition (1948). Bradbrook presented Conrad as a transnational writer who brought a migrant’s critical cosmopolitanism to bear on contemporary politics; Leavis presented Conrad, the ‘cosmopolitan Pole, student of the French masters,’ as one of the four ‘great English novelists’, who changed ‘the possibilities of the art of the novel’ and are significant ‘in terms of that human awareness they promote’. Leavis’s influential volume established the Conrad canon in British schools and universities for the next thirty years.
Conrad has always been much admired by novelists and poets. Graham Greene’s early work was heavily influenced by Conrad’s. F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner were early admirers. In France, he influenced the work of André Gide and André Malraux. More recent admirers include V.S. Naipaul, J.M. Coetzee and Salman Rushdie, and he has a long-established influence on the South American novel from Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa to Juan Gabriel Vásquez. His work has also been widely adapted for stage, film, radio and television. There were very early film versions of Victory and Lord Jim; Alfred Hitchcock famously adapted The Secret Agent for his film Sabotage (1936); David Lean had planned to film Nostromo; and Ridley Scott paid homage to Conrad in Alien by naming the commercial space tug which has to deal with the aggressive extra-terrestrial the Nostromo. Conrad has been a significant presence in British culture for over a hundred years and has also served to spread that culture internationally.
Professor Robert Hampson is the Chairman of the Joseph Conrad Society (UK) and author of Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography (Reaktion, 2021).