The Tragic Sense- Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) remains the greatest English language novelist since Charles Dickens, and many of the best writers of the 20th century, including H.L. Mencken, Ernest Hemingway, and T.S. Eliot, paid homage to his excellence or came under his influence. And as one learns from the Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff’s new book, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World, Conrad was a hero to William Faulkner, André Gide, and Thomas Mann. What’s more, “He has turned up in the pages of Latin American writers from Jorge Luis Borges to Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Juan Gabriel Vásquez. He’s been cited as an influence by Robert Stone, Joan Didon, Philip Roth, and Ann Patchett; by W.G. Sebald and John le Carré.”

A Pole by birth, for 20 years a merchant seaman by profession, a late-blooming novelist for whom English was his third language (after French and his native Polish), a spinner of yarns about seafaring ordeals and romances with dusky beauties, Conrad has been thought of by some as an exotic, a mere curiosity. Virginia Woolf denigrated his claims to high seriousness and—equally important in her snobbish milieu—to Englishness: his principal appeal was to “boys and young people,” he couldn’t properly speak the language he wrote in, and he had the “air of mystery” of the perpetual exile, a person of no fixed address.

But what Conrad really possessed was an imagination of global reach, a far departure from Woolf’s Bloomsbury insularity. His mind roved from the Congo in Heart of Darkness (1899), where a representative of pan-European moral genius encounters primitive savagery and discovers the darkness in his own heart, to Java and Borneo in Lord Jim (1900), where an English country parson’s son flees disgrace and finds a second chance at fantastic heroism; from a South American country of the author’s own invention in Nostromo (1904), where a native-born Costaguanero entrepreneur of English heritage, together with a San Francisco financier, a Parisian boulevardier, and an Italian stevedore fall under the fateful influence of a silver mine seemingly inexhaustible in its wealth and malevolence, to a seedy shop in the imperial city of London in The Secret Agent (1907), where idiot anarchists and socialists meet to plot their assault on civilization; from comfortable bourgeois Geneva in Under Western Eyes (1911), where an English expatriate struggles to understand the alien sensibilities of Russian expatriates connected to a political assassination in explosive St. Petersburg, and back again to Java in Victory (1915), where an itinerant Swedish businessman with a taste for fashionable nihilism believes he has found earthly salvation in a romantic misalliance with a traveling musician but runs up against incarnate evil.

Wherever the plot takes Conrad, the imagined world remains always distinctively his own: a place of darkness penetrated intermittently by shafts of heroic light, which tend to be extinguished in the end, for irony and tragedy set the terms of existence here, and any brighter spirits can last only briefly in this stifling atmosphere. The sculptor Jacob Epstein, whose 1924 bronze bust is the iconic rendering of Conrad, saw in his subject a tragic figure with a moral resemblance to his fictional heroes: “Conrad gave me a feeling of defeat; but defeat met with courage.” That is the best one can customarily hope for in Conrad’s world, the closest one comes to victory.

Conrad’s bleakness was his birthright; his courage was earned over a lifetime. (For the facts of Conrad’s life I have relied on Jasanoff’s book—strong on biography, lackluster as literary criticism—and on Jeffrey Meyers’s 1991 Joseph Conrad: A Biography.) Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski on December 3, 1857, in Berdychiv, Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire (plus ça change…), he was welcomed into this world by a poem his father wrote, “To my son born in the 85th year of Muscovite oppression”:

Baby, son, tell yourself,
You are without land, without love,
Without country, without people,
While Poland—your Mother is in her grave.

Thus metaphorically orphaned and dispossessed at birth, Konrad, as everyone would call him, was blessed and cursed with a name resonant of nationalistic exaltation and sorrow. The Polish Romantic arch-poet Adam Mickiewicz, in the 1828 poem Konrad Wallenrod, sings of a Lithuanian knight’s vengeance on Teutonic oppressors, and in Mickiewicz’s play Dziady another Konrad beholds Poland “as a son would gaze / Upon his father broken upon the wheel.” So young Korzeniowski was thrust into the great world of history and political romance without asking for the privilege. He would dwell there, not exactly willingly, all his days.

His father, Apollo, a proud member of the Polish nobility, the szlachta—numerous as Saudi princes but not nearly as prosperous—felt duty-bound to lend his talents to the Polish independence movement. His talents were chiefly literary, and in 1861 he became editor of a Warsaw journal of politics and culture. But the national liberation underground allured him, and he joined the most radical revolutionary faction. Late one night came the inevitable knock on the door, and Apollo was frog-marched to the jail for political prisoners. Six months later, without trial, a military tribunal sentenced the insurrectionist and his family to exile. The fabled hospitality of Russia’s northeastern provinces awaited them. Konrad fell frightfully ill on the road, but the authorities kept them on the move despite the danger to the boy, with the encouraging reflection that “children are born to die.”

Desperate times ensued: the Russians beat down an ambitious Polish uprising in 1863, and both sides of Konrad’s family were ravaged by history’s violent imposition—a host of uncles and aunts killed or imprisoned or exiled. Unable to man the barricades, Apollo wrote in a torrential rage against tsarist autocracy that his son would inherit: “We [Poles] have perished by their sabres, bayonets, and guns. We are familiar with their truncheons, knouts, and nooses.” Despair gnawed at Konrad’s mother, Ewa, and there was little enough left of her by the time she died in 1865. Apollo sent Konrad to live with his uncle Tadeusz Bobrowski, the prudent member of the family, who had kept clear of the political tumult and was getting on nicely in Ukraine. A year later, the moribund Apollo, who had been granted a visa to leave the Russian Empire, took Konrad to Austrian Galicia, where the overlords tolerated Polish folkways more generously than in Russia. Apollo took an editorial job in Krakow, where he intended to raise Konrad, not as an adherent to any political faction, “but only as a Pole.” The idyll did not last long; Apollo died in 1869, when Konrad was 11. It seemed that all the Poles in Krakow, except for the wealthiest and most genteel, gathered to pay tribute to Apollo, and Konrad led the long funeral procession of Polish patriots honoring the faithful native son and martyr. Faithfulness to one’s calling and to one’s idea of oneself would be a prominent theme of Conrad’s writing; he saw it as the only effective stay against darkness, chaos, nothingness. As he explained himself in “A Familiar Preface” to the autobiography A Personal Record (1912), “Those who read me know my conviction that the world, the temporal world, rests on a few very simple ideas; so simple that they must be as old as the hills. It rests notably, among others, on the idea of Fidelity.”

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