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|Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) - Jósef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski|
Polish-born English novelist and short-story writer, a dreamer, adventurer, and gentleman. In his famous preface to The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' (1897) Conrad crystallized his often quoted goal as a writer: "My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel-it is, above all, to make you see. That-and no more, and it is everything." Among Conrad's best-known works are Lord Jim (1900) and Heart of Darkness (1902). Conrad discouraged interpretation of his sea novels through evidence from his life, but several of his stories drew the material, events, and personalities from his own experiences in different parts of the world. While making his first voyages to the West Indies, Conrad met the Corsican Dominic Cervoni, who was later model for his characters filled with a thirst for adventure.
Joseph Conrad was born in Berdichev, in the Ukraine, in a region that had once been a part of Poland, but was then under Russian rule. His father Apollo Korzeniowski was an aristocrat without lands, a poet and translator of Shakespeare and Dickens and French literature. At the time of Conrad's birth, the family estates had been sequestrated in 1839 following an anti-Russian rebellion. As a boy the young Joseph read with his father Polish and French versions of English novels, including translations of Charles Dickens and Captain Frederick Marryat. English was Conrad's third language; he learned to read and write in French before he knew English. Apollo Korzeniowski became embroiled in political activities. After being imprisoned for six months, he was sent to exile with his family to Volgoda, northern Russia, in 1861. Two years later the family was allowed to move to Kiev. Conrad suffered from a number of lung inflammations and epileptic seisuzes. Throughout the remainder of his life, he had health problems.
By 1869 Conrad's both parents had died of tuberculosis, and he was sent to Switzerland to his maternal uncle Tadeusz Bobrowski, who was to be a continuing influence on his life. On his death in 1894 Tadeusz left about £1,600 to his nephew-a sizable sum of money, well over £100,000 now. Conrad attended schools in Kraków and persuaded his uncle to let him go to the sea. In the mid-1870s he joined the French merchant marine as an apprentice, and made between 1875 and 1878 three voyages to the West Indies. During his youth Conrad also was involved in arms smuggling for the Carlist cause in Spain.
After being wounded in a duel or of a self-inflicted gunshot in the chest, Conrad continued his career at the seas in the British merchant navy for 16 years. He had been deeply in debt, and went into depression, but his uncle helped him out. This was a turning point in his life. Conrad rose through the ranks from common seaman to first mate, and by 1886 he obtained his master mariner's certificate, commanding his own ship, Otago. In the same year he was given British citizenship and he changed officially his name to Joseph Conrad, partly to avoid having to return to Poland and serve in the Russian military. Witnessing the forces of the sea, Conrad developed a deterministic view of the world, which he expressed in a letter in 1897: "What makes mankind tragic is not that they are the victims of nature, it is that they are conscious of it. To be part of the animal kingdom under the conditions of this earth is very well-but soon as you know of your slavery, the pain, the anger, the strife . the tragedy begins."
Conrad sailed to many parts of the world, including Australia, various ports of the Indian Ocean, Borneo, the Malay states, South America, and the South Pacific Island. In 1890 he sailed in Africa up the Congo River. The journey provided much material for his novel Heart of Darkness. However, the fabled East Indies particularly attracted Conrad and it became the setting of many of his stories. By 1894 Conrad's sea life was over. During the long journeys he had started to write and Conrad decided to devote himself entirely to literature. At the age of 36 Conrad settled down in England.
Although Conrad is mostly known as a novelist, he tried his hand also as a playwright. His first one-act drama was not success-the audience rejected it. But after finishing the text he learned the existence of the Censor of the Plays, which inspired his satirical essay about an obscure civil servant. Conrad was an Anglophile, who regarded Britain as a land which respected individual liberties. As a writer he accepted the verdict of a free and independent public, but associated this official figure of censorship to the atmosphere of the Far East and the "mustiness of the Middle Ages," which shouldn't be part of the twentieth-century England.
"... one wonders that there can be found a man courageous enough to occupy the post. It is a matter of meditation. Having given it a few minutes I come to the conclusion in the serenity of my heart and the peace of my conscience that he must be either an extreme megalomaniac or an utterly unconscious being." (from 'The Censor of Plays', 1907)
Conrad married in 1896 Jessie George, an Englishwoman, by whom he had two sons. He moved to Ashford, Kent. Except trips to France, Italy, Poland, and to the United States in 1923, Conrad lived in his new home country. His first novel, Almayer's Folly (1895) was about a derelict Dutchman, who trades on the jungle rivers of Borneo. It was followed by An Outcast of the Islands (1896), less assured in its use of English. The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' was a complex story of a storm off the Cape of Good Hope and of an enigmatic black sailor. Lord Jim, narrated by Charlie Marlow, told about the fall of an young sailor and his redemption. "You have fallen terribly, my boy, fallen, perhaps, through your own self-confident dreams. Get up and try again. No skulking, no evasion! Live this thing down, humbly and hopefully, in the light of day."
Lord Jim was originally intended as a short story, but was then enlarged into a novel. It was partly based on true events: in 1880 a British captain and his crew abandoned the steamship Jeddah, carrying Muslim pilgrims, when the ship started to leak. Jeddah was brought by another steamship safely to port. Particular blame was attached to A.P. Williams, the first mate, who had organized the desertion of the vessel. The protagonist of Lord Jim is a British naval officer, who is haunted by guilt of cowardice, when he left his ship, Patna, in a storm without taking care of the passengers. During the voyage towards Mecca, the ship had hit a submerged object, and when the small crew lowers a lifeboat, Jim impulsively jumps in it. Contrary to the crew's beliefs, the ship did not sunk and Jim is left to stand in front of the Court of Inquiry. After disgrace Jim moves through a variety of jobs ashore and finds work as an agent at the remote trading post of Patusan. The misjudged Jim gains the confidence of chief Doramin and becomes a respected figure, proving that he is "inscrutable at heart." When Gentleman Brown and his fellow European adventurers appear, Jim promises Doramin that Brown and his men will leave the island without bloodshed. He is wrong, Doramin's son is killed, and Jim is finally forced to face his past-he allows himself to be shot by the grieving Doramin. "...Jim stood stiffened and with bared head in the light of torches, looking him straight in the face, he clung heavily with his left arm round the neck of a bowed youth, and lifting deliberately his right, shot his son's friend through the chest." (Other sailor/adventurers: Ulysses, Sinbad, Hugo Pratt's comic hero Corto Maltese.)
Heart of the Darkness, written in 1899, was partly based on Conrad's four-month command of a Congo River steamboat. Published in Youth, a Narrative, and Two Other Stories (1902), it was first serialized in Blackwood's Magazine in 1899. Conrad had learned about atrocities made by Congo "explorers," and created in the character of Kurtz the embodiment of European imperialism. Also the account of Commander R.H. Bacon, who travelled in Benin, described horrors: "... everywhere death, barbarity and blood, and smells that it hardly seems right for human beings to smell and yet live!" Moreover, Conrad was aware about Henry Morton Stanley's journey up the Congo river in the mid-1870s. Stanley's revelation of the commercial possibilities of the region had resulted in the setting up of a trading venture. However, in the novel the journey become analogous with a quest for inner truths-like in Henry Rider Haggard's novel She (1887). Conrad's vision has also drawn fierce criticism. In 1977 the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe described Conrad as "a bloody racist".
The narrator, again Marlow, who perhaps is not so reliable, depicts to his friends a trip into Africa, where he becomes curious about a man called Kurtz. Marlow works for a company that is only interested in ivory and he witnesses the suffering of the native workers. He travels up the Congo River to reach Kurtz, an agent whom Marlow expects by his reputation to be a "universal genius," an "emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and devil knows what else." As they near the inner station of the company, they are attacked, and Marlow's helmsman is killed. At the station they meet a Russian who idolizes Kurtz, a man who has made himself the natives' god and who has decorated the posts of his hut with human skulls. Marlow tries to get the seriously ill Kurtz away down the river, but Kurtz dies, his last words being, "The horror! The Horror!" Back in Europe Marlow lies to Kurtz's fiancée, that "the last word he pronounced was-your name."
Heart of the Darkness has inspired several film version, starting from Orson Welles but his project for RKO never materialized. Kurtz fascinated Welles; a genius destroyed by inner conflicts, greatness gone wrong. During his career as a director and actor, Welles would play this kind of Faustian figure repeatedly, most notably as Citizen Kane, who also dies with a mysterious phrase on his lips. In a television performance from 1958 Boris Karloff was seen as Kurtz and Roddy McDowall as Marlow. Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) was based on the novella, Michael Herr's Dispatches, and John Milius' 1969 script. Nicolas Roeg's adaptation from 1993 followed Conrad's work closely. "In Apocalypse Now, the "horror" is symbolically repressed (killed), while in Heart of Darkness it is brought into the light, as horrible as it might be to do so. The film, then, accepts as a premise our capacity for evil, and goes ahead to show how the colonialist psychosis of Kurtz, and by extension Western culture, translates into a social nightmare." (from Novels into Film by John C. Tibbets and James M. Welsh, 1999)
In Youth (1902) the title story recorded Conrad's experiences on the sailing-ship Palestine. Nostromo (1904) was an imaginative novel which again explored man's vulnerability and corruptibility. It includes one of Conrad's most suggestive symbols, the silver mine. In the story the Italian Nostromo ("our man") is destroyed for his heroism like Lord Jim. With his death the secret of the silver is lost forever. The English director David Lean planned to film the book, and began to work with the screenplay with Christopher Hampton in 1986. However, the novel had been recommended to him years earlier by Robert Bolt, who replaced Hampton and eventually Lean himself took over the scriptwriting. When Steven Spielberg, who first agreed to produce the movie for Warner Bros., abandoned the project, Lean formed a partnership with Serge Silberman, the producer of Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and his other late films. "I thought Conrad was a very good match for David's temperament," Hampton later said, "because he was very positive about individuals, but very pessimistic about the human race in general." Lean died in 1991 and the project was not realized.
The Secret Agent (1907) took a bleak view of prophets of destruction and utopians, but Conrad also once confessed, that "there had been moments during the writing of the book when I was an extreme revolutionist". Conrad dedicated the novel to H.G. Wells.
The period between The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' and Under Western Eyes (1911) is considered artistically Conrad's most productive. H.G. Wells encouraged Conrad and gave him good reviews and his work was also recognized by John Galsworthy. With Ford Madox Ford he wrote three books: The Inheritors (1901), Romance (1903), and The Nature of A Crime (1924). Although Conrad was prolific, his financial situation wasn't secure until 1913 with the publication of Chance.
Last years of his life were shadowed by rheumatism. He refused an offer of knighthood in 1924 as he had earlier declined honorary degrees from five universities. Conrad died of a heart attack on August 3, 1924 and was buried in Canterbury. Conrad's influence upon 20th-century literature was wide. Ernest Hemingway expressed special admiration for the author, and his impact is seen in among others in the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Arthur Koestler, T.S. Eliot, Marcel Proust, André Malraux, Louis-Ferdiand Céline, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Graham Greene. Several of Conrad's stories have been filmed. The most famous adaptations include Alfred Hitchcock's The Sabotage (1936), based on The Secret Agent, Richard Brooks's Lord Jim (1964), and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979), based on Heart of Darkness. Conrad sold the American screen rights to his fiction in 1919. Next year he composed a screenplay entitled The Strange Man, based on the short story 'Gaspar Ruiz.' He did not like to work for the film business, and did not know about screenwritings. The studio rejected his script.