Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)

"A work that aspires, however humbly to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line"

Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad didn't set out to become one of the great English novelists. He didn't set out to be a novelist at all, but a sailor, and besides, he wasn't English. English was his third language and he didn't begin learning it until after he was 20 years old!

He was born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857, in an area of Poland that was part of Russia and is now part of the Soviet Union. The Poles were fighting for independence from Russia, and both parents were fiercely engaged in the struggle. Conrad's father was arrested in 1861 for revolutionary activity, and the family was exiled to the remote Russian city of Vologda. On the journey there, four-year-old Conrad caught pneumonia. He remained a sickly child, and he suffered from ill health for the rest of his life.

Conditions in Vologda were grueling. They were too much for Conrad's mother, and although the family was eventually allowed to move to a milder climate, she died of tuberculosis when Conrad was only seven years old. His father's spirit was broken, and so was his health. The Czarist government finally let him return with Conrad to the Polish city of Cracow, but he died there after a year, when Conrad was eleven.

For the next several years Conrad was raised by his maternal grandmother. A stern but devoted uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski, saw to his education. Bobrowski had a lot to put up with. Conrad wasn't much of a student. (Surprisingly, he didn't show any particular talent for languages; even his Polish could have stood improvement.) What was worse, at the age of 14 the boy got the unheard-of notion--unheard-of in land-locked Poland, that is--that he wanted to become a sailor. Bobrowski packed him off for Europe with a tutor who was supposed to talk sense into him, but the tutor ended up pronouncing Conrad "hopeless" and giving up the struggle. In 1874, at the age of 16, Conrad traveled to Marseilles to learn the seaman's trade.

During his four years in the French merchant marine, Conrad sailed to the West Indies and possibly along the coast of Venezuela, and he had an adventure smuggling guns into Spain. He participated fully in the cultural life of Marseilles, and a little too fully in the social life. He got himself into a spectacular mess. Deeply in debt, he invited a creditor to tea one evening and shot himself while the man was on his way over. His uncle received an urgent telegram: "Conrad wounded, send money--come." He did, and he was relieved to find young Conrad in good shape (except for his finances)--handsome, robust, well mannered and, above all, an excellent sailor. The author would later claim, rather romantically, that he got a scar on his left breast fighting a duel.

Since the young man couldn't serve on another French ship without becoming a French citizen, which would have entailed the possibility of being drafted, he signed on at the age of 20 to an English steamer. The year was 1878. For the next 16 years he sailed under the flag of Britain, becoming a British subject in 1886. Life in the merchant marine took him to ports in Asia and the South Pacific, where he gathered material for the novels he still--amazingly--didn't know he was going to write. His depressive and irritable disposition didn't make sea life any easier for him. He quarreled with at least three of his captains, and he continued to suffer from periods of poor health and paralyzing depression.

In 1888 Conrad received his first command, as captain of the Otago, a small ship sailing out of Bangkok. It was grueling journey: three weeks to Singapore owing to lack of wind, and the whole crew riddled with fever; from there to Melbourne, Australia, where he decided to resign the command and return to England. The maddening calms of the voyage, and his uncomfortable position as a stranger on his first command, provided the inspiration 21 years later for the outlines of "The Secret Sharer".

Back in England, Captain Korzeniowski (as he was still known) wasn't able 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: At the age of 9, he had put his finger on the blank space in the middle of a map of Africa and boasted, "when I grow up I shall go there"; at 32, he was fulfilling a lifelong dream. But the dream quickly turned into a nightmare. "Everything is repellent to me here," he wrote from the Congo, "Men and things, but especially men." The "scramble for loot" disgusted him; the maltreatment of the black Africans sickened him; and as if that weren't enough, he suffered from fever and dysentery that left his health broken for the rest of his life. Though his experiences in Africa 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.

Though Captain Korzeniowski didn't know it, his sea career was drawing to a close. In 1889 he had started a novel based on his experiences in the East. He worked on it in Africa and on his return, and in 1895 it was published as Almayer's Folly by Joseph Conrad. (Years of hearing the British garble "Korzeniowski" convinced him to put something they could pronounce on the title page.) It was, like most of his books over the next two decades, a critical but not a popular success. Writing was an agony for Conrad: he was painfully slow at it, though the necessity of getting paid made him work faster than he liked. As a result of hurry, he never felt satisfied with the finished product. (Of the masterful Heart of Darkness he wrote at the time, "it is terribly bad in places and falls short of my intention as a whole.") Marriage and the birth of two sons made his financial strain even more desperate. Periods of intense productivity (such as the mere two months in which he completed Heart of Darkness) alternated with periods of despair in which nothing got written, as well as with his recurrent bouts of nervous exhaustion and gout. A description Conrad gave of his father could have described himself: "A man of great sensibilities; of exalted and dreamy temperament; with a terrible gift of irony and of gloomy disposition".

Although Conrad's income from writing remained small, his reputation steadily grew. He could count among his friends and admirers such famous names as Ford Madox Ford, Stephen Crane, H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, and his idol, Henry James. Financial security eventually came: in 1910 he was awarded a small pension; an American collector began purchasing his manuscripts; and his novel Chance, serialized in 1912 and published in book form two years later on both sides of the Atlantic, became his first bestseller.

Conrad died in 1924 at the age of 66. He had attained international renown, but even then he was popularly regarded mainly as a teller of colorful adventures and sea stories. But his experiments in style and technique exerted a major influence on the development of the modern novel. Since his death, the profundity--and darkness--of his vision have become widely recognized.