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Conrad, Joseph

story ford world period

(Polish/British, 1857–1924)

Conrad had three lives: the first as a young Pole during a period in which Poland did not officially exist; the second as a sailor for twenty years; the third as a novelist in England. He started writing in his late thirties, in English, his third language after Polish and French. Once you adjust to Conrad's rhythms and his view of the world, he is mesmerizing. Like Ford Madox Ford, Conrad attempted a kind of literary impressionism. How things appear is often as important as how they actually are. And how can we tell the difference between the two? Conrad worries at these questions. He also worries how one can see anything at all; how one can tell a story; who is saying what to whom, and who is listening (or asleep).

His most famous work is Heart of Darkness (1899), a murky and disturbing story of one man's journey up the Congo river during a particularly vicious period of colonization in Africa. This is a powerful representation of the pitiless race for ivory in the Belgian Congo. Conrad himself travelled there a few years earlier, and felt he never really recovered from the horror of the journey. The book points towards the brutal treatment of the African people by the Belgian colonists, but it is especially interested in the ways in which greed and violence corrupt the oppressors. It has inspired many other works, including a strongly critical essay by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, and one of the best films about Vietnam, Apocalypse Now (1979). But this is a book to come to once you have acquired a bit of a feeling for reading Conrad.

Start with The Shadow-Line (1917), a moving story of a young man's first experiences as captain of a ship. This is partly based on Conrad's own first command, and was dedicated to his son and all the other young men then fighting in the First World War. In The Secret Sharer (1910) a young captain rescues a young man out of the water and hides him in his cabin. Here and in other works there is a subdued suggestion of tender love between men. The Secret Agent (1907) is a powerful domestic drama and spy novel, set in the brutal world of anarchist revolutionaries who plot to blow up Greenwich Observatory. Move on to some of the other great works: Lord Jim (1900), a story in which an idealistic young sailor commits an act of cowardice and tries to redeem himself; Nostromo (1904), a novel about political corruption set in the imaginary and exotic South American country of Costaguana during a period of turmoil and revolution; and Under Western Eyes (1911), a novel about a student caught up in Russian revolutionary activities against his will.

Ford Madox Ford, Henry James, Virginia Woolf. See ADVENTURE, FILM ADAPTATIONS, THE SEA, SPY  TT

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