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Joseph Conrad (Joseph Józef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski Conrad) Biography

(1857–1924), (Joseph Józef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski Conrad), szlachta, The Arrow of Gold, The Rover

novelist and short-story writer, born at Berdyczów, in the Russian-annexed Polish Ukraine, into a family of land-owning Polish szlachta gentry. His father, Apollo Korzeniowski, a poet and translator of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Hugo, was a national political figure, active in the nationalist insurrectionary movements which had flowered since the 1795 partition and colonizing of Poland by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Conrad's early upbringing was thus within a fervently patriotic household where an ethos of cosmopolitan cultural enlightenment, aristocratic duty and honour, and political revolution were in heady and paradoxical mix. In 1862, as punishment for Apollo's insurrectionary activism, the family was sent into exile in Vologda, in northern Russia. The later great themes of Conrad's writing—loyalty and betrayal, isolation and exile, duty and freedom—thus find their sources early in his life experience. His mother, Ewa, died in exile when Conrad was seven, followed in 1869 by Apollo soon after their return to Poland. The orphaned Conrad was brought up by his uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski, who remained an abiding influence for another twenty-five years. The cautious Bobrowski did not manage to dissuade Conrad from his romantic ambition to go to sea, however, and in 1874 Conrad left for Marseilles and the start of some twenty years as a professional sailor.

Four years in Marseilles introduced him to a rich variety of cosmopolitan social and professional contacts, cultural and amorous excitements, gambling, gun-running, and a failed suicide attempt (1878). These Mediterranean experiences, together with ocean voyages in 1875 and 1876 on sailing-ships, first as passenger, then as crew, to the West Indies and possibly South America (Venezuela), provided Conrad with early material he was to exploit if not mythologize in his late novels The Arrow of Gold (1919) and The Rover (1923), as well as in his autobiographical essays The Mirror of the Sea (1906) and A Personal Record (1912). In 1878 he joined the British Merchant Navy, learning English in order to take successive mariner examinations—first mate in 1884, master in 1886, the same year he became a naturalized British subject. Conrad's British ‘sea years’, first plying the east coast of England, with later repeated ocean runs to India, the Far East, and Australia (when he met lifelong friend John Galsworthy), provided him with the adventures, locations, characters, and above all the profound human experiences of endurance and fear, isolation and solidarity, idealism and disillusion, civility and barbarism, which his later literary works treat. Heart of Darkness (1902), based on his traumatic Congo journey in 1890 (and recorded in his ‘Congo Diary’, posthumously pub. 1978), is the most obvious and eloquent example of this treatment. Although Conrad started writing Almayer's Folly, his first novel, in 1889, it was not until 1894 that his career at sea in effect came to an end.

Not for another twenty years, however, with the publication of Chance, did Conrad earn a stable income from his writing, his financial stress relieved only by constant fiscal and moral support especially from his literary agent J. B. Pinker and from Edward Garnett (who accepted Almayer's Folly, 1895, for publication with T. Fisher Unwin). In 1896 he married Jessie George, by whom he was to have two sons, Boris and John. Living mainly in Kent, he maintained strong and abiding friendships with some of the most influential literary figures of the age: Galsworthy, Garnett, aristocrat and socialist R. Cunninghame Graham, and Kent neighbours Ford Madox Hueffer (Ford), H. G. Wells, Henry James, and Stephen Crane, as well as Arthur Symons and (later) Bertrand Russell and André Gide. Both Almayer's Folly and An Outcast of the Islands (1896) received largely positive critical response, which complimented the unknown Conrad through flattering comparison with Kipling and Stevenson. Both works share the exotic setting of the Malay Archipelago, and despite some heavy literary obviousness, they embody thematic and narrative concerns which anticipate his major works: elliptical narratives; subtle interweaving of the political, anthropological, and the personal; gender and racial stereotypes offered but also challenged. Some of these elements are also found in his first (uneven) volume of short stories, Tales of Unrest (1898), containing ‘Karain’, ‘The Idiots’, ‘An Outpost of Progress’ (a prototype for Heart of Darkness), ‘The Return’, and ‘The Lagoon’.

Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ (1897) marks the beginning of Conrad's ‘major phase’. Its symbolic resonance beneath a realistic narrative, its story of nature's violence and human anxiety and of a ship as community threatened by mutiny, all contribute to its quintessential Conradian power. Its famous ‘Preface’, with Conrad's emphasis on the craft of Art and his almost programmatic ‘impressionist’ claim that ‘my task is, by the power of the written word, to make you see’, has itself become a central document of Modernist aesthetics. Lord Jim (1900), Heart of Darkness, and ‘Youth’ (which appeared together with ‘The End of the Tether’, 1902) develop a Conradian character-narrator, Marlow, who performs a crucial function in Conrad's work and who reappears much later in Chance (1913). A sea captain, intelligent, humane, and sceptical, Marlow represents a Victorian liberal outlook and source of moral perspective, who nevertheless should not be identified or confused with Conrad's own position. With Conrad's increasingly sophisticated narrative complexity and modernist ambivalences, Marlow as hero/problem typifies Conrad's inventiveness. While still drawing on his maritime experiences for some of his stories, his major novels are marked by experiments with narrative technique and disrupted chronological sequence, complex modes of ironic narrative distance, an increasing mastery over literary English (his third language), and an engagement with elemental thematic preoccupations—the temptations of illusion, the contradictions of freedom, and the vulnerability of all-too-human virtues like trust, love, and idealism. Briefly collaborating with Ford on The Inheritors (1901), a mix of science fiction and topical political allegory, and Romance (1903), a historical adventure narrative, Conrad continued independently with the writing of Typhoon and Other Stories (‘Typhoon’, ‘Amy Foster’, ‘Falk’, ‘Tomorrow’; 1903), which was followed by arguably his most challenging, most complex historical political narrative, Nostromo (1904), set in an unstable South American state in the ambiguous throes of revolution. The Secret Agent (1907) takes as its starting point the anarchist activities of 1890s' London, including the 1894 bomb attack on the Greenwich Observatory. Some of its preoccupations are mirrored in Under Western Eyes (1911). Conrad's completion of Under Western Eyes left him in a state of nervous breakdown, according to Jessie ‘holding converse with his characters’. Extreme stress accompanied most of his writing for, as Cunninghame Graham said, Conrad ‘almost needed a Caesarian operation of the soul before he was delivered of his masterpieces’. Whilst the years of his greatest novels also saw the publication of collections of short stories, A Set of Six (1908), 'Twixt Land and Sea (which included ‘The Secret Sharer’, 1912), and Within the Tides (1915), it was Chance (1913) which brought Conrad popular recognition and a bestseller for the first time in his career, thanks particularly to his American readership. Victory (1915), growing popularity, and plans for a collected edition end his major phase.

The Shadow-Line (1917) alone is critically regarded as a major work of his final years. Despite public adulation in Britain and America, the offer (declined) of a knighthood, and the lucrative sale of film rights, his last years saw him perhaps in relative creative decline. Two attempts at playwriting, Laughing Anne (1920) and a dramatized The Secret Agent (1922), and late novels The Arrow of Gold (1919), The Rescue (1920, started in 1900), The Rover (1923), and the unfinished, posthumously published Suspense (1925) and Tales of Hearsay (1925) failed to command serious critical endorsement. Notes on Life and Letters (1921) and Last Essays (1926) contain late autobiographical and occasional pieces.

At his death Conrad was established as one of the leading early generation of Modernists, along with Henry James and Ford. Partly overshadowed in the 1930s by the younger generation of Lawrence, Joyce, Woolf, and the ‘Auden generation’, Conrad's critical reputation was reasserted with F. R. Leavis's essay in Scrutiny (1941), reprinted in the widely influential The Great Tradition (1948), which commended his ‘moral Realism’ and pronounced Conrad ‘among the very greatest novelists in the language’. More recent criticism has moved away from mythic, psychological, and moral readings to stress narratological/linguistic, post-colonial, and gender approaches to his work. See J. Baines, Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography (1960), F. R. Karl, Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives (1979), and Z. Najder, Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle (1983). Four (of eight) volumes of his Collected Letters, edited by F. Karl and L. Davies, have been published.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Cockfield Suffolk to Frances Cornford (née Darwin) Biography