This is not a chronological autobiography – Conrad doesn’t go through all the events of his life. Instead, he focuses on what one might call turning points: when he decided to join the navy, when he wrote his first novel, when he revisited his hometown after 20 years absence. The whole is a carefully crafted meditation on what it means for him to be a writer.
” I think that all ambitions are lawful except those which climb upward on the miseries or credulities of mankind. All intellectual and artistic ambitions are permissible, up to and even beyond the limit of prudent sanity. They can hurt no one. If they are mad, then so much the worse for the artist. Indeed, as virtue is said to be, such ambitions are their own reward. Is it such a very mad presumption to believe in the sovereign power of one’s art, to try for other means, for other ways of affirming this belief in the deeper appeal of one’s work? To try to go deeper is not to be insensible. A historian of hearts is not a historian of emotions, yet he penetrates further, restrained as he may be, since his aim is to reach the very fount of laughter and tears. The sight of human affairs deserves admiration and pity. They are worthy of respect, too.” (This quote is taken from the Gutenberg Edition of the book, which is publically available online)
It’s really hard to describe this book in any way objectively for me. The account of a life of a writer of Polish heritage and the story of how he ultimately decided to write in English is something that has deep personal resonance for me. Again and again, I would lift up my head to process what I’ve read, occasionally shouting out random facts at my poor companions such as “Conrad loved Bleak House!” Or “Conrad went to Mount Riggi in Switzerland- I went to Mount Riggi too!”. So yes, if you are fond of Joseph Conrad (and especially if you are fond of pondering the problem of his Polish heritage), do please read this book. The rest of the world will just have to put up with the likes of us being very, very excited. I definitely want to read it again.