Zdzislaw Najder “The Life of Joseph Conrad” – book review

This is a lovely two volume hardback biography of Joseph Conrad written by a Polish literary critic.

I read it as a bedtime read for almost a year. The prose is very clear – and the literary criticism is in a style typical of the middle of the 20th century. Either a story by Conrad is a masterpiece or it is ‘a lesser work’ There is little room for middle-ground.

Conrad’s ‘good’ period includes Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, and Nostromo. Under Western Eyes is okay. Najder makes loud “tut-tut” noises if it comes to Victory . And he barely admits The Shadow Line, which is one of my personal favourites. I’m not even going to analyse his comments on the later novels, because they are basically described as failures.

Conrad’s bad period is described as his literary decline – which Najder assumes that the author was aware of. However, the evidence he provides for this is inconclusive. Najder cites Conrad’s whingeing about his work as evidence. But Conrad moaned about his work all the time. Literally always. Even at his very finest moments.

In fact, Conrad is a perennial moaner and that’s perhaps why I feel so much affection for him. I also have a tremendous amount of sympathy for Conrad’s wife and family who had to deal with someone whose personality might be described as “Eeyore” .

The most interesting period to read about in Conrad’s biography was ironically before he started writing.

I was fascinated to learn about his father, Apollo Korzeniowski, a famous patriot and poet, and his devoted wife, Ewa.

As soon as Joseph Conrad was born he was thrust into a world of expectations and duties. Take this poem Apollo wrote for his newborn son (‘To my son, who was born in the 85th year of Poland’s enslavement to the Muscovites, a song on his christening-day”)

“Sleep my child, my son(..)

I give you my blessing, little one

Be a Pole! Though our enemies

Might tempt you with happiness

Reject all of it — love your misery

(..)

My child son, remember,

You’re without land, without love,

Without country, without humanity

As long as your mother-Poland remains in her grave”

Talk about positive expectations for your baby. No wonder that 14 year old Conrad ran away and became a sailor.

One is immediately pressed to reread Gombrowicz’s Transatlantyk – the great denial of Polish patriotic duty. He was another Polish author who ended up living his life abroad – although unlike Conrad, Gombrowicz always wrote in his native Polish and always obsessively, compulsively about Poland.

Conrad escaped that trap, you might think. Sort of. Ish.

Najder reads Conrad’s obsession with duty and fidelity as a Polish trait – and possibly as related to a feeling of guilt for abandoning his country. The famous Polish critical reception is that of Lord Jim – Jim’s abandonment of his ship is read as Conrad’s guilt for leaving his country.

I need to reread Lord Jim soon, as I haven’t read it since I was eighteen.

And Poles do almost hold a grudge against Conrad for leaving and writing in English. Most famously there is the accusation by the Polish novelist, Eliza Orzeszkowa

“No Polish boy will shed a selfless tear or undertake a noble action over the novels of Joseph Conrad.”

Ouch.

She was wrong, of course. During World War II, Lord Jim was a source of inspiration for the Polish resistance – the book was banned by the Soviet government and was only allowed in print again after the death of Joseph Stalin.

Najder, as a Polish person, can forcefully portray this source of agony in Jospeh Conrad’s life. The English never saw him as one of their own. His accent was strange. Critics tried to label his spirit as Slavonic – which he took as an insult – as they all too often compared him to Dostoevsky, whom he hated.

One only need to think of the story of Amy Foster to feel the extent of Conrad’s isolation. Apparently during his honeymoon in Brittany Conrad fell ill and spoke in Polish. His wife could not understand him.

Near the end of his life, Conrad asked his Polish cousin whether she could forgive him that he hadn’t taught his sons Polish. Clearly, he had considerable trouble forgiving himself.

He was a true man of nowhere – or everywhere. His friends included the American Stephen Crane, his tempestuous friendship with Ford Madox Ford, an acquaintance with Henry James, a correspondence with Andre Gide. He had a correspondence with Bertrand Russell, who named his son after him The Polish novelist, Stefan Zeromski wore a preface to his selected works.  The Polish ethnographer, Bronislaw Malinowski, visited him.

In fact, it was difficult for me to understand the full scope of Conrad’s experience – living at the turn of the 19th and the 20th century. When he was a sailor, he worked both with sailboats(?!) and with steamships. He owned several cars later in his life, and was also on board a plane (although apparently, he didn’t tell his wife till after he had gone, as she would have forbade it). The scale of the change that happened during his lifetime is hard to imagine.

But even Conrad’s ‘escape’ at fourteen is not quite as he himself portrayed it. After considerable discussion, his rather conservative (and Tsarist) uncle helped fund Conrad’s ambitions for a career at sea. Najder suggests that the beginning of his Conrad’s career as a sailor in Marseille, he was busy smuggling weapons. Najder thinks a gambling debt that might have caused Conrad to attempt suicide (an attempt which his uncle tried to conceal by pretending Conrad’s wounds were incurred in a duel). There is a strong suggestion that Tadeusz Bobrowski hoped that Conrad by sailing with the English tradeships would somehow become a merchant himself.

Not a chance.

There was a brief moment when apparently Conrad even briefly considered staying in Australia. He worked for a while on the steamships near the Malay archipelago. Then finally, he was engaged on steamboat in the Congo. His Heart of Darkness is based on his time there – as we can see from the diary he kept during the journey. He was appalled with the colonial abuses he saw there. He was asked to help a 12 year old native boy with a gunshot wound to his head. He gave the chief glycerin. Conrad also contracted malaria, from which he didn’t completely recover for a long time. His experiences in the Congo, as one might imagine, did not help with his overall depression.

He courted a young lady in Switzerland for a while, and then quite abruptly got married to his wife, Jessie, a typist for whom Najder has little kindness. He repeatedly mentions her lack of physical beauty (even though her photo from 1896 looks rather lovely to me), her being fat (she was famous for her good cooking) and her lack of appreciation for Conrad’s genius (it’s probably hard to acknowledge a man’s genius when he seems to be jealous of the attention you are spending on his baby. I suspect.).

Visitors to the Conrad household tended to like her – and acknowledge the fact that her calmness seem to keep Conrad anchored – something the man desperately needed. Conrad himself is often described as a sort of foreign Mr Rochester: with dark eyes and a muscular stature, but impeccable and aristocratic manners.

I also enjoyed the description of Conrad’s visit to Poland to Kraków ( my Kraków!) and also to Zakopane, where apparently he enjoyed catching up with the latest Polish literary trends and reading Zeromski.

Another slightly random fact is that Conrad was involved in a committee to honour the Polish hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko. Winston Churchill was another well-known member.

All in all, I enjoyed reading Najder’s biography of Conrad. It is detailed, meticulously researched and open to references from Poland, France and beyond. If anything, it is a biography of ‘its time’ in that it can be domineering in imposing its views on both what good literature should be and what a good wife should look like.

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