• Birth—December 3, 1857
• Where—Berdichev, Ukraine
• Death—August 3, 1924
• Where—England, UK
Joseph Conrad (Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski) was a Polish novelist who wrote in English, after settling in England. Although he is regarded as one of the great novelists in English, he did not speak the language fluently until he was in his twenties (and then always with a marked Polish accent). A master prose stylist, he brought a distinctly non-English tragic sensibility into English literature.
Writing in the heyday of the British Empire, Conrad drew upon his experiences in the French and later the British Merchant Navy to create novels and short stories that reflect aspects of a worldwide empire while also plumbing the depths of the human soul. His works depict trials of the human spirit by the demands of duty and honour. While some of his works have a strain of Romanticism, he is viewed as a precursor of Modernist literature.
His narrative style and anti-heroic characters have influenced many authors and inspired 10 films: Victory, Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, An Outcast of the Islands, The Rover, The Shadow Line, The Duel, Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, and Almayer's Folly.
Joseph Conrad was born in Berdichev, Poland—now part of the Ukraine—into a highly patriotic, noble Polish family that bore the Nałęcz coat-of-arms. His father, Apollo Korzeniowski, was a writer of politically themed plays and a translator of Alfred de Vigny and Victor Hugo from French and of Charles Dickens and Shakespeare from English. He encouraged his son Konrad to read widely in Polish and French.
In 1861 the elder Korzeniowski was arrested by Imperial Russian authorities in Warsaw, Poland, for helping organise what would become the January Uprising of 1863–64, and was exiled to Vologda, a city some 300 miles (480 km) north of Moscow.
His wife, Ewelina Korzeniowska (nee Bobrowska), and four-year-old son followed him into exile. Because of Ewelina's poor health, Apollo was allowed in 1865 to move to Chernigov, Chernigov Governorate, where within a few weeks Ewelina died of tuberculosis. Apollo died four years later in Krakow, leaving Conrad orphaned at the age of eleven.
In Krakow, young Conrad was placed in the care of his maternal uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski—a more cautious person than Conrad's parents. Nevertheless, Bobrowski allowed Conrad to travel at the age of sixteen to Marseille and to begin a career as a seaman. This came after Conrad had been rejected for Austro-Hungarian citizenship, leaving him liable to conscription into the Russian Army.
Life at sea
In 1878 Conrad was wounded in the chest. Some biographers say he had fought a duel in Marseille, others that he had attempted suicide. He then took service on his first British ship, bound for Constantinople before its return to Lowestoft, his first landing in Britain.
Barely a month after reaching England, he signed on for the first of six voyages between July and September 1878 from Lowestoft to Newcastle on the coaster Skimmer of the Sea. Crucially for his future career, he "began to learn English from East Coast chaps, each built to last for ever and coloured like a Christmas card."
On 21 September 1881 Conrad sailed from London on the small vessel Palestine (13 hands) bound for Bangkok, finally reaching the Sundra Strait (between the islands of Java and Sumatra) in March 1883 after a series of mishaps and false starts. The Palestine is renamed Judaea in Conrad's famous story "Youth," which covers the events of the voyage and was Conrad's first fateful contact with the exotic East, the setting for many of his later works.
In 1883 he joined the Narcissus in Bombay, a voyage that inspired his 1897 novel The Nigger of the Narcissus. In 1886 he gained both his Master Mariner's certificate and British citizenship, officially changing his name to "Joseph Conrad."
A childhood ambition of Conrad's to visit central Africa was realised in 1889, when he contrived to reach the Congo Free State. He became captain of a Congo steamboat, and the atrocities he witnessed and his experiences there not only informed his most acclaimed and ambiguous work, Heart of Darkness, but served to crystallise his vision of human nature—and his beliefs about himself. These were in some measure affected by the emotional trauma and lifelong illness that he had contracted there. During his stay, he became acquainted with Roger Casement, whose 1904 Casement Report detailed the abuses suffered by the indigenous population.
The journey upriver made by the narrator of Heart of Darkness, Charles Marlow, closely follows Conrad's own, and he appears to have experienced a disturbing insight into the nature of evil. Conrad's experience of loneliness at sea, of corruption, and of the pitilessness of nature converged to form a coherent, if bleak, vision of the world. Isolation, self-deception, and the remorseless working out of the consequences of character flaws are threads running through much of his work.
In 1891 Conrad stepped down in rank to sail as first mate on the clipper ship Torrens, quite possibly the British finest ship ever launched: no ship approached her speed for the outward passage to Australia. On her record-breaking run to Adelaide, she covered 16,000 miles in 64 days. Conrad made two voyages to Australia aboard her as Chief Officer under Captain Cope from November 1891 to June 1893.
In 1894 at the age of 36, having served a total of sixteen years in the merchant navy, he received a bequest from his late uncle Tadeusz Bobrowski. Conrad reluctantly gave up the sea, partly because of poor health and partly because he had become so fascinated with writing that he decided to devote himself to a literary career. He had already begun writing his first novel aboard the Torrens.
That first novel, Almayer's Folly, set on the east coast of Borneo, was published in 1895. Its appearance marked his first use of the pen name "Joseph Conrad" ("Konrad" was the third of his Polish given names). Almayer's Folly, together with its successor, An Outcast of the Islands (1896), laid the foundation for Conrad's reputation as a romantic teller of exotic tales—a misunderstanding of his purpose that was to frustrate him for the rest of his career.
In March 1896 Conrad married an Englishwoman, Jessie George, and together they moved into a small semi-detached villa in Victoria Road, Stanford-le-Hope, Essex, and later to a medieval lath-and-plaster farmhouse, "Ivy Walls," in Billet Lane. He subsequently lived in London and near Canterbury, Kent. The couple had two sons, John and Borys. Except for several vacations in France and Italy, a 1914 vacation in his native Poland, and a visit to the United States in 1923, Conrad lived out the rest of his life in England.
Although financial success evaded Conrad, a Civil List pension of £100 per annum stabilized his affairs, and collectors began to purchase his manuscripts. Though his talent was recognised by the English intellectual elite, popular success eluded him until the 1913 publication of Chance—paradoxically so, as that novel is not now regarded as one of his better ones.
Thereafter, for the remaining years of his life, Conrad was the subject of more discussion and praise than any other English writer of the time. He enjoyed increasing wealth and status. Conrad had a true genius for companionship, and his circle of friends included talented authors such as Stephen Crane and Henry James. In the early 1900s he composed a short series of novels in collaboration with Ford Madox Ford.
In April 1924 Conrad, who possessed a hereditary Polish status of nobility and coat-of-arms, declined a non-hereditary British knighthood offered by Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald.
Shortly after, on 3 August 1924, Conrad died of a heart attack. He was interred at Canterbury Cemetery, Canterbury, England, under his original Polish surname, Korzeniowski. Inscribed on his gravestone are lines from Book I, Canto IX, stanza 40, of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene: "Sleepe after toyle, port after stormie seas, / Ease after warre, death after life does greatly please." (Author bio adapted from Wikipedia.)
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