Joseph Conrad Life and Works

Who is Joseph Conrad? Information about the autjor Joseph Conrad biography, life story, works, writings and books.

Joseph ConradJoseph Conrad; (1857-1924), English author, who was one of the great novelists and stylists of modern English literature. Although English was the Polish-born Conrad’s adopted language, he used it with a power and mastery that have rarely been surpassed. A sea captain as well as a writer, he is perhaps best known for his works that are closely associated with the sea, including the novels The “Nigger of the “Narcissus” (1897) and Lord Jim (1900) and the short story The Secret Sharer (1912).

Conrad, however, was more than a spinner of adventurous sea yarns. He was a student of the human spirit, constantly exploring its complexities, its conflicts, and its essential loneliness and alienation. Whether his setting was the sea or an exotic and remote country, he concerned himself primarily with man’s character. He probed beneath the outer layers of men’s actions and laid bare the painful struggle of the individual to reconcile himself with his own nature, with his fellow-men, and with his surroundings.

Life. Conrad was born on Dec. 3, 1857, near Berdichev, in the Ukraine, in a region that had once been a part of Poland but was then under Russian rule. His original name was Jozef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski. Both his parents came from families that belonged to the educated, “land-tilling” Polish gentry and to a long line of zealous Polish patriots. Conrad’s father, Apollo Korzeniowski, was a talented poet and translator of French and English literature. Violently opposed to Russian rule, he belonged to the revolutionary Polish National Central Committee. In 1862 he was exiled to Vologda in northern Russia, and his wife and young son went with him. The hardships of exile were too much for Conrad’s parents, who died within a few years of each other.

In 1869 the 12-year-old orphan was placed under the guardianship of his maternal uncle Thaddeus Bobrowski in Krakow, Poland. Lonely and unhappy, Conrad read a great deal. He was especially attracted to the rousing adventure stories of Frederick Marryat and the novels of Charles Dickens. Victor Hugo’s Les travailleurs de la mer may have inspired in the boy his early yearning for the sea. Conrad attended schools in Krakow and also studied under a tutor, Adam Pulman, with whom he made his first trip abroad.

At the age of 16, Conrad finally persuaded his uncle to let him go to sea. He went to Marseille, where he became an apprentice in the French merchant marine and made three voyages to the West Indies between 1875 and 1878. While in Marseille he also mingled in circles that supported Don Carlos de Bourbon as claimant to the Spanish throne. He became part owner of a small vessel, the Tremolino, which may have engaged in smuggling arms for Don Carlos.

Impetuous and rash, Conrad had romantic involvements and monetary difficulties. In 1878 his various adventures ended in disaster when he was wounded (in a duel of honor, according to Conrad’s version in The Arrow of Gold [1919]; in a foolhardy attempt at suicide, according to statements left by his uncle). Conrad then found a berth on an English freighter, the Mavis, which was plying the Mediterranean. He landed in England for the first time on June 18 of that year, knowing little of the language but determined to make a career in the English merchant service.

Conrad rose quickly through the ranks from common seaman to first mate. By 1886 he was master of his own ship, and in the same year he also became a British subject and changed his name to Joseph Conrad. He sailed to many parts of the world, including Australia, various ports on the Indian Ocean, Borneo, the Malay states, South America, and the South Pacific islands. During this period he began to write.

In 1890, Conrad went to Africa in the Belgian colonial service and sailed up the Congo River, where fever and dysentery severely undermined his health. In 1894, he reluctantly gave up the sea, partly because of poor health and partly because he had become so fascinated with writing that he decided on a literary career.

In 1896, Conrad married Jessie George, an Englishwoman, by whom he had two sons. Except for several vacation trips to France and Italy, a return journey to Poland in 1914, and a visit to the United States in 1923, he lived thereafter in England.

A highly emotional man, subject to fits of depression, self-doubt, and pessimism, Conrad worked with a feverish intensity, producing a steady flow of books. Although the English intellectual elite recognized his talent, popular success eluded him until 1913, with the publication of Chance. This book was well received by both critics and general readers in England and the United States and brought him financial security. For the remaining years of his life, Conrad was the subject of more praise and discussion than any other contemporary writer in the English language. He died at Oswalds, Bishopsbourne, Kent, on Aug. 3, 1924.

Writings. Conrad published his first novel, Almayer’s Folly (1895), when he was 37 years old. This tale of a derelict Dutchman, trading on the jungle rivers of Borneo, was written between 1889 and 1894 during Conrad’s spare time on his voyages. The originality and power of the book was praised by such eminent literary figures as Henry James, H. G. Wells, George Gissing, Arthur Symons, and Ford Madox Ford. (Ford collaborated with Conrad on two novels, The Inheritors, published in 1901, and Romance, which appeared in 1903.)

Other books followed, including An Outcast of the Islands (1896); The Nigger of the “Narcissus” (1897); Tales of Unrest (1898); Lord Jim (1900); Youth (1902), which included the stories Heart of Darkness and The End of the Tether; Typhoon (with other stories, 1902); and Nostromo (1904). All of these were tales of the sea and of distant countries in Asia, Africa, and South America. But they were more than just adventure stories; they were also compelling narratives that searched with increasing depth and insight into the souls and consciences of their characters, into the conflict of alien cultures, and into the spirit of modern man tested by moral solitude and estrangement, secret guilt, and fear.

In The Mirror of the Sea (1906), Conrad wrote a recollection of his experiences at sea. Another memoir of his personal life, Some Reminiscences (later called A Personal Record) followed in 1912. In The Secret Agent (1907), A Set of Six (a collection of tales, 1908), Under Western Eyes (1911), and Chance (1913) he explored social and political themes.

In Victory (1915) and The Shadow-Line (1917), Conrad depicted in vivid detail the torments endured by alienated souls incapable of love, friendship, and trust. The Arrow of Gold (1919) was a novel based on his youthful adventures in Marseille. In The Rescue (1920) he returned to the exotic Malay background of his first books, and in his last completed novel, The Rover (1923), he wrote a dramatic tale set during the French Revolution. The nonfictional Last Essays was published posthumously in 1926.

Artistry. Conrad’s power as an artist stems both from the experience and vision he brought to his work and from his brilliant use of a language that was not his native tongue. His genius lies partly in his penetrating sense of the human ordeal and in his infusion of physical and romantic experience with psychological insight. He rigorously disciplined his admittedly romantic temperament with an unsparing moral judgment.

Conrad’s artistry also lies in an exceptional style and craftsmanship. This style, growing out of an early impressionistic opulence, became steadily firmer, sparer, more specific, and more accurate. He achieved a unique mastery of his craft, combining plot and action, psychic indirection, ingenious manipulation of time sequences, and an intricate use of narrators to produce a powerful and highly dramatic effect. His finest works, containing characterizations that are among the most memorable in modern fiction, are creations of both psychological and poetic strength.




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