Jozef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski was born at Berdichev in the Polish Ukraine in 1857. He came from an aristocratic family and his father, a landowner and man of letters, was a militant rebel who was exiled in Northern Russia for supporting Polish independence. Conrad and his mother followed him, but his mother died after only three years. His father sent him back to an uncle, and Conrad was never to see him again because he also died shortly afterwards. However, the bond uniting father and son was very strong, and Conrad inherited his father’s romantic temperament and love for adventure.
After his studies in Cracow he left Poland to follow his passionate desire to go to sea, and in 1874, at the age of 17, reached Marseilles to begin a career as ship’s officer. Disappointments and frustrations soon led him to attempt suicide: the bullet just missed his heart and went out of his back without doing any serious damage. The event haunted him with a sense of guilt and remorse that is often recognisable in the characters of his books.
In 1878 Conrad joined a British ship, and it was on that ship that he first learned the English language and his strong link with Britain began. What he admired most in the English nature were qualities like courage, the capacity for self-sacrifice, and endurance. His career as a sailor was long and successful, and in 1886 he obtained British nationality and a Master’s certificate in the British Merchant Service. It was also in the same year that he made his first attempts at writing. In this period he travelled mainly to the East, and his eastern voyages provided him with a splendid background for some of his finest early works, like Almayer’s Folly (that he began in 1889), An Outcast of the Islands and The Nigger of the Narcissus. “The mysterious East faced me, perfumed, silent like Death, dark like a grave”. Then he sailed the Pacific for about two years, again gathering material for future books.
In 1890 Conrad worked for a Belgian society in Congo, on a Congo River steamer, and the journals and notes that he wrote became the basis for Heart 0f Darkness, one of his most famous works. In 1891 he began his most pleasant experience at sea, on board a passenger clipper. He really liked his life as a sailor and also the stern duties which it laid upon him. However, in 1894 he left the sea, finding that writing demanded his whole attention. He made England his home, but never ceased to wander, visiting several European countries. He finished the draft of Almayer’s Folly which was published in 1895, while An Outcast of the Islands came out in 1896, the year when Conrad married Jessie George, who would give him two sons. These years were troubled by uncertain health and financial worries; neither did writing come easily to Conrad: nearly all his works were written with agonising struggle.
1897 saw the publication of The Nigger of the Narcissus; two years later Heart of Darkness was finished and appeared serially in Blackwood’s Magazine, to be later published in 1902; Lord Jim was also serialised in the same magazine, and was published in 1900. After Lord Jim other major works came out one after another: Youth (1902), Typhoon (1903), Nostromo (1904), The Secret Agent (1907), Under Western Eyes (1910). Chance (1913) gave him popular success. This great master of narrative also produced two volumes of memoirs and twenty-eight short stories, many of which are superb pieces of fiction like The Secret Sharer, The Lagoon, Freya of the Seven Isles, The Duel, just to mention the best known.
Now internationally famous, Conrad visited the United States with great acclaim (1923); a year later he was offered a knighthood by the British government, which he declined. In the same year he died of a heart attack at Bishopsbourne, in Kent, and was buried at Canterbury.
Often labelled as a writer of exotic tales, Conrad is in fact one of the great masters of narrative for skilful creation of character, depth of insight, beauty and power of language. English – which he first learnt at the age of twenty-six – attracted him by its wealth of synonyms, its flexibility, its richness of colour and the light and shade of its dual vocabulary, Latin and Saxon; the use he made of the French and Latin words gave his prose unique richness and sonority.
Conrad allied the novel of adventure with a wonderful capacity to transmit impressions of reality, be it good, bad, cruel, mean or magnificent. Atmosphere – an exotic atmosphere – is an important feature in his works. Conrad captures all the glitter of the East, its perfumes, its mystery and fascination, even if the exotic is often the symbol of moral evil that lurks in the dark places of the world.
But what concerned him most was the inner self. He often presented men in extreme situ¬ations, having to face the fury of the elements as in Typhoon, having to make dramatic choices (The Tale, The Secret Sharer), testing themselves and being tested, not always with success. His novels often present a climate of doubt and vagueness, a pessimistic view of life, a tension between reality and romance. Conrad possessed an austere code of honour – firm loyalty to truth and trust – that he derived from his father. Moreover, early contact with suffering awakened in him a strong sense of compassion and a deep understanding of the miserable situation of man under the impact of misfortune. His favourite themes are the solitude of man fighting against what is outside him, a high moral sense, individual freedom, guilt, solidarity, the code of honour, death.
The double also fascinated him, maybe owing to his own hybrid identity in terms of nationality, language and cosmopolitan culture.
Influenced by French and Russian masters, Conrad displayed technical complexities which established him as one of the first Modernists in English literature. Like Henry James, whose acquaintance he made in 1897, he used the figure of the “raconteur”, a character who tells his stories for him and comments upon them, compelling the reader to see them through his eves. Thus his stories are presented not directly but through the fragmentary presentations given by one or more witnesses. The narration is not chronological, from one episode to another, but it begins at the end, or at a climax, and then it is worked back to what led up to this climax. As a result the interest of the reader is not focused on what happens next, but on what lay behind the happening. Simple certitudes are denied, in the same way as absolute knowledge does not exist in real life. Time shifting and change of point of view are important devices of Conrad’s narrative technique.
But technical complexities alone do not justify Conrad’s reputation as a Modernist. His works, and particularly Heart of Darkness, express the lack of certitudes, the isolation, the disintegration of values, the sense of loss of identity, the disruption and cultural shock that characterised the artistic output of the early 20th century: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold… “, just to quote Yeats’s The Second Coming.
Conrad’s influence on 20th century writers is great: George Orwell wrote an appreciation of Conrad and his political vision; William Golding’s Lord of the Flies shows the influence of Heart of Darkness, so does the French Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night; the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges defined Conrad “el maximo novelista”; T. S. Eliot’s poems show many traits in common with Conrad’s vision of life.
Heart of Darkness
Considered by many the first novel which reflects Modernism, Heart of Darkness deals with a voyage up the Congo into the interior of Africa. Many ele¬ments in the story come from Conrad’s own exasperating experience in Africa. By the time he reached the Congo it had become the property of the king of Belgium, and it was the object of greedy exploitation, which greatly shocked the writer.
The novel opens with an unnamed first-person narrator describing a sailboat at anchor on the river Thames outside London. The five men on the boat – the narrator and four companions — must wait until the tide turns; they watch the sunset and the lights which appear along the shore, “a great stir of lights going up and going down.” One of the men begins to talk: “And this also”, said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth “. Nobody answers, but he continues.
Marlow appears to be a special sort of person. Like Coleridge’s Mariner, this “wanderer” has a tale to tell, and his words are accepted in silence: “we knew we were fated, before the ebb began to run, to hear…”.
He recounts his voyage around the African coast, and then upriver, in search of a Mr Kurtz, the daring pioneer agent of an ivory company. The trip develops in a sinister, dull atmosphere, like a nightmare. When Marlow reaches the Company’s Outer Station he is appalled by the waste and decay he sees everywhere. Wandering around, he reaches a grove of trees and finds himself in “the gloomy circle of some Inferno “.
From this moment on, Marlow’s journey will become a sort of quest for Kurtz, the mysterious man that everybody mentions but seems never to appear. In a nightmarish atmosphere, they travel up the Congo river towards Kurtz’s station and, after numerous adventures and dangers, they reach the inner station, where Kurtz lives. The man is very ill. Marlow understands that this man, this titanic creature of sombre pride is a tyrant, ruthless and cruel, yet he is aware of a charismatic attraction, a mysterious bond between himself and Kurtz (some critics even speak of Marlow’s identification with Kurtz). Strangely enough, Marlow is the only person Kurtz trusts, even if he is a perfect stranger to him. The steamer returns down the river with Kurtz on board, but during the voyage the man dies. Marlow returns to Europe; here several people contact him to have certain papers that Kurtz had entrusted to him, but he refuses to give the papers to anyone but Kurtz’s fiancee.
Perfectly circular in its structure, the novel ends just where it had started from, the river Thames, hence from Europe to Europe through a hellish voyage deep in the heart of darkness.
Heart of Darkness appealed to film directors like Francis Ford Coppola, whose famous Apocalypse Now presents a voyage upriver, a ruthless colonel called Kurtz, and a general atmosphere of alienation and loss of humanity. For the colonial exploitation of the Congo, Apocalypse Now has substituted the American involvement in the Vietnam War.
The great message conveyed by Conrad still holds: even if the great empires now have collapsed, others have taken their place; the greed for black oil has replaced the greed for gold or ivory; we begin to become aware of the disasters of progress and proclaim good intentions and high ideals, but the conquest of the earth still goes on.
Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death, BBC4, 2004