Joseph Conrad was born on December 3, 1857. Conrad wrote in English, a language he didn’t learn until he was in his twenties, and still became one of the most acclaimed novelists of his era.
Conrad was born Józef Korzeniowski in what is currently Ukraine; at the time it was part of the Russian Empire; about sixty years earlier, it had been part of the Kingdom of Poland. The local people were mostly Ukrainian Jews, but most of the property was owned by members of the Polish nobility, including the Korzeniowski family.
Conrad’s father was politically active in the movement to restore Polish independence. As a result, the family moved frequently, and Conrad’s childhood education was primarily homeschooling.
That changed when he was 11, and his father died of tuberculosis. His mother had died of the same illness four years earlier, and Conrad was sent to live with an uncle, who sent him to school. He was not a very talented or diligent student, and his uncle realized fairly quickly that Conrad would need to learn a trade.
He was sent to Marseilles at the age of 16, in the hopes that he could find a career as a sailor. He had not finished his schooling, but was fluent in Polish and French, had a good knowledge of history, and was well-read in English and Polish literature.
Conrad spent nearly four years on French merchant marine ships until the French government discovered that he did not have the required permit from the Russian Empire to sail on French ships. He was reluctant to return home to Ukraine, where he would have been subject to compulsory military service, and probably faced harassment because of her father’s pro-Polish activism.
So, in 1878, Conrad joined the British merchant marine. He served for fifteen years, rising to the rank of captain. During that service, he applied for and received British citizenship, after which it took three years of visits to the Russian Embassy to be officially released from his status as a Russian subject.
Conrad left the merchant marine in 1894. It was getting harder to find work; his health was beginning to suffer, and he wanted to take up writing. He published his first novel, Almayer’s Folly (e-book | e-audio), in 1895, using the pen name “Joseph Conrad” for the first time. The novel is the story of a Dutch trader living in Borneo and his relationships with his Malayan wife and daughter.
Almayer’s Folly established themes that would recur throughout Conrad’s work. Many of his novels deal with colonialism, though in deference to his adopted homeland, they are usually non-English colonies. His stories are often set, at least in part, on ships and at the sea, and Conrad frequently used his own memories and experiences of maritime life. Conrad said that he preferred those settings because as a newcomer to England, and one who had spent so many years at sea, he didn’t have enough knowledge to write stories of British domestic life.
Conrad wrote in English, which was his third language, and one in which he had not become truly fluent until joining the British merchant marine in his early twenties. He had considered writing in French but thought that English was more forgiving. He wrote to a friend, “...to write French you have to know it. English is so plastic—if you haven't got a word you need you can make it, but to write French you have to be an artist.”
Some readers say that they can occasionally see the influence of Conrad’s having been raised speaking Polish and French. His vocabulary leans towards words borrowed from French, and his grammar and sentence structure sometimes show the influence of Polish. But given that his books were so often set in distant colonies, the hint of the non-native in his prose might actually have helped to create a slightly exotic effect.
Most of the work for which Conrad is best known today was written in the first half of his career. He wrote four of his best known novels—Heart of Darkness (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), Lord Jim (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), Nostromo (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), and The Secret Agent (e-book | e-audio | print)—as well as the novelette The Secret Sharer (e-book | print) in the decade between 1899 and 1909. These novels were highly regarded by literary critics and by other authors; F. Scott Fitzgerald said he’d “rather have written Nostromo than any other novel.”
But financial success was elusive during Conrad’s early career. He survived on the generosity of friends, and after 1910, on a small pension from the British government. His first great public success came in 1913 with Chance (e-book), which (unusually for Conrad) centered on a female character, the daughter of a notorious swindler, struggling to survive in the world after her father is sent to prison. It is not one of the works on which Conrad’s modern reputation rests, but it made him a star, and he remained a best-selling novelist for the final decade of his life.
Conrad died on August 3, 1924, probably of a heart attack. His funeral was a modest affair, attended by his wife and children and a few close friends.
Several of Conrad’s novels and stories have adapted for film and television. Perhaps the best known is Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam-era updating of Heart of Darkness. Almayer’s Folly was filmed in 2011 by the French director Chantal Akerman. Carol Reed’s 1951 version of Outcast of the Islands is another story of a European living in the islands of the Pacific. Richard Brooks directed Lord Jim, in which a young man suffers the consequences of abandoning the passenger ship on which he served.
Away from the sea, we find Ridley Scott’s 1977 film The Duellists, about the long rivalry between two French noblemen, based on the short story The Duel. And Conrad’s tale of espionage and terrorism, The Secret Agent, has been filmed several times, including a 2016 BBC miniseries and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 movie Sabotage.
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