My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm — all you demand; and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.
Born in 1857 to an impoverished Polish noble family in what is now Ukraine, Józef Korzeniowski was hardly the likeliest candidate to become an English literary great. Although his father worked on translations of Dickens and Shakespeare while he was a small boy, Korzeniowski had next to no contact with the English language until well into his twenties. Yet it was precisely this distance, and the tortuous route by which he reached his adopted home, that gave the man who became Joseph Conrad the wealth of experience and the fine emotional palette that colours and enriches his work.
Following the death of his mother and father in 1869, the eleven-year-old Korzeniowski passed into the care of his uncle, Tadeusz Brobowski. Recognising his nephew’s impatience with his studies, and the danger that he might be conscripted, Brobowski sent him to Marseille to begin a career at sea, aged just sixteen. For five years, Korzeniowski travelled the world on cargo ships, dabbling in gun-running and gambling, and running up exorbitant debts, until – after a failed attempt to shoot himself in 1878 – he took service on his first British ship.
There followed sixteen years’ service in the merchant navy, during which time Korzeniowski learned English from his fellow mariners, gained British citizenship, and changed his name to Joseph Conrad. Among his many voyages was a journey up the Congo River aboard a steamboat. The realisation of a childhood ambition to explore the blank space on the map of central Africa, this trip exposed Conrad to a series of horrors and traumas from which he never fully recovered. They formed the basis for his most famous book, Heart of Darkness, which would later inspire the Vietnam movie Apocalypse Now.
Conrad retired from the sea in 1894, partly due to ill health and partly in order to pursue a literary career. In 1896 he married Jessie George, with whom he went on to have two sons. He published a series of novels, achieving popular success in 1913 with his now relatively neglected work, Chance.
Although the quality of his writing declined, with some of his later novels falling far short of such masterpieces as The Secret Agent and Lord Jim, Conrad enjoyed increasing recognition and fame over his lifetime. He became friends with a number of literary greats, including Henry James and Ford Madox Ford. In 1924, he was offered a knighthood, which he declined. A few months later, in August of the same year, he had a heart attack and died.
Despite his broad appeal, it was only long after Conrad’s death that the full weight of his contribution to English literature was felt. With writers such as Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis hailing him as a master of linguistic precision and consistency, the enduring popularity of Conrad’s books was assured. He is now recognised as one of the central figures of the English canon, as well as a prophetic voice for many of the ideas and events that characterised the twentieth century. Not bad for a penniless sailor writing in his third language.