Friday, November 19, 2010

Joseph Conrad– A Short Biographical Sketch

Parentage and Early Years
Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, who afterwards adopted the pen­name of Joseph Conrad, was by nationality a Pole. He was born in 1857 at Berdichev, a town in the Polish Ukraine, then under the government of the Russians.
His father, who translated works by Victor Hugo and Shakespeare into Polish, was arrested by the Russians as a leader in the struggle for Polish independence and sent to a concentration-camp in North Russia. Conrad’s mother voluntarily accompanied her husband and, not being in good health, died three years later. Conrad’s father returned to Poland, an embittered and weakened man, and he also died when Conrad was just eleven years old. Conrad was placed in the care of his uncle for the next six years, during which time he read widely in French and German.
Decision to Become a Sailor
In 1874, at the age of seventeen, Conrad left for Marseilles to become a sailor. He knew nothing about the sea or about France beyond what he had read. There was no tradition of seafaring in the family, and Conrad’s ideas at that time about life at sea were probably romantic and false though these ideas shaped his outlook.
Loneliness and the Search for Freedom
Conrad’s early experiences settled the pattern of his life and provided themes which often occurred in the books he later wrote. Like many of his heroes, he was lonely and was seeking independence. His father’s life had taught him that men have to make hard decisions and take risks for the things they believe in, and that heroism often leads to tragedy and death. Many characters in his stories sacrifice their happiness or even their lives for ideals or for people they have not understood. Once Conrad had taken his decision to go to sea, he would not turn back. He cut himself off from Poland, a country that offered him little happiness or hope of freedom. But, though he went to Marseilles and afterwards became a naturalized British Citizen, he could never wholly become French or English. He remained throughout the rest of his life a man apart His novels are about men who are set apart from their fellows.
Participation in Gun-Running
From Marseilles Conrad took part in several gun-running expeditions on behalf of the pretender to the Spanish throne, Don Carlos, and he used these experiences as the basis of his story, The Arrow of Gold (published in 1919). This story tells how the young hero, Monsieur George, passes from boyhood to manhood through his adventures as a gun-runner and his love for Rita, an older woman who finances those expeditions.
As a British Sailor
After four years in the French merchant navy, Conrad got a job on a British ship, the Mavis. In 1878 he first set foot on English soil at Lowestoft. At this time he was scarcely able to speak a word of the English language, but he decided that, if he was to be a sailor, he would be a British sailor. In eight years he obtained a third mate’s ticket, then a mate’s, and finally a master’s. He made several voyages to Far Eastern waters, notably Singapore, Borneo, and the Gulf of Siam, all of which served as material for his novels. One trip up the Congo led to the writing of one of his best shorter novels, Heart of Darkness. These places are more than backgrounds to his stories: they have characters of their own, and the placing of an island or a reef affects the course of action.
Change from a Sailor to a Writer
The Congo stirred Conrad’s imagination, but it also made him a victim of malarial attacks. He returned to sea, but his health could not withstand the hardships of this life. He had already begun to write, though he had not so far seriously considered becoming ‘a professional writer. With the encouragement of John Galsworthy, he now turned to writing as a profession, and his first novel, Almayer’s Folly was accepted for publication and appeared in 1895. Thereafter he continued to write, despite some efforts to return to sea. In 1896, his next novel, An Outcast of the Islands was published. Both these books got a sympathetic reception from the critics, several of whom recognized the originality and genius of this new author.
Marriage to Jessie George
Some time between 1893 and 1894, Conrad met, through a friend, a girl called Jessie George who was working as a typist in London where Conrad now lived. In 1895 he proposed to the girl, saying that he had not very long to live and that he had no intention of having children. They were married in March 1896. Jessie’s life with Conrad was not altogether an easy one, but with her placid and self-contained temperament she was in some ways an ideal wife for a man of his genius and nature. They spent the first months of their married life on a rocky and barren island near Lannion, Britany. Here, in these early months of the marriage, the pattern of. Conrad’s life was established–difficulties in writing, bouts of malarial gout and fever, fits of ‘depression, financial difficulties, and frequent brief visits to the Continent for relief.
Literary Output
In spite of Conrad’s ultimatum that there should be no children, two sons were born, Borys in 1898, and John in 1906. During this period his literary output included The Nigger of the Narcissus, Lord Jim, Typhoon, and Nostromo. However, these works did not receive the critical acclaim to which they were entitled. Conrad’s health began to deteriorate during the writing of Nostromo and then, in January 1904, Jessie injured her knees in a fall and was to remain a semi-cripple for the rest of her life.
Not a “Selling” Author
By 1908, when Conrad was fifty, he had added some more works to his output, notably The Secret Agent. But, although he hit; won critical recognition, he was oppressed by the fact that he was not a “selling” author. He was tormented by the need to make money and the need to retain his artistic integrity. He had made a bid for popularity in choosing a sensational subject for The Secret Agent; but he was a difficult novelist whose complex methods of narration and use of broken time-sequences militated against popularity. His anxiety to present his individual vision compelled him to employ these methods.
Breakdown in Health
Under severe mental stress, and suffering from malarial gout, Conrad was nevertheless writing Under Western Eyes, and The Secret Sharer. He finished Under Western Eyes at the end of 1909, had a furious quarrel with his literary agent, and returned home in great distress, suffering a complete breakdown in health. Conrad was pessimistic as to the human condition, and the influence of his pessimism on his work was again not conducive to popularity.
A Change in His Fortune
But his fortune was about to change. In 1911 he was given a Civil List Pension of a hundred pounds, and in the following year an American lawyer wrote offering to buy his manuscripts. But more important, he was then working on a novel he had started six years earlier and which was to be his first best seller. The novel was Chance which appeared in 1913. His next work, a short story called Victory, brought him a thousand pounds for its serialization rights. The Arrow of Gold was published in 1919.
Not Entirely Free from Worries
Jessie had been having a lot of trouble with her knees had had several operations. The Conrads ware comparatively wealthy now–film rights for his books brought them about four thousand pounds–yet Conrad was still in difficulties. “I am spending more than I ought to”, he wrote, and he, considered living partly in France to escape heavy taxation. In 1920 he began what was to be his last work, Suspense, a Napoleonic novel.
The End
Conrad was now one of the most famous living authors in Britain and the United States and in 1923 he made his only visit to America. When he returned to England he learnt of the secret marriage of, his son Borys and felt very upset. The remaining period of his life was taken up by his own and Jessie’s sickness. In May 1924 he declined the offer of a knighthood from Ramsay MacDonald, probably feeling that it was inappropriate for an artist to accept such honours. In July 1924 he suffered a heart attack and on August 3, 1924 he was dead.

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