image from www.biography.com
After all those writers who established English in its current form as one of the most flexible and expressive languages, the most important modern English novelist was a Polish sea captain called Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski (Joseph Conrad: 1857-1924). Why modern, if he died so long ago? – because some of the themes that preoccupied him before other writers are still some of the most pressing questions in our society. Why important? – because we can still learn from his ruminations on those themes. He still speaks to anyone prepared to listen, and not only as a historical curiosity from times past.
Conrad isn’t like Dostoevsky: he doesn’t write so much about the interaction between philosophy and psychology, expressing the human soul in all its near hysterical passion. About personality he’s much more reticent. Dostoevsky was a gambling addict who plunged rashly and unwisely into life. Conrad navigated the seas and commanded men in difficult situations, sometimes in spite of themselves. You can feel in both the profound comprehension of humanity that informs their writing – in the Russian it comes out as a torrent that mixes extremes of folly and wisdom; in the Pole it’s shown obliquely- his characters are more modern in that they are mysteries to themselves.
As I get older I am starting to believe that the paroxysm of the two twentieth century world wars smashed up thinking as well as everything else, but to rediscover some intellectual continuity we need to go back before those conflicts, without ever forgetting what they taught us about the futility of both nationalistic and ideological extremism. At school we learned that all was romantic and comfortable until millions started dying in the trenches and forced the survivors to reconsider, but that is not adequate. People like HG Wells and Conrad foresaw that the world conflict was coming and that it would be no more than mass murder. the scientists predicted the means and the social scientists understood the reasons. Then as now, people understood where the world was drifting, only feeling powerless to stop it.
So Joseph Conrad, as a Victorian, spends most of his life commanding ships in the South China Seas, observing humanity at its best and worst, in the crisis. He’s outside the prejudices of high culture and in his cabin he has time to reflect. He’s deeply grateful for what the British Empire has done for him, but he’s by no means blind to the exploitation and ruin in the name of progress that Imperialism has visited on the world. On the other hand, he doesn’t suffer from the armchair commentator’s romantic view of life in its natural state. That relationship between the murderous savagery and injustice of uncivilized society; and the self-interested and hypocritical interventions made by supposedly civilized society in the undeveloped world, is what we have come back to after Europe spent the best part of a century ripping itself to pieces.
There are two powerful themes in the man’s books: the first is personal. He writes about a world where men eventually face a test and sometimes even the best fail if they are caught off guard or something goes wrong. the second theme is civilisation, or Empire if you prefer. As an Englishman who wasn’t born English he can be more objective about the latter, including giving praise where he feels praise is due.
Lord Jim is the most compelling personal drama – Jim fails the test when he is young and spend a lifetime earnestly seeking redemption. The short novella Heart of Darkness is all about culture versus savagery, though even in the hinted at extremities the virtues and vices are equally divided between the protagonists. and the stories are both about what happens to a man. Tuan Jim and Kurz face the same issue though their reactions are opposite. But the themes come together in Nostromo (“our man” – nuestro uomo) which is one of those novels that everyone should read at least three times at different stages in their own life. It includes everything Conrad has to say, about the corruption of honest men by honest ideals (Gould and his silver mine are in the same state as every foreign owned enterprise that tried to advance the state of a country by exploiting its natural reserves) the corruption of good but empty men when they don’t have prestige to sustain them (Nostromo himself) and the importance of holding to some ideal even when it fails you. There are no easy answers and there is more to find every time you read. I was lucky because I first read it when I was young, as an adventure story that seemed to have some odd moments, and then went back to it a year or two later called back by I don’t know what.
I don’t read literary criticism so I shouldn’t try to write it, but this is really no more than to say, why is this man’s work not more read and valued than ever?