Magazine article The Spectator

'The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World', by Maya Jasanoff - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World', by Maya Jasanoff - Review

Article excerpt

In the 1890s, when British-owned ships carried 70 per cent of all seaborne trade, legislators worried about the proportion of foreigners who served in their crews; which could top 40 per cent. Their worry is not surprising, given the verdicts gathered from British consulates in port cities on the native seaman: 'drunk, illiterate, weak, syphilitic, drunk, dishonest, drunk...' In 1894, a parliamentary committee interrogated officers about manning and skills in the merchant marine.

One informant was a British-naturalised master 'with 16 years' experience'. The MPs, who didn't presume to ask this expert witness specifically about foreign crews, recorded his name as 'Mr J. Conrad Korzeniowski'. He had, as Maya Jasanoff puts it, 'come a long way since landing in England in 1878' as the penniless, orphaned son of Polish gentlefolk, his parents driven into penury, exile and early death by Tsarist persecution. A few months before he arrived in London, the 20-year-old Konrad Korzeniowski -- alone, broke and 'wrecked' in Marseille -- had attempted suicide. He never wrote about that.

The story of this 'Polish nobleman cased in British tar' (his words) still dazzles in all its briny glamour. If that stems in large part from the unsinkable merits of works such as Lord Jim and Under Western Eyes, The Secret Sharer and Heart of Darkness, this perennial allure also feeds on his ability to speak to readers everywhere who couldn't tell a knot from a hitch or a jib from a boom.

A child stranded by his father's patriotic conspiracies against Russian despotism, the immigrant seafarer who became Joseph Conrad spotted on the far horizon so many of the squalls and storms that still convulse us. From the crisis of old empires to the ascent of rising powers, from the global circulation of people, ideas and goods to the temptations of terrorism, the fiction he wrote in his third language (after Polish and French) bridges the age of sail and the age of the net. Jasanoff describes Conrad's pen as 'like a magic wand, conjuring the spirits of the future'. That wand, though, should surely be a telescope.

After the mighty dreadnought of Norman Sherry's two-volume biography, and relatively nippier lives from John Stape and Zdzislaw Najder, we hardly need another stately passage between Conrad's birth in Berdychiv (now in Ukraine) in 1857 to his death in rural Kent -- the refuge he loved 'not as an inheritance, but as an acquisition' -- in 1924.

Jasanoff, a professor of history at Harvard and an enviably gifted writer, uses 'the compass of a historian, the chart of a biographer, and the navigational sextant of a fiction reader' as she locates Conrad's journeys on the map of the first great epoch of globalisation before the first world war. With a focus on four masterworks (The Secret Agent, Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, Nostromo), she demonstrates how the forces of revolutionary politics, world-spanning commerce, colonial plunder and imperial rivalry shaped both life and work without ever defining them. …

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