Joseph Conrad (born Konrad Korzeniowski) has been fortunate in his biographers, beginning with G. Jean-Aubry and continuing with major biographies by Jocelyn Baines, Frederick Karl, John Stape, and, most importantly, Zdzisław Najder, who did so much to explore the novelist’s Polish beginnings. In The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World, Maya Jasanoff acknowledges her predecessors in her notes but also goes beyond them in a “Further Reading” section, an exemplary account that I wish other biographers would emulate when they take on a much-studied subject. There she calls attention to the annotated Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, several memoirs, generations of scholarship, and many other books that put Conrad’s life and work into historical context.

What, then, can be added at this late date? Jasanoff’s subtitle provides the answer. She has set out not to write yet another comprehensive biography but instead to concentrate on those aspects of Conrad’s work that foretell the coming of a wider world. She has not confined her attention to the “specific sources for the novelist’s fiction,” his literary career, his writing process, finances, friendships, domestic life, and health. Although she does not avoid these topics, they are not her main focus, which is to show how four important novels––Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Nostromo, and The Secret Agent––arose out of Conrad’s encounter with a changing, globalized world.

Four important novels arose out of Conrad’s encounter with a changing, globalized world.

Conrad’s decision to go to sea, it becomes clear in Jasanoff’s deft handling of his early life, amounted to an effort to transcend the parameters of the Polish past. Partitioned Poland had become a battleground of history, ruining his family’s life. He was expected to follow his father’s lead in fighting for his country’s independence. To become his own man with his own understanding of history, Conrad felt compelled to know the rest of the world, learning both French and English, which served him well as a mariner in Asia and Africa, and then as an author. Conrad did not forsake his Polish heritage so much as he put it to work in books that provide a critique of imperialism and of the limits of politics and what he called “material interests” in shaping lives in an increasingly integrated yet unstable world.

Konrad, called so by friends of all nationalities, possessed a mind and body constantly on the move, prompting Jasanoff to write sentences like this one: “The world is made of ‘nowheres’ and ‘somewheres’––but which counts as which depends on what ‘where’ you look from.” This sentence launches a paragraph that showcases the value of this capacious biography, in which a single life does not delimit history but is made to function as the fulcrum of the history that simultaneously encompasses it:

The story of Konrad’s life, and the world in which he lived, was a story of nowheres colliding with somewheres. At the time of his birth, the failure of a bank in Ohio touched off a financial panic that toppled firms in Hamburg. British troops struggled to suppress a rebellion in India. Indian troops sailed to Canton to threaten Chinese imperial officials. Chinese settlers rebelled on a river in Borneo, in a Malay state ruled by a European. European cloth and guns were traded up the Congo basin for ivory by villagers who’d never seen a white person. An American filibuster was booted out of Nicaragua. American-made steamboats plowed up the rivers of South America, and a locomotive built in Leeds pulled the first train out of Buenos Aires.

That paragraph requires five footnotes and suggests that a biographer, like Conrad, has to hold the whole interlocking world in her head.

Although Jasanoff never loses sight of her biographical subject, she is constantly generalizing because his life is a kind of summa, not only of history and globalization but also of how variously history is absorbed individually: “History sits heavily on some backs,” she comments by way of introducing the long struggle of Conrad’s family and nation to be free and to express itself. To get one kind of history off his back, he took to the sea. He put the past and what looked to be the future in perspective. In Jasanoff’s words: “Sailors often speak of how they’ll spend their futures: what they’ll do onshore, what awaits them at home, what they’ll do when they stop sailing altogether. And sailors, famously, spin yarns about adventures and encounters from the past, which––like the lines they coil and mend––come at length, and with twists and turns.” Lord Jim, Jasanoff submits, is a “narrative composed in sailor’s time.” Then she makes a remarkable shift to past tense, as if the novel itself is a past event:

It looped backward and forward, its speakers shifted, it was jammed with embedded tales and texts. Marlow spun, knitted, and snipped: sometimes an actor in Jim’s story; sometimes a curator, piecing it together from what other people told him; sometimes an interpreter, teasing out its meaning. None of the story’s incidents took place in the present. Everything occurred in collated layers of past, through which Marlow shuffled like pages in a file, pulling different sheets to the front. These deeper and nearer pasts sustain the sense throughout the novel that Jim would always have a future, filled by hopes and dreams.

Literary critics and biographers customarily treat works of literature in the present tense since these works are alive, still read, and are not, as such, historical events. But Jasanoff, I surmise, wants to emphasize that Conrad is our history, that we read history, in fact, because he is a part of it, and not simply a “text” floating free of time. Jorge Luis Borges made precisely this point by including in one of his stories, “Guayaquil,” a reference to Conrad as “Costaguana’s most famous historian.” Conrad’s made-up South American country in Nostromo is treated as though it were, in fact, a real place, which, Borges slyly suggested, it had become––so powerful had Conrad’s depiction of its past and likely future influenced Borges and his fellow South Americans.

Jasanoff wants to emphasize that Conrad is our history.

Jasanoff has to be quoted to demonstrate that she has developed a style commensurate with the convolutions of history that have their ultimate outcome in the many-stranded Nostromo, prepared for by Heart of Darkness. She does not, by the way, spend much time rationalizing Conrad’s racism and the charges brought against him by Chinua Achebe, and instead puts the argument she believes Conrad dramatized into two succinct sentences: “Anyone could be savage. Everywhere could go dark.” This admonition undercuts the hopeful version of history that revolutionaries and capitalists share in Nostromo, which is, Jasanoff argues, the “natural sequel to everything he’d written. The flimsiness of ideals he’d encountered among the nationalists of his youth, the perils of modernization he’d seen at sea, the malignancy of greed he’d witnessed in Africa––all of it landed in Costaguana. Poles into Italians; steamships into trains, telegraphs, and more steamships; ivory into silver.”

Jasanoff has to be quoted because like all great writing there is no substitute for itself.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 5, on page 73
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