Becoming Conrad

Joseph Conrad (Konrad Korzeniowski) was born on this day in 1857, to Polish parents living under Russian rule in Berdichev, now a city in Ukraine. Conrad’s father was a militant and eventually exiled Polish nationalist, as evidenced even in “To My Son, born in the 85th year of the Muscovite Oppression, A Song for his Christening Day”:

Baby son, tell yourself
You are without land, without love,
without country, without people,
while Polandyour Mother is in her grave….

Orphaned at age eleven, Conrad chose traveling the world over fighting for or remaining in his homeland — in all, two decades of sea travel and attendant adventures. Almayer’s Folly, his first novel, features the first of his homeless hero-narrators. Like Heart of Darkness, the novel opens at sunset on a river, with brooding thoughts of wealth and empire — the river, in this case, in Borneo, the hero a dispossessed Dutch trader:

Leaning with both his elbows on the balustrade of the verandah, he went on looking fixedly at the great river that flowed — indifferent and hurried — before his eyes. He liked to look at it about the time of sunset; perhaps because at that time the sinking sun would spread a glowing gold tinge on the waters of the Pantai, and Almayer’s thoughts were often busy with gold….

Conrad dedicated Almayer’s Folly to the memory of his uncle and guardian, Tadeusz Bobrowski. In A Personal Record, an autobiographical fragment published in 1912, Conrad describes visiting his uncle on his second and last trip home in 1893, carrying his half-finished manuscript with him:

I saw again the sun setting on the plains as I saw it in the travels of my childhood. It set, clear and red, dipping into the snow in full view as if it were setting on the sea. It was twenty-three years since I had seen the sun set over that land; and we drove on in the darkness which fell swiftly upon the livid expanse of snows till, out of the waste of a white earth joining a bestarred sky, surged up black shapes, the clumps of trees about a village of the Ukrainian plain.… That very evening the wandering MS. of Almayer’s Folly was unpacked and unostentatiously laid on the writing-table in my room, the guest-room which had been, I was informed in an affectionately careless tone, awaiting me for some fifteen years or so….

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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