Today in Literary History – December 3, 1857 – Joseph Conrad is born

The novelist Joseph Conrad was born on December 3, 1857, as Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in what was then a part of the Russian Empire and is now Ukraine.

Berdichev, the town he was born in, had a primarily Jewish population and the countryside was mainly made up of Ukrainians, but the political and economic life was dominated by a Polish elite to which Conrad’s family belonged. Conrad himself was known to make anti-Semitic remarks throughout his life.

At the age of 16 Conrad began his career as a sailor, first on French ships and later for British merchant marines. He rose to the rank of captain and eventually became a British citizen.

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English was his third language and he didn’t begin to learn it until he was in his mid-twenties. He wrote with exceptional fluidity but spoke with a very thick accent all his life.

Conrad had a dark side and had spells of depression and attempted suicide as a young man. His books are clear-eyed about the harshness and uncertainty of life and are often pessimistic about human nature.

He has been criticized, most famously by Chinua Achebe, for his characterizations of the non-white natives in his books, which some consider to be racist.

There is no doubt that Conrad was a man of his times. Although he criticized colonialism, most especially in The Heart of Darkness, his attitudes are mostly conservative.

His style is clear and precise and his characters are vivid and nuanced. I understand the criticism of Conrad’s racism but his books have given me great pleasure for decades. I re-read Lord Jim earlier this year and was both touched and impressed all over again.

 

 

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