Read Keith Carabine's two-part news article on Joseph Conrad: Part One & Part Two
Joseph Conrad, born Jozef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski on the 3rd December 1857. The Polish-born English novelist is regarded as one of the greatest novelists in the English language, even though he didn’t learn to speak English fluently until he was in his twenties.
Writing during the height of the British Empire, Conrad drew upon his experiences serving in the French and later the British, merchant navies to create novels and short stories that reflected aspects of a world-wide empire, while also plumbing the depths of the human soul.
Joseph was born in the Ukraine, to an impoverished and highly patriotic Polish noble family. Orphaned at the age of eleven, Joseph was placed in the care of his uncle, who allowed him to travel, at the age of 16, to Marseille and begin a career as a seaman.
Conrad lived an adventurous life, dabbling in gunrunning and political conspiracy, which he later fictionalised in his novel The Arrow of Gold. A voyage down the coast of Venezuela provided material for Nostromo, the first mate of Conrad’s vessel becoming the model for that novel’s hero.
In 1878, Conrad attempted suicide by shooting himself in the chest. He failed, and took service on his first British ship. This vessel was bound for Constantinople, before its return to Lowestoft, which was Conrad's first landing in Britain. In the following years, Joseph signed on for a number of voyages, the events of which are included in his famous story Youth. His most acclaimed and ambiguous work, Heart of Darkness, was inspired by the atrocities he witnessed, and experiences he had whilst captain of a Congo steamboat. In 1886, Conrad gained both his Master Mariner’s certificate and British citizenship, officially changing his name to ‘Joseph Conrad’.
In 1894, aged 36, Conrad reluctantly gave up the sea, partly because of poor health and partly because he had become so fascinated with writing that he decided on a literary career. His first novel, Almayer’s Folly, was published in 1895. Together with its successor, An Outcast of the Islands (1896), it laid the foundation for Conrad’s reputation as a romantic teller of exotic tales - a misunderstanding of his purpose that was to frustrate him for the rest of his career.
In March 1896 Conrad married an Englishwoman, Jessie George, and they moved to Stanford-le-Hope. He subsequently lived in London and near Canterbury. The couple had two sons, John and Borys.
Though Conrad’s talent was recognised by the English intellectual elite, popular success eluded him until the 1913 publication of Chance (now not regarded as one of his better novels). Although the quality of his work declined, Conrad enjoyed increasing wealth and status.
In 1924, Joseph declined the offer of a British knighthood and died just a few months later from a heart attack. He is buried in Canterbury under his original Polish surname, Korzeniowski.
Of Conrad’s novels, Lord Jim, The Rover and Nostromo continue to be widely read, as set text and for pleasure. The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes are also considered to be among his finest books. His maritime experiences inspired the sea stories Typhoon, Falk and The Shadow-Line.