I loved this Book, the biography of a literary giant. It was written by Maya Jasanoff, primarily a historian not a literary academic. Jasanoff, herself, writes beautifully:
“Estuaries are liminal spaces between the river and the sea, and up the estuaries of Borneo, Conrad encountered liminal figures, living between cultures, a European or two among Asians or Chinese amongst Malays, refugees from other islands.”
“For Conrad writing fiction would … be a translation of past experience, a way to find meaning in all those happenings in life, whose significance a person doesn’t fully grasp at the moment.”
“A river is nature’s plotline; it carries you from here to there.”
The Biography is (properly) focused not on Conrad’s fiction but on his life story and how it influenced and contributed to his writing. Throughout Conrad was close to huge events:
- Although he wrote in English, it was his fourth language. His parents were Szlachta, members of the Polish aristocracy, which constituted between 6 and 12% of the population and comprised its ruling noble elite until Poland’s partition in the 1790s. His parents plotted against Russian occupation of Poland and Ukraine. Exiled internally within the Russian Empire, they died young.
- Conrad went to sea, first with the French then the British Merchant Marine, as part of the last generation working sailing ships. His first writing concerned the sea, hence the Book’s title, “The Dawn Watch”. Throughout however Conrad remained in contact with the Polish nobility, in particular with, and intermittently visiting, his uncle in the Ukraine.
- Conrad worked at sea in South East Asia and briefly on the Congo River. His experiences of the two meld into one another. It is therefore appropriate that his famous novella, “The Heart of Darkness”, set on the Congo, was relocated in Francis Ford Coppola’s epic war film “Apocalypse Now”, into a river leading up-river from Vietnam into Cambodia. Appropriately, I read the Book’s passages concerning S E Asia and the Congo on the banks of the Mekong dividing Thailand and Laos, before it flows on through Cambodia into Vietnam.
- In 1897 he married an ordinary English girl, Jessie George. They took their honeymoon “in the wilds of Brittany”, renting a stone house on Ile Grande. Downstairs there was a flagstoned kitchen where the “fireplace alone is big enough for [Jessie] to live in”. Ile Grande is close to our house in Brittany, which (as shown below) has exactly, such a fireplace.
- In July 1914 Conrad, his wife and two sons travelled through Germany to Krakow in Polish speaking Austrian Galicia. Clearly, they, and many others, did not see the Great War coming. They continued their visit when in August the UK went to war with Germany and then Austria. Eventually the family received permission to leave through then neutral Italy, remarkable as it enabled Conrad later in the War to write patriotic material for the British, whilst his elder son suffered shellshock, whilst serving on the Western Front.
A Book well worth reading. I will certainly read more by Maya Jasanoff.