JOSEPH CONRAD: A BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE

chronology of
Joseph Conrad's
life and works

Zdzisław Najder

Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski -Joseph Conrad

1. Family background and early years Little Konrad in 1863

Joseph Conrad was born as son of Apollo Korzeniowski and Ewa nee Bobrowska, in Berdyczów (now Berdychiv, Ukraine) on 3 December 1857. Both parents were Polish, members of the local szlachta, landowning gentry-nobility (there was no legal distinction between these two classes in Poland); both were devout Roman Catholics. Until the partition of Poland between Russia, Austria-Hungary and Prussia at the end of the 18th century, Central and Western Ukraine constituted a part of the multinational Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth; most of the szlachta were ethnic Poles; most of town-dwellers were Jewish; most of the peasantry Ukrainians ("Ruthenians"). Conrad paternal and maternal ancestors settled there in late 17th century.

Conrad's paternal grandfather, Teodor Korzeniowski, captain of the Polish army during the 1830 Insurrection against the Russian rule, lost his estate in the political turbulences of his partitioned country. He had one daughter, Emilia, sent in 1864 to exile in Russia, and three sons: Robert, killed in the 1863 Insurrection, Hilary, who died in 1878 while in compulsory exile to Siberia after the same insurrection, and Apollo, born in 1820. Apollo had a gift for languages and writing. He studied at St Petersburg University and later supported himself by administering landed estates, writing satirical comedies (his satire, tempered by censorship, was patriotic and democratic in spirit and directed against materialism and political opportunism of Polish landowners), and translating from English (Dickens and Shakespeare), French (Victor Hugo and Alfred de Vigny) and German (Heine). He also wrote and circulated in manuscript patriotic and religious poems, in which he expressed his sympathy for oppressed Ukrainian peasantry and exhorted Poles to unswerving fidelity to the cause of their national independence.

Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski (he was to use only his third given name), the only son of Apollo and Ewa, was born in Berdyczów (now Berdychiv) on 3 December 1857.

Apollo Korzeniowski Apollo wrote his 'Baptismal Poem' for his son:

Baby son, tell yourself
You are without land, without love,
Without country, without people,
While Poland - your Mother is in her grave.

In April 1861 Apollo Korzeniowski moved to Warsaw, ostensibly to start a cultural periodical, but in fact to organise underground resistance to Russian authorities. In October 1861 he formed a clandestine ''Committee of the Movement" which was the kernel of the underground National Government of 1863. A few days later he was imprisoned in the Warsaw Citadel.

Ewa Korzeniowska and her son followed Apollo to Warsaw in October 1861, and witnessed his arrest. Ewa was also charged and questioned, but not put in custody. Little Conrad would accompany his grandmother who carried supplies to his imprisoned and ailing father. He wrote later that 'In the courtyard of this [Warsaw] Citadel - characteristically for our nation - my childhood memories begin.' The investigation, by a military tribunal, of the Korzeniowski's lasted till April 1862, but the verdict, issued in fact by the viceroy of Poland, a Russian general, preceded by two weeks the official decision of the court. Although only circumstantial evidence was produced against both Ewa and Apollo, they were sentenced to exile to Northern Russia, ''under strict police supervision". The viceroy added in his own hand: ''Mind that they do not stop on the way." They were dispatched to Vologda, known for its harsh climate.

Ewa Korzeniowska In January 1863, for reasons of health, they were allowed to move to Chernihiv, in north-eastern Ukraine. There Ewa Korzeniowska died of tuberculosis in April 1865. Apollo was also gravely ill, and was released from exile in January 1868. He left with his son to Lwów (Lviv), then in Austro-Hungarian Empire, an important Polish cultural centre, and later moved to Cracow, ancient capital of Poland, where he died in May 1869.

Konrad's maternal uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski, became his guardian and benefactor. Konrad was first educated by his father; a sickly boy, he never regularly attended schools, but couched by tutors passed his formal exams first in Cracow, later in Lviv. In autumn of 1874 he was sent - at least partly for health reasons - to Southern France, with the view of starting a maritime career.


2. Konrad Korzeniowski becomes Joseph Conrad

Korzeniowski in 1883 Initially Korzeniowski does not seem to have had an intention to leave Poland permanently, and yet in 1883 he assured one of his father's friends of remembering the injunction that ''wherever he may sail he is sailing towards Poland". But as a Russian subject and son of convicts he was liable for long military service, and his attempts to be realised from Russian State allegation succeeded only in 1889. By that time he was switched from the French to the British merchant fleet marine (in 1878) and passed his examinations for master mariner (1886); the same year he became a British subject. He never officially changed his original name, and assumed the pen-name of Joseph Conrad only when publishing in 1895 his first novel, Almayer's Folly, dedicated to the memory of T[adeusz] B[obrowski].

Tadeusz Bobrowski He kept up correspondence with his uncle; his letters to him were destroyed during the Bolshevik Revolution, but Bobrowski's letters to Conrad survived and constitute the most important biographical source for Conrad's earlier years. He visited his home country in 1889 and 1893. The following year his uncle died and Korzeniowski's main personal link with Poland ceased to exist.

For the first twenty years of his writing career Conrad struggled with debts: his royalties fell far below his modest expenses. Only in summer 1914 he was able to take a longer vacation, and took his wife and two sons to Poland. The outbreak of the First World War caught them in Cracow; they spent two months in this city and then in the Tatra Mountains to the south of it. While in Cracow and Zakopane, Conrad met several Polish writers, artists and intellectuals. This was to be the last visit to his native country.

The reminiscences of his relatives and friends testify to Conrad's continued emotional involvement in the affairs of Poland and traditions of her culture (e.g., at his country home in Kent he organised private concerts of Chopin's music).

At his funeral (he died in Canterbury on 3 August 1924) the only official present was a representative of Prime Minister of Poland.


3. Conrad's Polish cultural roots

From letters of Apollo Korzeniowski to his friends and other sources we know that young Conrad was an avid reader. He was certainly well acquainted with classical Polish literature, beginning from the work of the great XVIth century poet Jan Kochanowski (whom he mentions in his letters). Most probably the poetry, drama and fiction of Polish romantic writers (of which his father was an epigone) formed the main body of his readings in his native language. 'Polonism I have taken into my works from Mickiewicz and Słowacki', he declared in 1914, mentioning by name the two greatest writers, and also moral and political authorities, of Polish romanticism.

Ideas of moral and national responsibility pervaded this literature. Fidelity and betrayal, honour and shame, duty and escape were frequent subject. The moral problems of an individual were typically posed in terms of communal obligations; and ethical principles, formed under a decisive influence of chivalric ethos, were grounded in the idea that an individual, however exceptional he may be, is always a member of a community. A poet was a typical example of an exceptional individual, burdened with special duties towards his nation. The passage 'from alienation to commitment', recognised as a frequent theme in Conrad's fiction, has been a staple subject in Polish romantic literature (as in Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz and Forefather's Eve). One of the more popular literary forms was the tale (gawęda), a story told by a personal narrator, who often himself is one of the protagonists; it is easy to find a continuation of this form in Conrad's narratives.

Apart from the general presence of important elements of Polish cultural tradition, critics have identified in Conrad's writings many thematic, artistic, and verbal motifs taken from particular works of Polish literature. Polish language itself has also left an imprint on Conrad's prose. Not only in the form of Polonisms (words and idioms used in their Polish rather than English sense), and errors committed here and there in the use of tenses. Occasional looseness of Conrad's syntax and the rhetorical, rolling rhythm of his phrases can be easily traced back to the influence of his native speech.


4. Polish themes in his work

Conrad in 1912 In his essay 'Autocracy and War' (1905), Conrad's most important political statement, Poland is mentioned as a victim of German and Russian imperialism, which links them in their ''common guilt''.

A Personal Record (1912) contains long and moving fragments telling about his early Polish experiences and about members of his closest family. 'Prince Roman' (1910), included in the posthumous volume Tales of Hearsay) is a tale about Prince Roman S[anguszko] who 'from conviction' joined the forces of Polish uprising against Russian power in November 1830 and, captured, was sentenced to a punishment of hard labour in Siberian mines. We read there about Poland as 'That country which demands to be loved an no other country has even been loved, with the mournful affection one bears for the unforgotten dead and with the inextinguishable fire of a hopeless passion which only a living, breathing, warm ideal can kindle in our breast for our pride, for our weariness, for our exultation, for our undoing.'

In 1914, under the impression of fresh contacts with his compatriots, Conrad wrote a Memorandum outlining his plans of action in the UK in support of Polish interests. His essay 'Poland Revisited' ( included later in his Notes on Life and Letters, 1921) describes Conrad's journey to Poland and reflects his depression in face of the British attitude of considering the future of Poland as Russia's internal affair. Two years later in a special 'Note on the Polish Question' (published also in Notes...), addressed to the British Foreign Office, he proposed a reconstruction of Poland under the protectorate of Great Britain and France ('Quite impossible. Russia will never share her interests in Poland with Western Powers' was the negative reply).

Conrad greeted the reconstruction of independent Poland (after 123 years of partitioning) in 1918 with joy, relief, and embarrassment caused by his own lack of faith. He wrote an emotional appeal in support of the new country and in remembrance of its sufferings, 'The Crime of Partition' (1919, included in Notes...). In 1920, while the Polish army was fighting for the survival of the country with a Soviet invasion, he sent a cablegram in support for the Polish Government Loan: 'For Poles the sense of duty and the imperishable feeling of nationality preserved in the hearts and defended by the hands of their immediate ancestors in open struggles against the might of three Powers and in indomitable defiance of crushing oppression for more than a hundred years is sufficient inducement to come forward to assist in reconstructing the independence, dignity and usefulness of the reborn Republic.'


5. Conrad's reception in Poland

Some Polish intellectuals accused Conrad of infidelity towards his native country shown by writing in English. The most important expression of such charge was an article, published in 1899 by a well-known and respected Polish woman-novelist, Eliza Orzeszkowa. Conrad took this greatly to heart, and a couple of years later, writing in 1901 to a Cracow librarian Józef Korzeniowski (not a relative of his), he declared: ''I have in no way disavowed either my nationality or the name we share [...] It is widely known that I am a Pole and that Józef Konrad are my two Christian names, the latter being used be my as surname so that foreign mouths should not distort my real surname [...] It does not seem to me that I have been unfaithful to my country by having prived to the English that a gentleman from the Ukraine can be as good as sailor as they, and has something to tell them in their own language. I consider such recognition as I have won from this particular point of view, and offer in silent homage where it is due.'

He was by that time becoming known in Poland: the first ever translation of this work (An Outcast of the Islands) was published in a Warsaw periodical in 1897, and other translations followed.

In 1914 he gave his first ever interview, to a Polish journalist Marian D±browski (husband of Maria D±browska later one of the most distinguished Polish 20th century novelists and author of a volume of essays on Conrad). He confessed there that his father read to him Mickiewicz's long poem Pan Tadeusz, 'not just once or twice', and made him also read it aloud. He 'used to prefer Konrad Wallenrod and Grażyna', Mickiewicz's shorter poetic tales. 'Later I liked Słowacki better. You know why Słowacki? Il est l'ame de toute la Pologne, lui.' [He is the soul of all Poland, he is.]

Conrad's contacts with Polish writers and readers became closer after 1920. He corresponded with several authors and his translators, and in 1921 himself translated from Polish a comedy by Bruno Winawer (The book of Hiob, published posthumously). The most eminent Polish writer of the time, Stefan Żeromski, moral authority of Polish liberals and socialists, wrote an enthusiastic introduction to a collected edition of Conrad's works, calling him a 'writer-compatriot'. Conrad responded with a latter, writing: 'I confess that I cannot find words to describe my profound emotion when I read this appreciation from my country, voiced by you, dear Sir - the greatest master of its literature.'

In the 'twenties and 'thirties Conrad became in Poland a very influential writer, much read and discussed both by intellectuals and the broad reading public, with which especially his sea fiction was popular. He reached the peak of his importance in the darkest hours of modern Polish history, during the II World War, in the country invaded again by its German and Soviet neighbours. Conrad, and particularly the Conrad of Lord Jim, became then one of the chief moral authorities for the young members of the Polish underground army and civil resistance.

The first ever full edition of Conrad's works (27 volumes) was published in Poland in 1972-74, with one supplementary volume, containing material confiscated by Communist censors, published by Polish émigrés in London.


6. Conrad memorabilia in Poland and Ukraine Berdyczów 1997

The hospital in which Conrad was born in Berdychiv does not exist. Opening of a small Joseph Conrad museum in the premises of a magnificent Carmelite Monastery there (a priest from this monastery baptised Conrad) is planned for September 1999. A commemorative plaque in the centre of Warsaw (Nowy ¦wiat Street) was placed on the house next to the one in which the Korzeniowski rented their flat in 1862. The cell in Warsaw Citadel in which Conrad's father was imprisoned still exists. So does the house in which he lived with his father in Cracow at the Poselska Street, and the buildings where he stayed as a boarder in Lvov and Cracow (Floriańska Street).

Two volumes of manuscripts of Conrad's father, most of them unpublished, are preserved in the Jagiellonian Library in Cracow. Several important letters and documents concerning Conrad himself are to be found in the PAN Library also in Cracow. The National Library in Warsaw has Tadeusz Bobrowski's letters to Conrad, and several Conrad's letters in Polish. Outside Poland the most important collection of Conrad's MSS connected with his Polish background are kept at the Beinecke Library, Yale University and in the Polish Library in London.

 


Most of the letters and other documents concerning Conrad's links with Poles and Poland have been collected in:

Conrad's Polish Background, ed. Zdzisław Najder, Oxford 1964
Conrad Under Familial Eyes, ed. Zdzisław Najder, Milan and Cambridge 1983 in original Polish version:
Wspomnienia i studia o Conradzie, ed. Barbara Kocówna, Warszawa 1963
Tadeusz Bobrowski, Listy do Conrada, ed. Róża Jabłkowska, Warszawa 1981
Conrad w¶ród swoich, ed. Zdzisław Najder, Warszawa 1996


Standard biography:

Zdzisław Najder, Życie Conrada-Korzeniowskiego, 2 vols., 2nd Polish ed. Warszawa 1996; English translation: Joseph Conrad: a Chronicle, New Brunswick and Cambridge 1983; French translation: Joseph Conrad: Biographie, Paris 1992




chronology of
Joseph Conrad's
life and works

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