Book review: The Tragic sense by Algis Valiunas

Maya Jasanoff: The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World
Reviewed by Algis Valiunas

Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) remains the greatest English language novelist since Charles Dickens, and many of the best writers of the 20th century, including H.L. Mencken, Ernest Hemingway, and T.S. Eliot, paid homage to his excellence or came under his influence. And as one learns from the Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff’s new book, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World, Conrad was a hero to William Faulkner, André Gide, and Thomas Mann. What’s more, “He has turned up in the pages of Latin American writers from Jorge Luis Borges to Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Juan Gabriel Vásquez. He’s been cited as an influence by Robert Stone, Joan Didon, Philip Roth, and Ann Patchett; by W.G. Sebald and John le Carré.”

A Pole by birth, for 20 years a merchant seaman by profession, a late-blooming novelist for whom English was his third language (after French and his native Polish), a spinner of yarns about seafaring ordeals and romances with dusky beauties, Conrad has been thought of by some as an exotic, a mere curiosity. Virginia Woolf denigrated his claims to high seriousness and - equally important in her snobbish milieu - to Englishness: his principal appeal was to “boys and young people,” he couldn’t properly speak the language he wrote in, and he had the “air of mystery” of the perpetual exile, a person of no fixed address.

But what Conrad really possessed was an imagination of global reach, a far departure from Woolf’s Bloomsbury insularity.
His mind roved from the Congo in Heart of Darkness (1899), where a representative of pan-European moral genius encounters primitive savagery and discovers the darkness in his own heart, to Java and Borneo in Lord Jim (1900), where an English country parson’s son flees disgrace and finds a second chance at fantastic heroism; from a South American country of the author’s own invention in Nostromo (1904), where a native-born Costaguanero entrepreneur of English heritage, together with a San Francisco financier, a Parisian boulevardier, and an Italian stevedore fall under the fateful influence of a silver mine seemingly inexhaustible in its wealth and malevolence, to a seedy shop in the imperial city of London in The Secret Agent (1907), where idiot anarchists and socialists meet to plot their assault on civilization; from comfortable bourgeois Geneva in Under Western Eyes (1911), where an English expatriate struggles to understand the alien sensibilities of Russian expatriates connected to a political assassination in explosive St. Petersburg, and back again to Java in Victory (1915), where an itinerant Swedish businessman with a taste for fashionable nihilism believes he has found earthly salvation in a romantic misalliance with a traveling musician but runs up against incarnate evil.

Wherever the plot takes Conrad, the imagined world remains always distinctively his own: a place of darkness penetrated intermittently by shafts of heroic light, which tend to be extinguished in the end, for irony and tragedy set the terms of existence here, and any brighter spirits can last only briefly in this stifling atmosphere. The sculptor Jacob Epstein, whose 1924 bronze bust is the iconic rendering of Conrad, saw in his subject a tragic figure with a moral resemblance to his fictional heroes:  Conrad gave me a feeling of defeat; but defeat met with courage.” That is the best one can customarily hope for in Conrad’s world, the closest one comes to victory.

Conrad’s bleakness was his birthright; his courage was earned over a lifetime. (For the facts of Conrad’s life I have relied on Jasanoff’s book - strong on biography, lackluster as literary criticism- and on Jeffrey Meyers’s 1991 Joseph Conrad: A Biography.) Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski on December 3, 1857, in Berdychiv, Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire (plus ça change…), he was welcomed into this world by a poem his father wrote, “To my son born in the 85th year of Muscovite oppression”:

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

Thus metaphorically orphaned and dispossessed at birth, Konrad, as everyone would call him, was blessed and cursed with a name resonant of nationalistic exaltation and sorrow… read more:

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