Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) is perhaps the most famous example of a multicultural writer in the history of British literature. His novels have been translated, serialized, made into movies, and taught at numerous schools and universities throughout the English-speaking world and beyond. His multicultural credentials are impressive: he was born Józef Teodor Nalęcz (Ian Burnet misses this one in his recent study: it was the name of the Polish noble family to which Conrad belonged) Konrad Korzeniowski in Berdychev, Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire and formerly a town in the Kingdom of Poland. His father Apollo was a Polish poet, translator of Shakespeare and a dedicated Polish patriot. Conrad’s first language was Polish, of course, and he learned Latin at school, but he added German, French and finally English to the list. He also knew some Russian but avoided using it for patriotic reasons.
A good half of Conrad’s published books, including the better-known ones such as Lord Jim (1900) and An Outcast of the Islands (1896) were set in Asian lands, notably in what are now Malaysia and Indonesia, with Heart of Darkness (1899), perhaps his most famous work, being set in the Congo and Nostromo (1904) in South America. His very first novel in English, Almayer’s Folly, appeared in 1895, and is set in Borneo with a Java-born Dutch protagonist. Other places featured in his novels include London, Geneva, Marseilles, and St. Petersburg. Conrad also wrote “Prince Roman”, a story based on Polish history, but Poland itself does not play a part in his novels, which, together with his identification as an “English” writer, caused a certain amount of anxiety amongst his fellow-writers in Poland, who questioned his patriotism. In the end, as he himself put it, Conrad wrote in English because
it was I who was adopted by the genius of the language … which made me its own so completely that its very idioms, I truly believe, had a direct action on my temperament.
All his works have now been translated into Polish and a stamp issued bearing his image.
Ian Burnet, an Australia-based traveler, writer and historian who is well-acquainted with the former Dutch East Indies, sets out in this handsomely-produced book to show how Conrad “was able to convert actual events of his own experience into enduring fiction,” referring to Conrad’s own statement that he had written his books “in retrospect of what I saw and learnt during the first thirty-five years of my life.” This being said, though, Burnet is aware that not all Conrad’s output is autobiographical, and he finds most of his material in the earlier works like Almayer’s Folly, An Outcast of the Islands, Lord Jim and The Rescue (1920, but begun over twenty years earlier). These four novels, all based in Borneo, had characters based on people Conrad had met or known in his eastern voyages; Burnet works backwards with the material, reordering the narrative sequence and focusing on background material to definitively link Conrad’s life with the events of the novels, effectively building on Conrad’s own retrospective memory and quoting liberally from the novels to connect the fictional and non-fictional worlds.
The result is interesting—Burnet is not a literary scholar, but an enthusiastic and intelligent reader of Conrad, which makes this book ideal to read if one is curious about Conrad but not that well-acquainted with his books; it is not much use for scholars of Conrad. He attempts to describe a world with which the creator of the fiction (Conrad) interacts with his own past through his writings, and has unearthed illustrations to enhance his narrative. He traces the ships mentioned by Conrad to their real-world counterparts and gives biographical information on the actual people on whom Conrad modeled his characters.
Most of this information may be found elsewhere, but Burnet is quite good at describing people and scenes, especially the latter, as he has been there himself, smelt the air, felt the heat and eaten the food. Prefacing Chapter 7, “East Borneo”, is a quote from Lord Jim in which Conrad writes about the Dutch and English traders’ “passion for pepper”, which “seemed to burn like a flame of love” within them and which made them “defy death in a thousand shapes; the unknown seas, the loathsome and strange diseases; wounds, captivity, hunger, pestilence, and despair.” For Burnet himself as a boy, though, the name Borneo suggested “Malay Sultans, White Rajahs, fierce pirates and, wild beautiful princesses. Wild rivers and steamy jungles filled with tattooed head-hunters armed with poisoned blowpipes” [sic]. Well, Conrad serves up all of these and more, which lets us understand how the adult Burnet became absorbed with his books.
This having been said, there are some things about this book that are problematic. Burnet keeps formal analysis to a minimum, simply matching events and places to the novels and providing background information. He does, however, offer some opinions and quote contemporary reviews. He observes, for example, that Conrad’s protagonist Willems in An Outcast of the Islands is “a victim of his own illusions, of his search for material gratification, and finally his obsession with the beautiful and erotic Aissa.” He suggests that Almayer was “a failure, an anti-hero”, and that “for that time” (1899) Almayer’s Folly “had a very un-English perspective.” For a Conrad scholar or someone who is well-acquainted with the novels, these observations are commonplaces, but it has to be remembered that this isn’t a work of literary criticism, however frustrating it is to readers who want a bit more.
There’s also a bit of an information overload; Heart of Darkness, the subject of Chapter 11, has nothing to do with Borneo, and Conrad’s Congo adventure had no connection with any of his “eastern”voyages. The illustrations and photographs raise another point; they are well-chosen, but most of them are uncredited, and in some instances Burnet uses reproductions of book covers (also uncredited), an odd practice, though it’s great publicity for Oxford University Press, whose covers are used here. The bibliography is adequate, but it was strange to see that Zdzisław Najder’s seminal Joseph Conrad: A Life (2007) was omitted. It’s an indispensable work for anyone interested in Conrad. There were also quite a few sentence-fragments (s see previous paragraph), something which an editor should have caught.
These reservations aside, I would nonetheless recommend this book to readers who are not familiar with Conrad, but are seeking an informative introduction to this difficult writer’s life and works.