FEATURE

Sea Change

The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World BY Maya Jasanoff. Penguin Press. Hardcover, 400 pages. $30.

THE TWO MOST IMPORTANT MOMENTS in the afterlife of Joseph Conrad took place in the span of a couple of years in the 1970s, just over a half century after the death of the novelist in a wooded village in Kent. The first was Chinua Achebe’s attack on the author and his best-known work of fiction, Heart of Darkness, as an irredeemable bit of dehumanizing tripe. Calling Conrad a “thorough-going racist,” he denounced the novella and its vision. “Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth.” Two years after the appearance of Achebe’s essay, Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War allegory Apocalypse Now (1979) uprooted Heart of Darkness from its African setting and recast its denouement near the Cambodian border—an adaptation that was at once faithful to the horror of the author’s journey and notoriously uncharitable, leaving Conrad completely uncredited as the film’s source.

Achebe’s essay and Coppola’s film illustrate two key aspects of Conrad’s reputation: first, the outsize place of Heart of Darkness in an oeuvre that is far more varied than is often remembered; and second, the unusual sense—certainly unusual by comparison to many of his late-Victorian peers—in which the author seems simultaneously circumscribed by his moment and summoned to shed light on our world, too. The screen, maybe the ultimate arbiter of zeitgeist and adaptation, has always smiled on Conrad, who dined out on the proceeds of the film rights to his work as far back as 1919. Versions of his books run like a spine through the history of cinema, from Orson Welles (who tried his hand at Heart of Darkness before abandoning it for Citizen Kane) to Chantal Akerman (Almayer’s Folly). Authors of many stripes, from Robert Stone to Joan Didion, who once admitted to never embarking on the writing of a new novel without rereading Conrad’s Victory (“maybe my favorite book in the world”), continue as well to insist not just on the quality but on the relevance of this chronically ill, terminally troubled, and long-impecunious exile, for whom writing (in his third language, no less, after his native Polish and adopted French) was nothing short of a wrenching struggle.

As was the case with Kurtz, (almost) all of Europe contributed to the making of Conrad. It thus shouldn’t come as a surprise that this eminently adaptable son of Poland and the sea, whose experience of both resulted in a complex and highly mediated articulation in turn-of-the-century London, should attract the interest of a historian like Maya Jasanoff, whose Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (2011) was a model of historical narrative that achieved a rare literary quality, delivered with clarity and gusto. In her new book, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World, Jasanoff presents, as she did in Liberty’s Exiles, the sea as a kind of superhighway of commerce and empire that gave rise to newly forged forms of political subjectivity. This time, she pays particular attention to her topic’s ongoing relevance, the ways in which Conrad’s work reflects back to the reader of today something of his or her world—an apt conceit for the study of an author who titled a memoir The Mirror of the Sea. While there have been mountains of books written about Conrad and imperialism, for example, fewer have located him in the long, globalist epoch of economic history that followed, and Jasanoff reads Conrad as providing a feast of resemblances from a century’s distance. Traveling aboard a cargo ship from Hong Kong to Britain in order to gain some approximate perspective on ocean-crossing commercial transport, she muses that Conrad experienced the “emergence of the globally interrelated world” that we reckon with today.

Jasanoff quips that “history is like therapy for the present”: It makes the present “talk about its parents.” She sees thus in Conrad a ghostly forebear of a world just on the verge of becoming our world, and that, at least after the 1980s, has taken on a familiar set of economic and political coordinates under the rubric of globalism. In Nostromo there’s the bitter flavor of a rapacious kind of multinational capitalism centered on exploiting natural resources, and the destabilizing effect financial centers have on life far away in the periphery. Lord Jim, she writes, provides a taste of how technological “progress”—this time, in shipping—can disrupt economies and cultures around the globe. Terror, the prospect of displaced populations, and the bullet speed of commerce and trade: This most worldly of authors couldn’t avoid them in his books, or in his life. Jasanoff stands on his shoulders to understand how these nascent global forces shaped him, and how his reaction to them shaped his art.

Jasanoff has mapped her tour of Conrad’s life and world by way of four novels, The Secret Agent (1907), Heart of Darkness (1899), Lord Jim (1900), and Nostromo (1904) (perhaps the fact that the books are discussed in nonchronological order mimics the novelist’s complicated encounter with history). She also finds revealing material in Conrad’s formative and young-adult years—the time before he became a writer, and when he was a new arrival in London, a portion of his life curiously undocumented in his voluminous letters or in the numerous early biographies of him. He was born in 1857 as Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, the only son of an aristocratic and fervently nationalist poet in the now-Ukrainian city of Berdychiv. (A writer could do worse than to come from Berdychiv, which was also the birthplace of Vasily Grossman and the great Yiddish writer Der Nister, the onetime home of Sholem Aleichem, and the site of Balzac and Countess Hańska’s nuptials.) When his father was exiled to northern Russia, the family followed; his mother would die there of tuberculosis. He and his father eventually relocated to Kraków, where the elder Korzeniowski died, too. This left Conrad, at eleven, in the care of an uncle who was the ramrod-straight antithesis of his idealistic father, establishing a romantic/pragmatic polarity in the author’s identity that has become a chestnut of the biographical literature.

At some point during his youth, the romantic strain won out and Conrad grew obsessed with becoming a sailor—an unlikely destiny for a landlocked product of the Polish gentility, who were more likely to excel on the back of a horse than scampering up a mast. After a chaotic existence in Marseille, where he blew through a chunk of the money sent to him by his uncle and survived a suicide attempt, he began his career at sea in earnest, noting with irony that he had become “a Polish nobleman cased in British tar,” a crack that echoed the old nickname for a merchant seaman, “Jack Tar.” His experiences as a sailor took him to distant locations: among them, the Pacific and Indian Oceans, along the Malay Archipelago and Singapore and the Australian coast, and famously in 1890 up the Congo River—“a brief anomaly,” Jasanoff reminds us, “in a maritime career spent overwhelmingly on long-haul sailing ships,” just as “Heart of Darkness was a brief anomaly amid years of writing about the sea and southeast Asia.” During one of those journeys in the Far East, he began to sketch the book that would become Almayer’s Folly, his first novel, published in 1895.

Infrared photo of the Congo and Ubangi Rivers, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), 1995. NASA/Flickr.

Jasanoff makes judicious use of Conrad’s biography. Consider just one of the pitched oppositions in his life and work, the aforementioned juxtaposition of the romantic world of sail and the more quotidian one of steam, a feature of his fiction ranging from Lord Jim to Chance to the disastrous scene of poop-deck murder in “The Secret Sharer.” In 1878, when Conrad signed on to the British ship Mavis, the first of more than a dozen British-flagged vessels on which he would serve, the industry was in the midst of upheaval set in motion by the emergence of viable long-distance transport by steamship. World commerce was being radically transformed, and the might of British shipping being reestablished through steam, to the detriment of sailing ships. The effect was dramatic, leading to an industry that could absorb massive numbers of non-English workers on British ships and jacking up the odds that an import like Conrad could gain a top command. (It meant, too, that he was forced to take commissions of dubious status if he wanted a ranking officer’s position, which is how he ended up with the dismal job of piloting the Roi des Belges up the Congo River rather than helming a top-of-the-line ocean vessel.) Conrad’s career in the merchant marine was effectively ended by the lack of opportunity in the newer steam economy, larded with unskilled and deskilled laborers. Not to overstate his motivations, but the alternative that writing offered was as much a matter of financial necessity as of an expressive desire to convert his experiences into literature—even if it failed to produce lasting monetary comfort for him until the publication of a collection of stories, ’Twixt Land and Sea, in 1912, before the big payday accompanying Chance the following year.

Yet when he did begin to write and to turn those events into literature, he did so with an alchemical eccentricity that says much about both Conrad and the nature of his fiction. In the marvelous short story “Youth,” there’s a kind of comic audacity (or audacious comedy?) at play in his treatment of the almost slapstick final journey of the Palestine, a broken-down heap on which he served as second mate that caught fire and foundered on its way to Bangkok. As Jasanoff underlines, Conrad referred to “Youth” as “barely even fiction but ‘a feat of memory,’ ‘a record of experience.’ ” Yet his transformation involved remanning the international crew of the Palestine (renamed the Judea), a polyglot collection of Cornish, Irish, Dutch, Norwegian, West Indian, and Australian sailors, with a shipful of Liverpudlian “hard cases.” The sea was the great crucible of the imagination; it somehow licensed him in fiction to anglicize his crew, just as it had turned him from Konrad Korzeniowski to Joseph Conrad. As Jasanoff points out, these daring editorial “revisions” were accompanied by the first appearance of another authorial stand-in, Charles Marlow, the master storyteller, who would reappear as narrator elsewhere, including most spectacularly as the teller of Heart of Darkness. Conrad/Konrad even had the moxie to make a joke at his own expense when first introducing Marlow at the beginning of the story, writing, “At least I think that is how he spelt his name.”

Autobiography is a powerful but mysterious component of Conrad’s work, looming over it constantly but obliquely. Jasanoff notes the biographical and historical disjunctions that pile up in The Secret Agent, Conrad’s novel about a nesting-doll set of madman bombers and false-flag provocateurs in a London full of immigrants from all points east. For one, the episode of terror gone awry on which the novel was based had occurred more than a decade before the book’s publication, and by the time The Secret Agent and its story of the tragic demise of Verloc and his kin appeared in 1907, the figure of the anarchist with a stick of dynamite had become a caricature and anachronism. Yet the book also played more radically with time—looking backward to the fiery Polish past and political passion that consumed Conrad’s father and forward to the likes of Gavrilo Princip, whose assassination of Franz Ferdinand lit the slow fuse igniting World War I. Given the novel’s post-9/11 vogue, you might say it has fast-forwarded all the way to the present. Jasanoff sees in it a reflection of a London comprising almost entirely those who came from somewhere else, a metropolis mostly unthinkable without the flows of displaced immigrant labor and relaxed boundaries that came with the early globalist moment (in which late-nineteenth-century Britain bullishly led the way). The new London would be a composite of many different identities and politics and nationalities, a place of secret agents, and Conrad’s novel engages with this in captivating fashion: making the city a source of vertigo, fear, and escape while averring that revolutionary politics could indeed blow a family apart.

Jasanoff’s emphasis rarely takes a critical bent, but she does remind us of Conrad’s once-formidable reputation as an experimenter with form. He fiddled in interesting ways with the conditions through which we came to expect stories to be delivered, offering up a panoply of narrative devices suspended between seafaring yarns and self-consciously artistic constructions. Unreliable narrators, flukes of memory, disjunctions between an actual event and how it gets told, which Ian Watt in his work on Conrad described as “delayed decoding”: All these infect the Conradian world from its inception. Each of these narrative devices opens up a strange gap between the author and his text. It’s often forgotten that Marlow narrates Heart of Darkness not in the Congo but as he sits in a boat at the mouth of the Thames—a fissure in the story that makes the atavistic horror of his tale vastly stranger, even epic. How description and narration, event and interpretation link together is critical to Conrad’s art, no less so than it is to any historian’s project. Like the writing of narrative history, Conrad’s fiction puts an unusual amount of pressure on the relation of specific events to the flow of time.

Jasanoff’s approach to Conrad has its limits. Her deployment of Nostromo, the first significant work by the author set in a place (South America) that he knew mostly secondhand (largely through his swashbuckling friend R. B. Cunninghame Graham, and by reading books and the papers), never quite sparkles with the enthusiasm that consumes her reading of the rest of the quartet of novels. More dramatically, she doesn’t make much of a case for Conrad after the debacle of his return trip to Poland in 1914, when he found himself stranded on the wrong side of the continent as World War I broke out. This particular focus (or lack of focus), too, is a chestnut of Conrad biography and criticism: what to do with the last third of his life, when the apparent decline in the quality of his work coincided with his fame and commercial success as a writer. Edward Said ingeniously rejiggered the equation by arguing that Conrad’s greatest work was in the novella form, which matched the episodic experience that the author philosophically believed lay at the heart of reality, rather than the novel, which as it happened was the genre he increasingly adopted once he began to make good money with not-as-good long books after the 1910s.

Whether Conrad was more a sprinter than a stayer is not Jasanoff’s concern, but she acknowledges that the serious consideration Said and others paid to the private world and private writing of the author provides some of the most powerful Conradian criticism. Her own book makes the argument, as well, for the fruitfulness of the historian’s attention to the public world. By thinking as a historian of empire, globalism, and the sea, she offers up fascinating insights about Conrad’s work. Like her fellow historian Greg Grandin’s The Empire of Necessity (2014), which unpacked the 1804 slave-ship revolt that served as the source of Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” The Dawn Watch links our present to novels and novellas far removed in time, in the process revealing connections between people, places, and imaginative feats that neither of these titanic seamen-turned-authors, for all their visionary understanding of their own moment, might have imagined.

Eric Banks is the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU.