Fiction Is History

A journey through Joseph Conrad’s life at sea.

By Lapham’s Quarterly

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Seascape (Gravelines), by Georges Seurat, 1890. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon.

On The World in Time podcast in December 2017, Lewis H. Lapham spoke with Maya Jasanoff about The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Lewis H. Lapham: Although Joseph Conrad died in 1924, he was describing the globally connected capitalist world order in which we now find ourselves, ill at ease and far from home. You see him as one of us, declare yourself amazed by what you call “the prophetic sweep” of his particular way of looking at the world. What is that particular way, and how does it help us read today’s newspaper headlines?

Maya Jasanoff: Here are some headlines from the last year. There’s been upheaval in a republic in South America. There have been shipping accidents in the South China Sea in Southeast Asia. There’s been violence in Central Africa. There’s been terrorism in London. Each of those things is actually also a plotline in a novel by Joseph Conrad.

LHL: What are those four novels, which you discuss in detail in the book?

MJ: Nostromo is a gripping and extremely multilayered novel about capitalism in Latin America. It surveys the fortunes of a Latin American republic as they rise and fall around the possession of a silver mine and the various international interests behind it. The novel that deals with a shipping accident is Lord Jim, which is one of many novels that Conrad set on a ship, partly in Southeast Asia, and drew very heavily on his own experiences as a sailor. The novel that deals with violence in Central Africa is probably the one that’s best known to readers today. Heart of Darkness was based on Conrad’s own experiences as a sailor going up and down the Congo River during the time of the Congo Free State, one of the most rapacious imperial regimes in human history.

And finally the novel that deals with terrorism in London, The Secret Agent, has deservedly gotten a second lease on life in recent years—deservedly, but unfortunately. It tells the story of an anarchist conspiracy to blow up a building in London and has two layers of resonance with our world today. One is the targeting of the Greenwich Observatory as a conspicuous public location that will attract attention, in the way of bombings in recent years in cities around the world. But it also deals with Russian plotting and the setting up of an agent provocateur in order to disrupt the workings of a liberal democracy. The levels of prescience in Conrad never cease to amaze me. In a novel I first approached as a document of terrorism, now I see this resonance with what’s going on with Russia today.

LHL: To connect those resonances with Conrad’s life: his idea of Russia is one he knows firsthand. He’s born where, and what was his name before he changed it to Conrad?

MJ: One of the most important things that came to me as I was writing this book is that Conrad’s novels are overwhelmingly based on personal experience or real-world incidents. In my book I spend a lot of time talking about his life because it’s so central to the story. He was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857, in the town of Berdychiv, which is in Ukraine today and was part of the Russian empire. His parents were Poles. They belonged to a gentry class of traditional landowners called the szlachta. They were also committed to the restoration of a Polish nation-state, which had been carved up in the late eighteenth century by the Austrians, by the Prussians, and by the Russians. The szlachta, Conrad’s parents among them, felt this hereditary calling to try to restore the old Polish nation. Conrad was raised as a subject of the Russian empire in a family that was acutely conscious of the disappearance of the Polish nation. It was a very romanticized vision of the old Polish nation, it has to be said. The nation that his parents wanted back was one in which, of course, the szlachta would have special rights. This vision was also embedded in literature. The poets of the Polish romantic tradition, such as Adam Mickiewicz, were everyday figures in the Korzeniowski household. Young Conrad was known to have memorized great reams of this romantic poetry at the behest of his parents.

His father, Apollo Korzeniowski, was also a man of letters. He was a poet himself and a playwright and translated works from French into Polish. He coupled his literary activity with committed nationalism, using his writing to try to reinstate a Polish nation. It was with that objective that the family moved, when Conrad was about three years old, to Warsaw, where Apollo was going to start an underground newspaper, as a way to galvanize the Polish community into an uprising, which various nationalists were planning at that time.

A few weeks before the first paper came off the press, the Korzeniowski family was at home in their apartment in Warsaw. Conrad was probably asleep; it was in the middle of the night. There was a rap on the door and tsarist troops came bursting into the apartment. They arrested Apollo Korzeniowski on charges of sedition and carried him off to the prison in Warsaw called the Citadel, where he was locked up with other political prisoners. He was ultimately tried and convicted for nationalist insurrectionary activity.

In the wake of his arrest, the whole family was exiled and sent off to the borders of Siberia. Conrad was only three or four years old. He, his mother, Eva, and his father, Apollo, were all in conditions of considerable physical discomfort. His parents both contracted tuberculosis and ultimately died very young, leaving Conrad, at the age of eleven, an orphan. He was an orphan to the conditions of exile but also, in a sense, to the lost cause of Polish nationalism.

LHL: Between the ages of eleven and sixteen, is he in Warsaw?

MJ: He ends up being shunted around. He is parentless and is looked after largely by a maternal uncle and by his mother’s mother. He lives partly in Kraków and partly in Ukraine. He’s in Lviv for a little while. It’s a really unsettled childhood, which I think is an important part of his story.

LHL: The unsettled aspect shows up in all four novels that you’re taking on. He becomes a sailor how? He leaves Poland and goes to Marseilles at the age of sixteen, is that right?

MJ: It’s one of the things that’s funny about Conrad’s story and that is hard for people to explain. This sixteen-year-old decides that, rather than go into land management, rather than go to university, what he really wants to do is become a sailor. Now, this is somebody who has grown up hundreds of miles from the ocean.

LHL: Exactly.

MJ: You might think that’s an odd choice, but I think it makes a lot of sense put up against his incredibly peripatetic and traumatic childhood. This is a guy who is adrift before he ever sets foot on a ship. There’s an incredible appeal for him in getting away from it all: away from this part of the world, away from the sites of personal trauma, away from a set of political conditions he’s been raised from before he can remember to detest. It’s worth noting here that his first encounter with empire is with the Russian empire, where he’s a subject.

Not long before his seventeenth birthday he goes off to Marseilles to train to be a sailor, with his uncle’s reluctant blessing. He speaks fluent French, like many Poles of his social class. There is also a Polish émigré community in France and connections that his family can mobilize. And of course it’s a major seaport, and the French have a huge merchant navy. Through these connections he finds himself at the age of seventeen on a ship going off to the Caribbean.

LHL: Conrad spends two or three years sailing in the French merchant marine and then goes to England and becomes a sailor on an English ship. Is that when he learns English? In my mind, he’s one of the great stylists in the English language. But it’s his third language.

MJ: Yes. We’ve gone this far into the conversation without even remarking on that stunning fact. If you want just one thing to say about how Conrad is an exceptional figure, I think that’s it. He is one of the great writers of his times in English, and he only learns it in his twenties.

After a few years of sailing on French ships, the market closes up for him because technically he’s not supposed to be on French ships without having the formal permission of the Russian authorities. This is, again, one of the ways in which the issues of empire, belonging, citizenship, and labor markets come together in Conrad’s life, in the way that they do in people’s lives today. He ends up not being able to find work. He also is running out of money and is hit with an attack of what we can only call now clinical depression. It culminates in a suicide attempt in Marseilles, an episode that a lot of biographers don’t say a lot about because they’re interested in talking about other things.

LHL: It’s also hard to explain.

MJ: It’s hard to explain, but I think it’s critical to note that Conrad goes off to England within months, weeks really, of the suicide attempt in France. We need to put this through line of personal psyche into the picture.

LHL: You also point out that in his novels seventeen characters commit suicide.

MJ: That’s right. This is a person who’s afflicted time and again with depression throughout his life, who has several breakdowns, and whose vision and sense of the world could even be described by some as nihilistic.

LHL: He stays as a sailor, rising in rank to mate and captain. He has the certificates for twenty-two years. The first ships he sails on are sailing ships, right?

MJ: He’s in the British merchant marine for most of his sailing career. It’s the biggest in the world, the most open to outsiders. He doesn’t need to get permission from authorities. In fact, a rather high percentage, around 30 percent, of sailors in the British merchant marine are continental Europeans at that time. He’s working his way up at a time when the industry is changing because of steamships. They have lots of advantages over sailing ships: they’re much more regular, they’re more comfortable, they can go against the wind. This is particularly important when you’re dealing with the Suez Canal, which opens in 1869. A sailing ship can’t navigate the canal very well because of the currents and the winds. The move to steam is a technological shift that’s easy to celebrate, in the same way it’s easy to celebrate the rise of the railroad over carriages. But with this shift comes a set of occupational changes. On a steamship you need engineers. On a sailing ship, you have people who are handling the sails. It’s a very different kind of work. Conrad belongs to that last generation of people who are trained on the sailing ship and see their skills getting displaced by technological change. He is on the losing end of the market and finds it harder and harder to get a job.

LHL: That’s a theme that runs through his work: the world of sail and the world of steam. Talk about how he frames that difference symbolically.

MJ: For Conrad, that difference becomes more than just two kinds of technologies. It’s the difference between two ways of life. He develops an idea of the sailing ship as representing the ideal form of community. People are committed to a kind of skill, a craft—a word that he uses over and over in relation to sailing ships. They are committed to values of honor, they are in touch with nature, and, for all their individual foibles, the crew of a sailing ship is able to set aside their individual desires in favor of some larger purpose when called upon.

His vision of the sailing community is very romanticized, and it is, of course, based on a male community. We may be tempted to draw analogies to how technological change now is driving out certain community values. In this way, Conrad has a lot to tell us, but I don’t want to underplay how nostalgic his vision was. For him the steamship was this mechanized thing, chugging along almost independently of human control. Humans are there to serve it as much as it’s there to serve humans. He sees those values of community and honor and craft being eroded by or being almost irrelevant to the world of the steamship. Instead of those values, he sees selfishness and the cutting off of men from nature and of men from each other. This atomization and the sense that bigger values are getting compromised are essential to his general distrust toward what passed for progress or civilization in his era.

LHL: There’s a great deal of that feeling in the world at the moment.

MJ: Very much. Again, here Conrad has something to tell us. And while I don’t want to underplay the extent to which he’s nostalgic and how his vision is, in certain ways, conservative and backward, there’s something to it as well. Nowadays when you look at some of the debates about technology, people who question the rise of digitization or social media are often written off as Luddites. But I think that there’s a different road.

LHL: He talks about the Russian empire as a machine in which we are all cogs and how the whole world is becoming a machine—that’s the way he sees the capitalist world order.

MJ: Interestingly, it’s actually his father who makes that analogy. But Conrad himself will later make a similar analogy. He writes a quite well-known letter to a friend in the late 1890s where he likens the human condition to a knitting machine—a mechanical womb—which will go on clacking and clacking, no matter what individual people try to do against it.

LHL: That theme appears in Nostromo, but before we get to that we have to say a few words about his coming off the ship in 1894 and beginning to write novels based on his experiences in Southeast Asia, the Malay Archipelago, and so on—which are all wonderful stories. I myself can remember reading An Outcast of the Islands and Almayer’s Folly at a very early age. Over the course of twenty years, he writes twenty-odd novels and novellas and many stories—also a magnificent collection of letters, so we have a lot of insight into the working of his mind. What does he think about history and fiction? I tend to think I learn more history in a good novel, like Nostromo or Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, than in most academic histories. Conrad had the same idea, did he not?

MJ: Conrad says, “Fiction is history, human history, or it is nothing.” He has a lot of things to say about this, and they skew in slightly different directions. He was very committed to trying to represent on the page what he believed to be a kind of reality around him. I use the word reality guardedly because he’s often associated with a technique called literary impressionism. He writes in another text about how his purpose is to make you see, to make you hear, to make you feel—which is something that’s been important for me to think about as I write history. We know as historians that everything that we write is, of course, a narrative. Everything we look at is a narrative. Everything in our soundly researched, empirically supported histories is nonetheless channeled through our own interpretation and based on other people’s interpretations.

LHL: When you were preparing to write this book, you traveled along some of the very paths that Conrad had.

MJ: Exactly. I think that the key difference between history and fiction is that a historian will never make things up. A historian doesn’t go into somebody’s mind in the way that a novel and a novelist does. To me the appeal of using fiction as a historical source is that it does go into the mind. You have to interpret a novel the way you would any other historical source, but it gives you that inside-out look.

As to traveling, I own, as it were, the self-awareness of my perspective as a writer. I know I can do as thorough research as possible to try to get a sense of how things were. But I also know that it is me who is doing this, and there’s no way that simply by orchestrating my prose in a certain way I can pretend I’m not a part of the story. For me, traveling has a twofold value. We can never talk to our sources when we are historians of one hundred years ago. They are long dead. I’ll never know what Conrad sounded like. I’ll never know what he smelled like. I’ll never know what it was like to watch him at the other end of a room. I will never walk through the same street that that he walked through. But versions of those places still exist today, and vestiges from those times are sedimented into our own. I think there’s value in going to see places and unpacking them.

LHL: You traveled on the Congo River.

MJ: Right. The other value is to put myself in these situations and think about them. I took three trips for this book. The first was a container-ship voyage. I wanted to get a sense of what it was like to spend an extended period of time at sea, because that was such a foundational part of Conrad’s life, to say nothing of his work. He was a sailor for twenty years and at sea for roughly half of that time. I sailed from Hong Kong to England. I spent four weeks at sea and felt what it was like to be on a ship day in, day out, a feeling I never could have gotten just through reading. I then realized, having taken the container ship, it was also important for me to see how a tall sailing ship operates because it was so central to Conrad’s career. So I also spent a week on a tall ship with the Sea Education Association, which is based out of Woods Hole. They run tall ships mostly for American college students to learn how to sail. Again, it was something I never could have experienced vicariously through the page with the same visceral reality as I did when I was leaning over the railing and vomiting into the Irish Sea, which I was repeatedly.

And then, finally, I took a voyage down the Congo River. It’s the most famous—or, for readers today, infamous—journey that Conrad took. He went up and down the Congo in 1890 on a Belgian steamship. I went on a small boat that was pushing a bunch of barges. This is the primary way of moving goods and, to an extent, people up and down the Congo today. I spent two weeks on this vessel, which also gave me an insight into the feel and the look of the landscape and what’s changed since Conrad’s day. The boats and the riverbank are interconnected in ways that Conrad doesn’t fully acknowledge in his writing. There’s a long embedded historical reality of codependence, as it were, between ship and shore. That’s another thing you get from going to the places in your sources—you see what’s left out.

LHL: Let’s talk about Nostromo, which is not really based on Conrad’s experiences. It’s set in South America, but in a country that he mostly makes up called Costaguana. His own travels to the Caribbean when he was sailing out of Marseilles with the French were very brief. He bases his descriptions on his reading and talking to friends of his who were very familiar with South America. But to me, it’s extraordinarily convincing.

MJ: It’s an interesting question why he chose to write a novel about a place that he’d never been. I think one of the reasons it seemed to be convincing at the time is because he based his picture of South America on sources that his readers were also reading. It was a kind of self-reproducing discourse. At the same time, as a person who read the papers and knew what was what in the world, he knew that in order to write the kind of novel he wanted to write, which was about settler colonialism, multinational capitalism, and political upheaval in a republic, South America was the place to set it, because it had this configuration of things. On the one hand, the novel is about a place he hadn’t visited in person. But it’s also based on themes and issues that he had seen manifested elsewhere, that he had thought about for decades by the time he finally sat down to write Nostromo, which infuses the novel with a sense of reality.

LHL: He has a deep-seated sense of fatality concerning the man-inhabiting world. He never could find in any man’s book or any man’s talk something convincing enough to stand up for. He’s a realist, but to my mind and, I gather also to yours, one with penetrating insight into human character.

MJ: Nostromo is a book about imperialism and the kind of nineteenth-century romantic nationalism that Conrad saw with his parents. When he started the book, he said it was mostly about Italians, and he had in mind the Garibaldini in South America, who’d been followers of Giuseppe Garibaldi. The imperialism, though, is different from the Russian imperialism of the tsar that he experienced as a child. The book is about the imperialism that was coming into being in the twentieth century, as empire becomes an “ism” through Marx, the British political economist J.A. Hobson, and then Lenin. It was imperialism as a form of capitalism. What Conrad describes in Nostromo is what he was seeing in Singapore and certainly in Congo, where a cycle of investment and extraction is being guided by people like Holroyd sitting in an office in San Francisco.

LHL: I want you to read Holroyd’s remarks to the owner of the silver mine in Costaguana. Holroyd is an American financier and a representative of the capitalist global world order, the equivalent of our big bankers in New York, London, or Hong Kong. The mine needs capital to become productive. So the idealists, the people hoping for a better world in Costaguana, have to rely on the capitalist banks to make their dream come true. This is what is said to the mine’s owner by the American financier.

MJ: “Of course, someday we shall step in. We are bound to. But there’s no hurry. Time itself has got to wait on the greatest country in the whole of God’s universe. We shall be giving the word for everything: industry, trade, law, journalism, art, politics, and religion, from Cape Horn clear over to Smith’s Sound, and beyond, too, if anything worth taking hold of turns up at the North Pole…We shall run the world’s business, whether the world likes it or not. The world can’t help it—and neither can we, I guess.”


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