To the dark heart of a mas­ter

The Dawn Watch: Joseph Con­rad In A Global World

Sunday Herald Life - - BOOKS REVIEWS - MAYA JASANOFF Wil­liam Collins £25 Re­view by Hugh MacDon­ald

THE work and per­son­al­ity of Joseph Con­rad have been ap­proached by sev­eral routes, each hold­ing a de­gree of dif­fi­culty as if the great writer was a moun­tain to be con­quered or a sea to be suc­cess­fully nav­i­gated.

Maya Jasanoff has taken the most am­bi­tious ap­proach. Her pur­pose is sim­ply stated: “In this book I set out to ex­plore Con­rad’s world with the com­pass of a his­to­rian, the chart of a bi­og­ra­pher, and the nav­i­ga­tional sex­ton of a reader.” She seeks, too, to link the his­tory of the con­ti­nents of the world through four of Con­rad’s novels: The Se­cret Agent, Lord Jim, The Heart Of Dark­ness and Nostromo. She also throws in in­ci­sive but in­sight­ful por­traits of such as Roger Case­ment, Robert Cun­ning­hame Gra­ham and Ford Ma­dox Ford in a lit­tle more than 300 pages in­clud­ing il­lus­tra­tions, maps, notes, ac­knowl­edge­ments and in­dex.

This lean but pow­er­ful tes­ti­mony may amount only to a par­tial tri­umph but it is a tri­umph nev­er­the­less. Jasanoff, pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Har­vard, has been gar­landed with prizes for her ear­lier works, Edge Of Em­pire and Lib­erty’s Ex­iles. The Dawn Watch is her best work, mark­ing her out as a his­to­rian of restless in­tel­lect and a writer of ex­tra­or­di­nary gifts.

This is a pow­er­ful com­bi­na­tion of tal­ents but it does not guar­an­tee that she is al­ways per­sua­sive. Her at­tempt to link Con­rad’s work to a his­tory of the con­ti­nents is ar­gued in­tel­li­gently, oc­ca­sion­ally with bril­liance. It is not en­tirely con­vinc­ing, how­ever. Her am­bi­tion has also led her to take on too much in too lit­tle space.

These are the only quib­bles with a mag­is­te­rial work where it some­how barely mat­ters that her the­sis of Con­rad and his links with glob­al­i­sa­tion is not proved, at least to this reader. She is res­cued from this fail­ing by her un­al­loyed en­ergy, wit and abil­ity to pro­voke fas­ci­na­tion.

The res­ur­rec­tion of Con­rad and his works is con­ducted with a fa­cil­ity that be­lies its dif­fi­culty. Kon­rad Korzeniowski was an or­phan by 11. He was a ro­man­tic de­nied a mother­land by his self-im­posed ex­ile from Poland. A na­tive of a land­locked coun­try, he was ob­sessed by sea­far­ing. He made it his trade but was buf­feted, tossed and al­most ul­ti­mately wrecked by his ex­pe­ri­ence.

Con­rad, as he be­came on his ad­vent to Eng­land, sur­vived a sui­cide at­tempt when he shot him­self in the chest at the age of 23. Jasanoff points out as­tutely that 17 of his char­ac­ters take their own lives in his works.

It is her ex­plo­ration of the man and his imag­i­nary world that con­vinces ut­terly, to­tally. There was a dark­ness to Con­rad that can never be fully ex­plored but Jasanoff con­jures up scenes of ex­tra­or­di­nary poignancy, none more af­fect­ing that when the au­thor re­turns from a fraught meet­ing with his agent and curls up into a ball, mut­ter­ing des­per­ately in Pol­ish and com­muning with his fic­tional char­ac­ters.

This com­bi­na­tion of bru­tal re­al­ity and fe­brile imag­i­na­tion is at the core of Con­rad and his novels. His ex­pe­ri­ence of life was marked by loss of par­ents and coun­try and by a lack of suc­cess, at least in ca­reer terms, as a sea­man.

But he trav­elled long and hard and he was not only guided by his imag­i­na­tion but sus­tained by it. Con­rad un­doubt­edly found pain within him­self but he also di­vined that it could of­fer univer­sal lessons.

He was as­ton­ish­ingly pre­scient. The Heart Of Dark­ness is not only an in­dict­ment of im­pe­ri­al­ism but also of how the ma­te­rial can cor­rupt the in­di­vid­ual. The Se­cret Agent is an eerily ac­cu­rate pre­dic­tor of a global ter­ror­ism to come.

Lord Jim is a per­ti­nent re­minder that great men are only men and that lead­ers can

be de­fined and de­filed by a sin­gle mo­ment with sur­vival com­ing at a cost of en­dur­ing and re­lent­less shame. Nostromo, his best work, is pre­cisely and per­sua­sively cited by Jasanoff as the first great novel to an­tic­i­pate Amer­ica’s in­flu­ence on the world as a con­stant in­ter­ven­tion­ist in the run­ning of other states.

The cer­tainty of Jasanoff in these mat­ters is jus­ti­fied. But she is at her con­sid­er­able best when gently pry­ing into the life of an in­tel­lect so grand, Con­rad be­came one of the great­est writ­ers of his time, of any time, in his third lan­guage af­ter Pol­ish and French.

There was a frailty and vul­ner­a­bil­ity to Con­rad and this biography ac­knowl­edges that but Jasanoff has brought forth a cel­e­bra­tion of hu­man strength that can in the anointed bring forth an art of gen­tle won­der and po­tent sub­stance.

Pho­to­graph: Granger/REX/ Shutterstock

Joseph Con­rad sur­vived a sui­cide at­tempt when he shot him­self in the chest at the age of 23

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