Joseph Conrad, the Great Author We Love To Hate

Joseph Conrad hasn’t had it easy. Beloved by critics, read by millions of students, and lost in the middle. No other novelist has written so many recognized classics and still been so forgotten.

Consider his offerings in my assembled version of the Western Canon. Conrad has six entries, one of which you’ve probably read, many of which you’ve heard of:

Heart of Darkness [MLB] [MLR] [RR] [LM] [G] [PB] [GB] [SJC] [EL] [EP] [MUM]
Lord Jim [MLB] [RR] [G] [PB] [EP] [HB] [MUM]
Nostromo [MLB] [O] [G] [PB] [HB]
The Secret Agent [MLB] [G] [PB] [HB]
Victory: An Island Tale [G] [HB]
Under Western Eyes [G] [HB]

The only novelist who easily exceeds Conrad in universally-acclaimed output is that leviathan Charles Dickens with 12. Otherwise, no other celebrated literary heroes, from Henry James to William Faulkner, can outmatch him. 

But unlike those writers, Conrad has failed to capture our romantic imaginations. He doesn’t appear in Barnes & Noble author murals. He isn’t the subject of swooning cinematic lovefests like Midnight in Paris or The Hours. He has no pilgrims visiting famous haunts in Oxford, Mississippi; Dublin; or Key West. The few memorials to him scattered across the globe are unremarkable and do nothing to tell his remarkable story. For example, one in his native Poland includes a quote expressing his great affection for the sea. This is, of course, true, but about as comprehensive and informative as a statue of Vladimir Nabokov wielding a butterfly net. The man’s interests and inspiration are one thing; why is he an inspiration to us now?

Like Nabokov, Conrad is an English writer who learned the language late and still put native writers to shame. Here is a Polish citizen, transfixed by the narrative of the sea, who masters English later in his twenties, settles in London, and writes about far-flung locations in order to avoid the awkwardness of competing national loyalties. Not your typical fellow.

A recent biography of Conrad acknowledges his anxiety with his own alien-ness. He knew he may be regarded as “a sort of freak, a bloody amazing furriner writing in English.” But he dismissed these attitudes, believing himself to have a Western European heart. And while his story alone makes him interesting, his novels are classics because of their subject matter. Colonialism, terrorism, racism, and shell shock. If Henry James is the last author of the 19th century, Conrad is the first of the 20th. He is the first author to write characters outside his home sphere (albeit an adopted one) with equal respect and sensitivity and balance. He wrote of Polynesian tribes, Latin American backwaters, Russian spies, Congo riverboats, and he treated them not as exotic window dressing but as more real and sincere in many cases than their European colonizers. He is the first novelist with an eye as wide as the globe.

I have begun reading Nostromo, a book about which F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “I’d rather have written Nostromo than any other novel.” Already I feel similarities to Under the Volcano and some of the classics of Conrad’s most avid follower, Graham Greene. It is a serious and heavy novel, rich in detail and symbolism. But perhaps what make it, along with much of Conrad’s work, from reaching the level of popularity of a Great Gatsby or Lolita or Pride and Prejudice is its grim sobriety. Even Heart of Darkness, easily one of the top ten most famous novels of the 20th century, is a perennial challenge for college undergrads. Only 100 pages, it weighs 100 pounds in misery. Reading Nostromo, I can imagine Conrad laboring away ferociously on every page, but I can’t imagine he was having a lot of fun.

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