Biography for Lord Jim and Nostromo


Random House, Inc.
Joseph Conrad was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in Russian-occupied Poland on December 3, 1857. His parents were aristocrats and intensely nationalistic political activists who were exiled to Vologda, northeast of Moscow, for their opposition to tsarist rule. Józef's mother, Ewa, died in 1865 of tuberculosis, and his father, Apollo, succumbed to the same disease four years later. Józef was cared for by his uncle Tadeusz Bobrowski until the young man acted on a long-expressed desire to go to sea. In 1874 he left for Marseilles, where he began sailing for the French merchant service.

In 1878, in money difficulties and no longer able to sail on French vessels because he had not secured an exemption from military service in Russia, Conrad attempted suicide. After his recovery, he left Marseilles on a British ship and went to England, where he worked the route between Lowestoft and Newcastle. He arrived in England virtually without qualifications and with very little English, but he was able in a few years to earn his master's certificate in the British merchant marine and became a British national. Conrad traveled to Mauritius and Constantinople, worked on wool clippers from London to Australia, and sailed the waters of the Far East. These voyages were punctuated by long periods when he could not find suitable positions because of the decline in sail-powered transport in the age of the steamship.

Conrad began writing in English, which became his language of choice after his native Polish and French, although he complained of difficulties with English grammar and syntax. His voyages provided the background for much of his fiction. 'Youth' and 'Typhoon' draw on Conrad's personal experience with disasters at sea. In 1881, he became second mate on the Palestine, a ship that was rammed, caught in tempestuous gales in the English Channel, had its cargo of coal catch fire, and sank off Sumatra. His captaincy of the Otago from Bangkok in 1888 informs The Shadow-Line (1917) and the stories 'Falk' and 'The Secret Sharer.' Heart of Darkness (1899) is drawn from an expedition to the Belgian Congo in 1890. He was already working on a novel when he traveled to the Congo, where he expected to take command of a river steamer. The assignment failed to materialize, and Conrad fell dangerously ill. On his return to England, he was forced to find work as a ship's mate. He was able during this period of intermittent employment to devote more time to his writing, and in 1894 he submitted the novel Almayer's Folly to the publisher Fisher Unwin. Unwin published it in 1895 under the anglicized version of Conrad's Polish name.

Conrad was encouraged to continue to write by Unwin's reader Edward Garnett, although he went on applying for posts as a ship's captain. He finished The Outcast of the Islands in 1895 and in 1896 married Jessie George. They had two sons, Borys and John, born in 1898 and 1906. Constantly in need of more money, Conrad produced short stories and serialized his novels. Although plagued by physical illness and psychological problems, he established one of the most formidable bodies of work in the English language. His longer works include The Nigger of the 'Narcissus (1897), Lord Jim (1900), Nostromo (1904), The Secret Agent (1907), Under Western Eyes (1911), and Victory (1915). Nostromo, set in the imaginary South American republic of Costaguana, is considered by many critics to be Conrad's best work and by some to be the finest novel of the twentieth century.

From early in his career Conrad had the admiration of fellow writers--Stephen Crane, John Galsworthy, Henry James, and Ford Madox Ford, with whom Conrad collaborated on The Inheritors (1901) and Romance (1903). It was only after the success of Chance (1913), however, that his writing afforded him widespread recognition and relative financial security. H

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