THE PROTOTYPICAL MODERN transnational writer is Joseph Conrad, who wrote in English, which was more or less his fourth language. Born to a Polish family in what is now Ukraine and was then part of the Russian Empire, he picked up Russian in his youth and perfected his French as a seaman in the French merchant marine. Retired from a career as a British seaman, during which he advanced from crew member to captain, he tried to write. With his East European accent, he was forever insecure about his command of English, which he acquired pragmatically during his time at sea. He had adventures to relate, stories of enigmatic spies, smugglers, anarchists, and revolutionaries. But despite encouragement from writers like Ford Madox Ford and Henry James, finding the right words and proper diction was a protracted struggle.

Conrad’s place in the canon of British fiction was firmly established by the critic F. R. Leavis in The Great Tradition (1948). His novels of the sea, like Lord Jim, of adventures in Africa, the Far East, or an imagined South America, like Nostromo, and of anarchism in London, like The Secret Agent, have won him a steadily growing readership in the 20th century. They formed an important part of my own childhood, furnishing an exotic escape as well as entry into a realm of moral depth and despair I was still too young to fully fathom. Conrad’s canonical stature, however, was questioned by the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, who declared in 1977 that Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s most important novel, was “an offensive and totally deplorable book,” racist and imperialist in perspective, full of degrading stereotypes of African life. The charge affected me personally, as Conrad’s story is set in the Congo, which was owned and exploited by King Leopold II of Belgium, the country in which I was born.

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“History sits heavily on some backs,” Maya Jasanoff observes in The Dawn Watch, and Joseph Conrad’s origins are particularly gloomy. In 1857, the year of his birth, Poland did not fully exist. Its former territory had been absorbed by Russia, Prussia, and Austria in 1795. Konrad, his middle name, was a tribute to a hero of Polish patriotic literature. His parents were gentry, but not wealthy. His father, Apollo Korzeniowski, managed estates for others. He was a nationalist, poet, playwright, translator, and pamphleteer, who agitated for Polish autonomy and organized resistance. Conrad’s mother, Ewa Bobrowska, shared her husband’s insurrectionary impulse, although her more prosperous family disapproved of her marriage and what her brother Tadeusz Bobrowski saw as the quixotic, feckless folly of Korzeniowski’s idealism.

Korzeniowski’s activities were monitored by the Tsarist regime, leading to a summary arrest and a brutal incarceration. In 1862, a military tribunal sentenced him to exile, accompanied by his wife and five-year-old son. Conrad’s early childhood was spent in a damp chilly cabin in Vologda, some 300 miles northeast of Moscow. The boy — subject to migraines and seizures — took refuge in Charles Dickens, whose work he read in Polish translation. Although the sentence was commuted the following year and the family was sent back to Ukraine, Conrad watched his mother succumb to tuberculosis in 1865. His father plunged into a protracted, unrelenting grief. He took his son to Kraków, then under Austrian rule, and died in 1869, when Conrad was 11.

Placed in the care of his maternal grandmother and uncle Tadeusz Bobrowski, the boy was living in vastly improved circumstances but was frequently subject to ill-defined maladies. Describing a studio photograph of Conrad taken after the completion of his studies, Jasanoff characterizes the eyes as belonging “to another age, rimmed by dark rings the way a rock in the ocean gets banded by the tide.” This haunted young man’s decision to join the merchant marine was, as Jasanoff writes, a “completely fantastical notion” — he had “been raised hundreds of miles from the ocean.” On the other hand, he “had been adrift his whole life. Going to sea just made it official.”

From the ages of 17 to 21, Conrad learned his nautical ropes and knots on sailing vessels in the French merchant marine. He also accumulated gambling debts he could not repay, possibly engaged in a gunrunning scheme, and attempted suicide, with a bullet just missing his heart. Jasanoff is as skimpy on detail here as Conrad’s previous biographers — including Ian Watt, Zdzisław Najder (who offers the best account of Conrad’s early years), and the psychoanalytical Bernard Constant Meyer — because most of the “evidence” is contained in a letter from Tadeusz. It is a tale that Conrad himself willfully obscured, though there are 17 separate suicide attempts in his fiction, many of them presented in what an attorney might call an exculpatory manner.

Jasanoff’s copiously annotated sources reveal that she has gleaned a lot from texts like Richard Henry Dana’s classics Two Years Before the Mast (1840) and The Seaman’s Friend (1841). She demonstrates a convincing command of nautical conditions in the middle of the 19th century: the clammy, moldy dankness below decks, where rats can nibble on a sleeping sailor’s heels; the sense of timelessness formed by long voyages in a vast, landless expanse — “the magic monotony of existence between sky and water,” as Conrad put it in Lord Jim.

After his French fiasco, Conrad spent another 16 years in the British merchant marine, until he made his final voyage in 1894. This was a period when his professional stature changed from slop-worker and dish-washer to officer, when sails were being replaced by steam and narrowing the demand for labor, when ships were generally unsafe, undermanned, overloaded with cargo, and poorly maintained, and when British crews were made up of mostly impoverished, illiterate, and often foreign unfortunates who were paid poorly and treated worse. These men, however, formed durable bonds. Conrad described the milieu in Lord Jim as “an obscure body of men held together by a community of inglorious toil and by fidelity to a certain standard of conduct.” Departures from this unwritten code would form a crucial existential tension in Conrad’s fiction.

Much of Conrad’s career at sea was spent in the Far East, shipping out of Singapore to remote places like Borneo and Sulawesi, where human sacrifice still occurred, slavery was still rampant, and smuggling and piracy were common. Despite attaining his master’s certificate in 1886, Conrad found it difficult to find a captain’s position. An 18-week period in 1888 as first mate on the Vidar a ship known for smuggling contraband guns and slaves — inspired his novel Lord Jim and more of Conrad’s subsequent fiction than any other time in his life.

Jasanoff often uses historical context to deepen her reader’s understanding of Conrad’s life and fiction. One fine example is her discussion of The Secret Agent. The novel, which she summarizes meticulously, was based on a failed attempt in 1894 by anarchists to blow up the Greenwich Observatory in London, the place where time itself was measured and regulated; it was, in other words, as symbolic a locus for attack as the World Trade Center in New York in 1993 and 2001. In London near the end of the 19th century, there had been a spate of other such attempts, mostly failed, and often conducted by Irish nationalists seeking to end 300 years of British colonial domination. Though ineffective, these attacks led to the Aliens Act of 1905, limiting immigration for the first time in British history. A few weeks after the act became effective, Conrad began The Secret Agent.

Anarchist agitation in Europe had been one reaction to the arbitrary absolutism of monarchy, and the patenting of dynamite in 1867 had given anarchists the necessary tool to resist the overwhelming power of the state. Jasanoff also points to the influx of Russian and Polish refugees to London at the turn of the century. Few of these were anarchists, of course; the majority were Jews drawn to the right of asylum traditionally associated with Britain. Yet some brought with them explosive ideas and revolutionary experience. As Jasanoff points out, the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in St. Petersburg in 1881 was carried out principally by Ignacy Hryniewiecki, a Polish anarchist who was only one year older than Conrad.

Indeed, Jasanoff is less attentive to the literary qualities of Conrad’s work than to its political and economic background. Her approach is quite valuable, but, inevitably, fills in only part of the picture. Jasanoff neglects the pulleys and gears that bring Conrad’s fiction to life, just as she minimizes the sort of intimate detail that animates most biography. We learn about the factual underpinnings of The Secret Agent, but we do not get a full sense, much less an explanation of the paranoia and implacable hatred motivating Adolf Verloc, the novel’s central figure and one of Conrad’s most intriguing characters. For me, this is a considerable drawback. Often, Conrad’s work is used by Jasanoff as more of an instrument than a subject. The last part of Jasanoff’s book, for instance, is devoted to Nostromo — not one of Conrad’s best-constructed novels — because it enables her to rehearse the messy attempts of North Americans to dominate and colonize (at least, economically) South America.

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Jasanoff’s central inquiry in The Dawn Watch has to do with the circumstances surrounding Heart of Darkness and the nightmare journey to discover a company agent named Kurtz. As a matter of biographical fact, she argues, “none of Conrad’s other works of fiction could be so closely pegged to contemporary records of his experience.”

In the 1890s, central Africa was being looted for ivory and rubber by King Leopold II of Belgium, who dispatched his rapacious agents on the pretext of civilizing the natives — what Kipling famously called the “white man’s burden.” Using their technological superiority, these men — two-thirds of them Belgian nationals — swindled or intimidated hundreds of local tribes into signing treaties that forfeited land rights, forced them into dangerous and back-breaking slavery to procure ivory and rubber, and punished infractions by severing hands. If the men were to flee into the jungle, the women and children would be seized. Jasanoff charts the barbarous details, though with less passion than Adam Hochschild in his King Leopold’s Ghost (1998). 

Conrad’s journey into the territory began in 1890 in Brussels, where he had been promised a captain’s position on a steamer traveling up the Congo River. His predecessor had been shot in the gut with a musket by an African villager, and further premonitions of disaster — dead bodies left by the trailside, a skeleton tied to a post — were evident as Conrad undertook a 200-mile overland trek that left him weakened with dysentery and recurrent fever. Finally reaching the Congo River in Leopoldville, his assignment was to learn how to navigate the unpredictable dangers ahead — treacherous shoals, submerged boulders, hidden banks. On the Roi des Belges, a wood-burning steamer that seemed as “seaworthy as an orange crate,” he traveled a thousand miles upstream to Stanley Falls through a landscape that resembled the “earliest beginnings of the world.” The implacable power of the wilderness would become a potent presence in Heart of Darkness:

The great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence.

Still known as Konrad Korzeniowski, Conrad would spend two months going upriver and back, carrying the uncompleted manuscript of what would become his first novel, Almayer’s Folly, all the while struggling with fevers, dysentery, and the emotional scars of what he had seen. Later, back in London, he was hospitalized, his legs swollen with what was likely incipient gout. He began to see everything “with such despondency — all in black.” He knew he was in the throes of a breakdown — what he had seen on his Congo journey had been too harrowing, leaving his nerves “disordered, which results in palpitations of the heart and attacks of breathlessness.” He felt “plunged in densest night,” his “dreams […] only nightmares.” It was the end of his career at sea, and the beginning of his future as a writer.

He would only be able to tell the story of Heart of Darkness eight years after the Congo expedition. He invented a complex narrative procedure for his tale, twisted “into a spiral no one voice could contain,” as Jasanoff writes. Departing from the conventions of realistic storytelling, his view would become irresolute — all knowledge would appear contingent, provisional, relative. In his ritualized retelling of what he had seen, the object of his quest upriver, Kurtz, would die surrounded by shrunken skulls, whispering the cryptically fragmented phrase “the horror, the horror,” which would resound as a motto for the 20th century.

In Conrad’s fatalistic view, we are formed by nature and subject to its force, although Western thought at the time foolishly supposed the reverse to be true. As he suggests with a metaphysically disorienting image at the beginning of his story, “the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside like a haze.”

“History is like therapy for the present: it makes it talk about its parents,” Jasanoff suggests in one of the pithy, direct remarks that punctuate her book. James Joyce offered the less sanguine view that “[h]istory […] is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Conrad, particularly in Heart of Darkness, was a precursor of that modernist mindset. “One has to write in order to live,” Conrad reflected in a letter, implying that for him writing provided a means of sustenance, as well as a reason not to end it all. With her clarifying historical perspective, Jasanoff gives us an account of the life that made Conrad’s inimitable writing not only possible, but necessary.

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John Tytell is professor of English at Queens College (C.U.N.Y.) His latest book is Beat Transnationalism.