A conversation with Professor Zdzisław Najder, a historian of literature and expert on Joseph Conrad. Interviewer: Grzegorz Nurek
Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim first appeared in book form in 1900, the same year as Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. Discussions of Conrad’s “free and wandering tale” over the past century can also be seen as an ongoing attempt to interpret the conflict between the romantic daydreams of a young British sailor and their consequences in the real world of colonial imperialism. In his own imagination, Jim is “always an example of devotion to duty, and as unflinching as a hero in a book”; but as his mentor Stein explains, he does not know “how to be”: “He wants to be a saint and he wants to be a devil – and every time he shuts his eyes he sees himself as a very fine fellow – so fine as he can never be. . . In a dream.” Marlow says in Heart of Darkness that “We live, as we dream – alone”; but once Jim sets himself apart from his kind by a notorious act of apparent cowardice, his quest is to find a community in which he can open his eyes without being reminded of his shame.
Before he ever left home, Joseph Conrad knew what powerful nations and material interests could do to weaker peoples. Born Jósef Teodor Konrad Nałęcz Korzeniowski, in Berdyczów in modern-day Ukraine in 1857, he belonged to a nation, Poland, which was no longer to be found on the map. His father Apollo, a writer and prominent Polish nationalist, was arrested and exiled with his family for anti-Russian conspiracy when his son was four years old. This was Conrad’s first lesson in the power of empires and the cost of idealism. Life was difficult and by the time he was 11, both his parents were dead. Conrad never forgave imperial Russia: “from the very inception of her being”, he was to write in 1905, “the brutal destruction of dignity, of truth, of rectitude, of all that is faithful in human nature has been made the imperative condition of her existence”. At age 17, the young Korzeniowski went to sea, serving first as an ordinary seaman and later as a ship’s officer, mostly in vessels of the British merchant marine. He learnt English in his twenties and developed an ambition to become a writer in this, his third language.
Joseph Conrad was born as Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in Berdychiv (today in Ukraine) in 1857. He was a child of a Polish noble family that was involved in the conspirational fight for Poland’s independence. After the death of his mother the young Conrad moved to Kraków from where he later emigrated to France and later Great Britain. In Marseille he became a sailor and since then the whole world was his home. According to literary critic Rafał Marceli Blüth, the decision to ”fraternise with the element of the sea and the element of the peoples who were not deformed by civilisation”, as non-Europeans were called back then, were Conrad’s attempts to distance himself from his homeland, his nation and European culture overall. The truth, however, is that he never abandoned any of them. Conrad returned to Poland several times later on in life.