Wherever you may sail, you are always sailing towards Poland
A conversation with Professor Zdzisław Najder, a historian of literature and expert on Joseph Conrad. Interviewer: Grzegorz Nurek
GRZEGORZ NUREK: What sort of person was Joseph Conrad? How would you describe him?
ZDZISŁAW NAJDER:Joseph Conrad was a sanguine person who was very sensitive and lived deeply in the moment. But he also changed throughout the years. When he left Kraków at age 17 to go to Marseille, he did not realise that he was going to become an émigré, or that he was leaving Poland for good. For many years he could not go back as he would have been conscripted into the Imperial Russian Army, and he hated the Russians. He tried to hide this aversion his entire life, even though he felt that the Russians had deeply hurt his family and, as occupiers, kept on hurting his compatriots. Both of his parents were deported by the Russians to Vologda. His father, Apollo Korzeniowski, was a prominent conspirator. When the Russians arrested and imprisoned him they did not realise what a rich conspiratorial past he had had. Conrad’s mother did not just follow her husband in exile, either. She too was accused of distributing conspiratorial press. They died young, orphaning the future writer. With this experience, it would be hard to expect Conrad to like Russians.
Would you say that Conrad was a successful person?
No. He may have been successful financially, but that was only towards the end of his life. However, even then, despite being rich and famous, he did not enjoy the fruit of his wealth or his fame. Unlike his father, who had a much better sense of humour, Joseph pitied himself. As a matter of fact, Conrad suffered from depression and underwent treatment in a mental health institution.
Do you know why tried to shoot himself?
Nobody knows for sure. He may have wanted to kill himself or send a signal to the world, to his relatives, that he was unhappy. Remember that William Faulkner, also a notable writer who deeply admired Conrad and was trying to copy the rhythm of his prose, suffered from depression too.
Where can we find Conrad’s traces? Are there any specific cities, museums, libraries or cemeteries that you recommend to visit?
You can find monuments to Conrad in such cities as Gdynia in Poland or Vologda in Russia. In Berdychov, which is Conrad’s birthplace (today in Ukraine) there is a Conrad museum which was opened three years ago, also with my personal involvement. It is located in the ruined building of an old monastery. Conrad died in 1924 and was buried in a cemetery in Canterbury. The obelisk that can be found there was funded by his wife. However, when visiting it you will see that the writer’s name is misspelt. Thus, you can read Taodor instead of Teodor. In Kraków, at the Rakowicki cemetery, you can find the grave of Conrad’s father – Apollo.
Regarding other material traces, I would add that I handed over several hundreds of books and translations of Conrad’s prose to the Jagiellonian University’s Joseph Conrad Research Centre in Kraków. The centre, which is run by Professor Jolanta Dudek, is the publisher of a journal titled the Yearbook of Conrad Studies. Similar publications can be found in the United States and in France.
When visiting the Conrad museum in Berdychov you can read the following words by Thomas Mann: “When I hear that they call me ‘the greatest prose writer of the epoch’, I hide my face ashamed. What nonsense! It was not me; it was Joseph Conrad, which is what everyone should know.” Was Conrad really ahead of his time? His writings do seem to be very relevant today…
For the past several decades I had observed both rising and falling waves of interest in Conrad’s works. Now it seems we are witnessing a decreasing interest in his prose. Yet, what you mention – namely the relevance and universality of the topics found in Conrad’s writings – I would say that we do see a renaissance of reader interest in his writings. Artistically speaking, Conrad certainly was ahead of his time. He introduced personal narration and used inverted chronology (which signals that a story is taking place in a different time than the events). It is like an exercise in cognitive psychology. Charlie Marlow, the protagonist of Heart of Darkness, finds himself in the very centre of events and only with time, together with the development of the plot, do we find out what really happened earlier. This innovative method of storytelling was first used by Gustave Flaubert. In fact, some researchers believe that Conrad could have been a French writer as much as he was an English one. His command of French was so high that some researchers had speculated that Conrad was writing in English translated from French. Yet, the truth is that it was Polish translated into English. Think about all these onomatopoeias, and his style… You can find it in Irish prose (especially writers such as Joyce, Laurence, Stern) but not in English. Not surprisingly, after reading The Duel, my Irish friend told me: “This is excellent. But an Englishman will not understand it.” He was probably referring to Conrad’s self-mocking sense of humour. As you know Ridley Scott made a film which was based on The Duel. I think it was a complete failure. Unlike the tale, the film is very serious. It lacks the sense of humour and the absurdity that is found in Conrad’s text.
I think that Polish school curricula should include Typhoon and The Duel. Lord Jim, which is now on the reading list, is actually quite difficult and thus can discourage some readers from Conrad overall. Secret Agent was misunderstood when it was first published. Yet, this is an iconic novel about international terrorism and political provocation. Heart of Darkness is a really good depiction of the clash of civilisations. White colonisers plundered African lands, persecuted the locals (the Germans and the English, in particular, should feel the most ashamed in this regard) and now, after several decades, we have an inflow of migrants coming through the gates of Europe.
Why do you think so few people see Conrad’s Polish roots?
Mostly because of the lack of knowledge and ignorance. But he also was very quiet about it. It took the influence of Józef Retinger’s beautiful wife – Tosia (a woman in whom Bronisław Malinowski was deeply in love) – for him to get more involved in politics. The Retingers were devoted advocates of the Polish cause. Even before their wedding in Kraków, as they were being driven by carriage to the church, Józef famously turned to his future wife and said: “You have to know that you will never be first. Poland will always be my first.” The Retingers met Conrad and visited him in the countryside. It was also thanks to Józef’s mother-in-law, among others, that Conrad visited Kraków and Zakopane after many years.
In Zakopane he met with Stefan Żeromski, another famous Polish writer…
Yes. If fact, little is known about their conversation. What we know, though, is that they both valued and respected each other. Żeromski later wrote an introduction to Conrad’s works when they were translated from English into Polish and published in Poland. Conrad thanked him for that in a letter. While in Kraków, together with his wife and sons, Conrad enjoyed a walk on the Market Square. He visited the Wawel Castle, St Mary’s Church, the Jagiellonian University and was shown his father’s letters which had survived in the archives. He also visited the manor house of the Buszczyński family north of Kraków. However, the outbreak of the First World War and the threat of arrest hastened his return to England.
When leaving Kraków as a teenager Conrad heard from Stefan Buszczyński (a good friend of his father) the poignant words: “Remember, wherever you may sail, you are always sailing towards Poland!” Over the years, however, he lost faith that Poland would regain its full sovereignty and that it would one day be reborn as an independent state, free from the protectorate of the great powers. It is true that in the 19th century signs of solidarity with the Poles were rare. England for sure did not show much concern about Poland’s independence and it was France that was more of an ally. Conrad thus felt awkward when the English dock workers refused to load ships with weapons for Polish soldiers. He wanted to be loyal to the British monarchy, although he did not participate in elections and did not belong to the British political community. Yet, at the urging of his compatriots, while in Zakopane in 1914, he wrote a letter in support of Poland’s cause. It was an appeal to England to recognise Poland’s right to self-determination.
In 1918 Poland regained its independence. Conrad died six years later…
He was very pleased with the victory of the Polish army, led by Józef Piłsudski, over the Bolsheviks. He highly respected Piłsudski.
After the death of his uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski, who took care of Conrad after his parents had died, the writer inherited 15,000 roubles. Apparently, this allowed him to quit his job as a sailor and focus solely on writing. Was it really a lot of money at the time?
Back then you could maybe live for two years with that kind of money. But Conrad wasted it. He invested in a gold mine and lost. Therefore, he later had to make a living off of his writing.
He was also a gambler. Even in his youth he wasted some money at a casino in Monte Carlo…
Interestingly, this weakness for gambling was not something he inherited from his father. Just the opposite. Apollo Korzeniowski was an excellent conspirator, and a conspirator cannot be a gambler. That would mean madness.
Conrad had two sons. Did you have a chance to meet them?
Yes, I met both of them. But let me start with his wife. She was a stenographer by training. Conrad was a loyal husband, but many people knew that the woman he married was not the love of his life. As a young man he loved another woman but she had rejected him. His English wife might not have been the most understanding – some called her a “housewife” – but overall she took good care of him. They had two sons together: Borys and John. Borys was physically very similar to his father; and he dressed in a very similar way. He wore a bob hat and did not like to study. He finished technical school and worked in a car factory. After he skilfully faked his father’s signature and forged checks, he was sentenced to two years in prison, which he served. The judge who charged him wrought his hands saying: “This is a disgrace. A son of SUCH a father!” The second son, John, was a very decent man. He was an architect. However, they both passed away. John had two sons: one was a race horse jockey, but he also died very young. The other was a promising poet, but sadly died in a car accident as well.
Translated by Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska
Zdzisław Najder, born in 1930, is a historian of literature and a renowned expert in Joseph Conrad’s work. He is the author of Conrad’s two volume biography. Since 1994 he has been a member of the Polish Joseph Conrad Society. He is also a member of the editorial board of New Eastern Europe.
Grzegorz Nurek is a Polish journalist specialising in cultural affairs.