Conrad, the literary outsider ignored by his adopted country

Jonathan Brown
Monday 03 December 2007 01:00

His most famous works

One of the most influential and widely read writers of the Victorian age, Joseph Conrad inspired authors from William Golding to Graham Greene and tackled topics such as immigration, terrorism and colonialism with an unerring prescience that foretold the dilemmas of the present.

Yet today, the 150th anniversary of the birth of Joseph Konrad Korzeniowski will pass largely unnoticed outside the tightly knit academic community which keeps the writer's spirit alive.

In London, where Conrad spent long periods of his peripatetic early life, a single blue plaque sits above a shop in a shabby part of Pimlico, where he shared a room with seven other men. It is the only sign of the author of Heart of Darkness in the capital. Another similarly low-key plaque is appended to a private home in the Kent village of Bishopsbourne where he lived later with his family.

Not for Conrad the carefully preserved houses and literary theme parks lavished on writers such as Virginia Wolfe and Charles Dickens. To mark the milestone this year, which coincides with the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Secret Agent, the Conrad Society had sought to persuade the Royal Mail to issue a stamp in his honour but bosses there remained un-persuaded. Attempts to organise an event at the British Library also failed.

"We have tried hard to promote it as a major celebration but it just hasn't taken a grip," said Dr John Stape, one of the world's leading Conrad scholars and author of The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad.

Instead the focus of celebrations will be two sessions at the National Portrait Gallery on Thursday in which modern authors including Colm Toibin and Giles Foden will discuss the Conrad's place in their work.

But, according to Dr Stape, the reputation of Britain's most famous Polish immigrant remains that of literary outsider despite his embracing, whole-heartedly, his adopted country and its language.

"He regarded himself as English, once telling a friend 'I am more English than you are because I chose it'. He strongly identified with England his wife was English, his children were brought up as truly English, he learnt the language and became and felt English. But there is always a question of whether the host culture accepts you. He once described himself as an "amazing freak ... a bloody foreigner."

Conrad studies in universities have enjoyed something of a boom in recent years, buoyed on the wave of renewed interest in empire and colonialism. But his reputation suffered a critical blow after Chinua Achebe, the father of modern African literature, delivered his devastating 1975 lecture An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Dr Stape believes Conrad was against colonialism and says he was far more than the one trick literary pony he is sometimes portrayed as, exploring hard hitting themes being thrown up by the steamship-era of early globalisation. In The Secret Agent, for example he examines the way overseas radicals were exploiting England's liberal social values to plot a terrorist bombing.

* Heart of Darkness (1899)

This novella about a sailor's journey up the River Congo is based on the author's own experience. Years later the book provoked controversy for its depiction of imperialism, women and Africans. It inspired TS Eliot's The Waste Land and Francis Ford Coppola's film, Apocalypse Now.

* Lord Jim (1900)

Conrad's first major novel is about Marlow (the sailor character in Heart of Darkness) and his attempt to piece together the story of Jim, a sea captain obsessed with heroism who is haunted by the memory of abandoning his sinking ship, the Patna.

* The Secret Agent (1907)

One of Conrad's great city novels, double agent Verloc, his wife Winnie and her simple-minded brother Stevie feature in this ironic tale of anarchist activity in London in the 1890s. F R Leavis once judged it a work of perfect structure.

Claire Daly

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