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Joseph Conrad

(1857—1924) master mariner and author

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Polish-born British novelist.

Conrad's parents were ardent Polish nationalists, and his childhood was darkened by the exile into which they were sent by the tsarist authorities. He was born in the Ukraine. His mother died in 1865 and his father four years later, leaving the orphaned boy to be cared for by an uncle. Partly inspired by love of the sea, partly to avoid conscription in the Russian army, Conrad joined the French merchant navy (1874). After an unhappy period based in Marseilles, where he attempted suicide, he joined a British ship (1878) and took his profession seriously, achieving his master's certificate in 1886. In 1890 he went on a brief and unsuccessful expedition to the Congo and in 1894 he left the sea. Having become a British subject in 1886, he married an English girl (1896), and settled down to write.

Despite his initial ignorance of English (French was his first foreign language), Conrad wrote Almayer's Folly (1895) while still at sea. It was followed by An Outcast of the Islands (1896), The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ (1898), and several shorter pieces, including ‘Youth’, in which Conrad's favourite narrator Marlow makes his debut. ‘Heart of Darkness’, published with ‘Youth’ (1902), draws on Conrad's Congo experience and is a powerful evocation of isolation and moral decline in a strange and hostile environment. Lord Jim (1900) deals with the loss of honour by an act of cowardice for which the hero ultimately atones by offering himself up to certain death. Nostromo, possibly the greatest of Conrad's novels, was published in 1904; a subtle and complex tale, it has as its subject the intrigue and corruption surrounding a hoard of silver in the imaginary Latin-American state of Costaguana.

In The Secret Agent (1907), Conrad temporarily turned away from the sea to deal with anarchists in London. This subject doubtless owes something to the atmosphere of conspiracy in which Conrad was brought up; it reappears in Under Western Eyes (1911). Conrad continued to intersperse his novels with volumes of short stories, but his last major novels were Chance (1913) and Victory (1915), both on the theme of honour in the relationships between men and women. Conrad also wrote memoirs – The Mirror of the Sea (1906) and A Personal Record (1912) – and dramatized The Secret Agent (produced 1922) and some of his short stories.

Subjects: Literature

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