An absorbing biography melds history and literary analysis.
Jasanoff (History/Harvard Univ.; Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World, 2011, etc.), who has won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and the George Washington Book Prize, asserts that the novels of Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) “meditate on how to behave in a globalizing world,” where characters “confront some critical choice, only to face consequences more far-ranging than they ever imagined.” Drawing on Conrad’s many works of fiction, memoir, letters, and essays, Jasanoff focuses especially on his most famous novels—The Secret Agent, Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, and Nostromo—to reveal how he responded to a roiling age plagued by anarchy, revolution, and oppression. His characters “struggle with displacement, alienation, and despair,” caused by both external and internal forces. Conrad, Jasanoff reveals, was “perpetually depressed, incorrigibly cynical, alarmingly prejudiced” against Asians and Jews, and beset by childhood experiences that inspired his “fatalistic sense of the world as a realm where, no matter how hard you tried to make your own way, you might never slip the tracks of destiny.” As a teenager, he set out alone from his native Poland, then under Russian domination, determined to become a seaman; in 1878, he arrived in cosmopolitan London and began a career in the merchant marine, rising to the rank of captain over the next 20 years. Travels throughout the world fueled his imagination. During voyages to Asia, he “stowed away landscapes, characters, and plots” that inspired “half of everything Conrad ever published.” In rich detail, Jasanoff skillfully contextualizes his work within “a chain of historical events” that led to profound social and political change. Heart of Darkness, for example, was “closely pegged” to King Leopold II’s ruthless exploitation of the Congo. Jasanoff focuses less on Conrad’s family life (his wife and sons are lightly sketched) than on the prescient “global compass” of his literary works.
An insightful perspective on Conrad’s life and turbulent times.