Revealing the heart of Conrad

Biographies of novelist Joseph Conrad are nothing new. British scholar John Stape mentions toward the opening of his book that he is launching the fourth generation of Conrad biography.

For readers who have never consumed a biography of Conrad (1857-1924), Stape's fourth generation is a sensible place to start. For readers who consumed an earlier biography of Conrad, Stape's version is worth opening -- if the chief interest is about the influences that led Conrad to write fiction such as "Lord Jim" and "The Secret Agent."

Stape views Conrad as a fine fit for the first decade of the 21st century.

"Conrad speaks for an awareness of fragmentation so quintessentially modern that his voice, a century and a half after his birth, remains powerful and authoritative," Stapes maintains. "His skills were insistently devoted to exposing 'the horror' (the phrase deserves to bear his trademark) that lies behind the brightly polished or the crude and makeshift facade of so many things."

Stape's approach renews the centuries-old discussion: To understand a writer's fiction, is it useful to understand a writer's real life? I vote yes, so naturally I am inclined to endorse Stape's decision.

At the very least, Stape has provided a service to consumers of Conrad's fiction by erasing misconceptions, filling gaps and explaining previously murky episodes clearly.

Perhaps the biggest misconception goes like this: Conrad was born in Poland and miraculously learned English so well that he could write more memorably than almost every other native speaker who has ever put pen to paper.

Conrad's heritage is Polish, and his birth name is Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski. But in 1857, no country named Poland existed. It would not exist again until the post-World War I partition of 1919. The land that had been known as Poland in 1857 was part of czarist Russia, in the region known as the Ukraine.

Conrad moved often as a youngster -- for a variety of reasons, including improved economic opportunity. By age 11, he was much traveled and also an orphan. An uncle reared him as conscientiously as possible, but as a young teenager Conrad began to make his own way by signing on as a sailor. Until age 30, he survived largely by working on ships all over the world. He offered little outward evidence that he would become a novelist.

Conrad never explained fully why he went to sea. Based on prodigious research aided by informed speculation, Stape suggests that working on a ship "is archetypal ... to the adventurous. As an orphan, Conrad found his horizons limited, and becoming a sailor "offered liberation from his past."

Certainly the oceangoing experiences of Conrad provided potentially rich material for fiction. Returning to Europe from Singapore at age 30, Conrad "had encountered riotously luxuriant landscapes and animal species and human types new to him ... His fiction was assisted by his reading about the region [of the Malay Archipelago], but this served as an aide-memoire to peoples and sights he had fleetingly seen. His imaginative work returns to no other time of his life with such regularity."

As for Conrad's decision to write in English rather than Polish, French or Russian, Stape debunks any dramatic scenario, saying the choice "has engendered speculation out of proportion to its interest ... English was the language of his everyday reality ... Writing or speaking an acquired language can be liberating."

Despite Conrad's obvious talent for fiction writing and his ability to find publishers with relative ease, the money did not follow the reputation, at least not for quite a while. Eventually, however, Conrad found himself worrying about money, especially after marrying late (as he was turning 40) and fathering children. Stape's research uncovered numerous episodes of penuriousness in the Conrad family.

Despite money worries, frequent ill health and bouts with writer's block, Conrad achieved fame during his lifetime and sometimes managed to feel satisfaction from that fame. His literary reputation faltered in some learned circles after his death in 1924, but the reputation revived. Conrad often felt alone, but it turns out he was connecting with future generations.