Joseph Conrad, a writer who is regarded as one of the greatest novelists of all time, gave his readers ‘that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.’ He was a master of drawing in his readers and having them delve deep into his stories, creating a lucid, rich and realistic world. Often with an element of darkness, his stories have become famous for exploring the issues of colonialism, transnational business, and one’s own inner battle with good and evil, leaving the reader questioning: are these fictions, or his own experiences laid bare? The mark of a true storyteller, some might say.
To celebrate his genius, we commissioned Conradology: A Celebration of the Work of Joseph Conrad. Published with support from the Polish Cultural Institute, the Polish Book Institute and the British Council, it is an anthology featuring fourteen authors and academics, from Britain, Poland, and elsewhere, who have written an essay or have created their own fiction stories inspired by Conrad’s work to mark his 160th birthday.
As part of a week of special posts in honour of the book’s publication and Conrad’s anniversary, we thought we’d ask the authors involved, “What is your favourite Conrad story and why?” Here is what they had to say:
My favourite Conrad story or novel constantly changes. At present, I am obsessed with The Secret Agent. The narration is so controlled: the sustained ironic tone of the narrator, that is the vehicle for the novel’s deep-rooted scepticism and the way the narrative is constructed, chapter by chapter, with the time-jump, for the absent centre of the story: the explosion in Greenwich Park. After the large-scale historical and geographical reach of Nostromo, Conrad’s great novel of globalisation, I am fascinated by the way The Secret Agent is so distinctly and resolutely small-scale and local: the investigation into the bombing takes less than a day, and, although the novel invokes the huge scale of London and its teeming population, the action is focused on just a few square miles of Central London – Whitehall, Tottenham Court Road, Soho and Westminster in particular – with excursions to the Observatory in Greenwich; the almshouses in Peckham, South London; the professor’s room in Islington, North London; and Ossipon’s long walk towards the end of the novel. Then there is the novel’s engagement with political asylum seekers, with terrorism and the policing of terrorism, and with the newspaper reporting – all timely and contemporary issues. But also, at its heart, this is a domestic drama. Winnie’s attempt to protect her brother by sacrificing her own desires; Verloc’s love for his wife and his expectation that he is loved for himself; and the back-story of the father’s violent abuse of both his children.
‘Amy Foster,’ published in Typhoon and Other Stories in 1903, is one of his most thought-provoking works. It is the story of the only survivor of a ship full of East European migrants wrecked off the south coast of England. Conrad’s description of migrants trying to escape poverty and violence in crowded boats is shockingly familiar.
He describes the hostility of the locals towards the survivor as: ‘His quick, fervent utterance positively shocked everybody. “An excitable devil,” they called him. One evening, in the tap-room of the Coach and Horses (having drunk some whisky), he upset them all by singing a love song of his country. They hooted him down, and he was pained.’
The shipwrecked man, Yanko, who is ‘full of goodwill, which nobody wanted,’ eventually marries a local girl, Amy Foster who shows him compassion and love. However, when Yanko teaches their son to pray in his native language, Amy begins to feel a sense of alienation from Yanko, and when he starts raving during a fever, she becomes frightened and runs away. Yanko dies shortly after, telling his doctor that he’d only been asking Amy for some water, and his last words are “Why?” and “Merciful.”
As with all his stories, Conrad leaves the reader wondering what the story is really about. Is it a commentary on the morality and enmity of Victorian England? Or is it a caution that people of different races can never really know each other, even when they are in a relationship? Or perhaps the story is about Conrad’s deepest fears, that of exclusion and always remaining an outsider.
My introduction to Conrad was through a four-volume collection of his complete short fiction, which, by bringing all these various pieces together, demonstrated his mastery of tale-telling. In addition to the settings and acts of intense recall of the narrators, the
technique of the stories allowed you to see the subtle artistry of how Conrad had constructed them. With the novels, Lord Jim and Nostromo capture brilliantly the richness of Conrad’s language and style, especially how the political, geographical and cultural breadth of the fiction coexists with a sharp psychological scrutiny that explores the troubled unfolding of individual destinies.
Lord Jim is definitely my favourite book by Joseph Conrad.
Being a coward is a terrible, shameful thing. But at the same time – it is a part of human nature. And for a writer – making a cowardly person the main character is purely ingenious, as this is the way to build a realistic, plausible story.
Joseph Conrad Korzeniowski has led an adventurous life. I believe, he must have met all kinds of people along his line of duty, and then he turned them into characters to put into his stories.
And I always wonder – has he met a real Lord Jim or has he found him within himself?
‘The Secret Sharer’ is probably my favourite Conrad story, possibly because the dynamic between the protagonist and his stowaway friend Leggatt is so intriguing. As a reader, I enjoy being trusted to explore and delve into their relationship. It is tender and believable and you feel like you’re kind of in on the secret too. I also love Typhoon for the sheer drama. It is immersive and leaves you feeling a little bit seasick.
Heart of Darkness was something I read as an undergrad, and it is my favourite work of Conrad’s. Though slight, it’s a book with much to say. Its critique of imperialism, relayed
to us in a framed narrative in which the narrator’s fellow sailor Marlow tells his crew-mates about his journey to the heart of Africa, ultimately in the pursuit of ivory for the Company, was progressive for its time. It’s a book which has a great deal to say politically, and yet which also strikes the reader with the beauty and poetry of its language.