Conrad and Poland

Edited with an introduction by Alex S. Kurczaba. Boulder, CO., East European Monographs and Lublin, Maria Curie-Sklodowska University Press. Distributed by Columbia University Press. 1996. v + 258 pages. $35.00.

Frank Kujawinski

His was, we are told, 'the richest and most extraordinary life of any major English novelist.' (93) Beyond the majesty of his writings lies, like somedistant and exotic port, the reality and mystery of Joseph Conrad's life. As all the essays in this collection witness, the experiences of his Polish youth inform and shape the narratives he wrote as an adult. That is the basis on which Jakob Lothe justifies in his essay crossing the 'borderline between fiction and autobiography' (227) which frequently occurs in Conrad's writings. We gradually discover that all those sea stories and adventures, the wilderness of place and psychological tumult of individual lives are equaled and sometimes surpassed by the real life story of the young Conrad, his family and his country. Joseph Conrad was not only 'an old salt' of the sea, a representative of Her Majesty's eastern empire and an observer of oriental trading posts, he was also the son of his father's feverish desire for the rebirth of his nation. As for his mother, she lived only long enough to charge his imagination with a deep feeling of loss and a need to 'reinvent' her (41) which he accomplished in his narratives. Conrad subsequently lived under the tutelage of an uncle opposed to his father's ways of thinking, that is to say, to the impractical dreams of uprisings and armed struggle. These tangled biographical streams remain unseen and distant in most works on Conrad. The essays in this collection map and chart these influences, as well as identify commonalities of perspective in later writers who came under Conrad's influence.

Because of his Eastern European connection, Conrad anticipated the advancing twentieth century and... the experience of repression, loss of family, loss of country, loss of dignity, and the weight of being a stranger in another's land.

Stephen G.W. Brodsky aggressively and contentiously reviews the heritage of Western scholarship on Conrad, concluding that 'a reassessment from the Polish perspective is already overdue .' (12) Brodsky develops in detail the theme of 'interior honor' and offers it to Western critics as an enriching corrective to their long-dominant cultivation of a guilt-laden substratum in Conrad's works. Addison Bross provides historical depth as he critiques the relationship in Poland between a fading Romanticism and an antagonistic Positivism. The political and social repercussions of these movements dominated the repressive, turbulent times that followed the defeat of the 1863 January rising and shaped the confrontational discourse of Polish intellectual circles at that time. Bross deals expertly with the public controversy that followed the failure of the January rising and with Conrad's own 'shocking simplification' (80) of its meaning. Susan Jones sees in the Polish myth of the self-sacrificing heroine (as renewed in the life and death of Conrad's own mother) the source of Conrad's subsequent attitude toward his female characters and, derivatively, of his ideas on bravery, loyalty, and honor.

As Poland is, in biographical fact, the actual point of embarkment for the future mariner, so Conrad's words and attitudes are laden with the burden, nuance and wealth of those earlier years. In a wonderful essay on linguistic comparison, Mary Morzinski discovers in the 'syntactic-semantic infrastructure' (175) of Polish the sources of Conrad's characteristic style, as he shapes in his English stances more easily rendered in Polish. Noel Peacock focuses on the 'ocularcentrism' in Conrad's style, using this focus to strong effect in his study of Under Western Eyes where seeing both reveals the truth and, under other conditions, becomes the intrusive tool of autocracy. Yet it is because Under Western Eyes pulsates with the rhythm of a personal experience of autocracy an almost Polish sixth sense of the dangers that Peacock can remind us: 'It is worth keeping in mind however that the Poland about which Conrad is writing is a Russified Poland...' (130)

Then, too, because of his Eastern European connection, Conrad anticipates the advancing twentieth century and foresees its horrors. He had known, firsthand, the experience of repression, loss of family, loss of country, loss of dignity, and the weight of being a stranger in another's land ('the alien' in Wiesaw Krajka's essay, the 'not "one of us"' in Carola M. Kaplan's). Both Krajka's discussion of Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird and Alex S. Kurczaba's study of Conrad's influence on Czeslaw Milosz's poetry extend the range of these essays to the present era. Both Krajka and Kurczaba do not hesitate to comment on Conrad's relevance today. Keith Carabine's essay on Conrad's 'peculiar experience of race and family' and his consequent uniqueness among British authors of his time is a statement on the continued modernity of Conrad's experience. So is Laurence Davies' 'speculation' on the shared 'international qualities' (191) of Conrad and Count Jan Potocki of The Saragossa Manuscript.

It is hard to believe that Conrad's first book, Almayer's Folly, was completed in 1895. What he wrote in the 'Author's Note' suggests the tempered wisdom of one looking back over the twentieth century. The issues Conrad explored are still our issues: 'I am content to sympathize with common mortals, no matter where they live; in houses or in tents, in the streets under a fog, or in the forests behind the dark line of dismal mangroves....Their hearts like ours must endure the load of the gifts from Heaven: the curse of facts and the blessing of illusions, the bitterness of our wisdom and the deceptive consolation of our folly.' In the above, one can feel the experience of the Pole whose adult life carried him beyond his childhood in Poland, but not beyond the moral reach of the memories.

These essays reinvigorate the all-too-infrequent conversation of like minds and hearts, recall and revisit old stories, retell, rephrase, and enlighten forgotten or yet unappreciated elements, point out to us the sources that gave birth to, nourished and developed Conrad's penetrating vision into the human heart sometimes of darkness and sometimes of dignity. This is the book's greatest value: by way of scholarship and research, it proceeds to a renewal of that conversation of which Conrad was such a master and stylist, and of which we are the current beneficiaries and participants.

Frank Kujawinski is Lecturer in Polish at Loyola University in Chicago.

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