JOSEPH CONRAD DIED IN 1924, but in her bold and winning book on the writer Maya Jasanoff sees him as a prophetic “embodiment” of today’s globalised world, whispering through his characters “in the ears of new generations of anti-globalization protesters and champions of free trade, liberal interventionists and radical terrorists, social justice activists and xenophobic nativists.” He didn’t just see through the pieties of his own imperial age; he espied the contours of our own. Conrad, Jasanoff says, “was one of us: a citizen of a global world.”
Jasanoff is one of the smartest and coolest-headed members of a newer generation of historians of empire: sensitive to complexities, sceptical of brute and overly ideological assessments, and given to probing Britain’s imperial history through new, oblique angles, so as to explore what empire enabled as much as what it pulverised. Her previous books spanned the arc of the British Empire’s geography. The first, centred on India, examined collecting as a way of representing imperial possession; the second recovered the histories of American loyalists who fought for the king and, after the colony became independent, fled as exiles.
The Dawn Watch is given over to one of the more curious and profound figures of the age of empire. How did a central European of vaguely aristocratic descent named Konrad Korzeniowski, born in 1857 in a landlocked Ukrainian town (known proverbially as “nowhere”) grow up to sail the world, become a fabulist of empire and spend his last decades in squire-like existence in a quiet Kentish village, come to be revered as one of the great writers in English—his third language?
Conrad has always been hard to place: he revelled in slipping free of contexts, and laboured to hide his traces. And, like the empire he wrote about, Conrad’s work divides opinion. To some, he is a writer of high refinement and subtlety, modernist in his handling of complex and loping narratives, and able to draw from his experience a profound analysis of the corruptions of power and wealth on human character. For others, he is a grandiose spinner of Edwardian adventure and romance yarns, archaic in diction and portentous in meaning. And to some of those whose lands he wrote about, he is simply an imperialist—“a bloody racist,” in the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s words.
Jasanoff wants us to see him as a globalist, a critic of empire and a subverter of stereotypes of race and civilization—our frère semblable. Her argument is that, in reconnoitring the edges of empire in the last decades of the nineteenth century, Conrad sensed the first ripples of our own cascading conditions: terrorism, multinational capitalism, technological disruption and immigration. And as he wrought his personal experience into prose, Conrad “captured something about the way power operated across continents and races, something that seemed as important to engage with today as it had been when he first wrote.” Those are big, startling claims.
Conrad’s life matters because it was both the material out of which he made his fiction and the grounds on which (as a late interloper into the world of English letters) he could claim the attention of his readers. As the novelist Henry James told Conrad, his authority as a writer relied ultimately on “the things you know”: on “the prodigy of your past experience.” Yet Conrad’s experience, his life, was anything but transparent; nor is it clear what, or how much, he knew. He sheds light, but he is also himself opaque.
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