The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad In A Global World

By Maya Jasanoff

William Collins £25

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Review by Hugh MacDonald

THE work and personality of Joseph Conrad have been approached by several routes, each holding a degree of difficulty as if the great writer was a mountain to be conquered or a sea to be successfully navigated.

Maya Jasanoff has taken the most ambitious approach. Her purpose is simply stated: “In this book I set out to explore Conrad’s world with the compass of a historian, the chart of a biographer, and the navigational sexton of a reader.” She seeks, too, to link the history of the continents of the world through four of Conrad’s novels: The Secret Agent, Lord Jim, The Heart Of Darkness and Nostromo.

She also throws in incisive but insightful portraits of such as Roger Casement, Robert Cunninghame Graham and Ford Madox Ford in a little more than 300 pages including illustrations, maps, notes, acknowledgements and index.

This lean but powerful testimony may amount only to a partial triumph but it is a triumph nevertheless. Jasanoff, professor of history at Harvard, has been garlanded with prizes for her earlier works, Edge Of Empire and Liberty’s Exiles. The Dawn Watch is her best work, marking her out as a historian of restless intellect and a writer of extraordinary gifts.

This is a powerful combination of talents but it does not guarantee that she is always persuasive. Her attempt to link Conrad’s work to a history of the continents is argued intelligently, occasionally with brilliance. It is not entirely convincing, however. Her ambition has also led her to take on too much in too little space.

These are the only quibbles with a magisterial work where it somehow barely matters that her thesis of Conrad and his links with globalisation is not proved, at least to this reader. She is rescued from this failing by her unalloyed energy, wit and ability to provoke fascination.

The resurrection of Conrad and his works is conducted with a facility that belies its difficulty. Konrad Korzeniowski was an orphan by 11. He was a romantic denied a motherland by his self-imposed exile from Poland. A native of a landlocked country, he was obsessed by seafaring. He made it his trade but was buffeted, tossed and almost ultimately wrecked by his experience.

Conrad, as he became on his advent to England, survived a suicide attempt when he shot himself in the chest at the age of 23. Jasanoff points out astutely that 17 of his characters take their own lives in his works.

It is her exploration of the man and his imaginary world that convinces utterly, totally. There was a darkness to Conrad that can never be fully explored but Jasanoff conjures up scenes of extraordinary poignancy, none more affecting that when the author returns from a fraught meeting with his agent and curls up into a ball, muttering desperately in Polish and communing with his fictional characters.

This combination of brutal reality and febrile imagination is at the core of Conrad and his novels. His experience of life was marked by loss of parents and country and by a lack of success, at least in career terms, as a seaman.

But he travelled long and hard and he was not only guided by his imagination but sustained by it. Conrad undoubtedly found pain within himself but he also divined that it could offer universal lessons.

He was astonishingly prescient. The Heart Of Darkness is not only an indictment of imperialism but also of how the material can corrupt the individual. The Secret Agent is an eerily accurate predictor of a global terrorism to come.

Lord Jim is a pertinent reminder that great men are only men and that leaders can be defined and defiled by a single moment with survival coming at a cost of enduring and relentless shame. Nostromo, his best work, is precisely and persuasively cited by Jasanoff as the first great novel to anticipate America’s influence on the world as a constant interventionist in the running of other states.

The certainty of Jasanoff in these matters is justified. But she is at her considerable best when gently prying into the life of an intellect so grand, Conrad became one of the greatest writers of his time, of any time, in his third language after Polish and French.

There was a frailty and vulnerability to Conrad and this biography acknowledges that but Jasanoff has brought forth a celebration of human strength that can in the anointed bring forth an art of gentle wonder and potent substance.