#MondayBlogs In Search of Joseph Conrad

Conrad and DHL
Image adapted from Dawn of the Unread

Joseph Conrad (3 December 1857 – 3 August 1924) and DH Lawrence (11 September 1885 – 2 March 1930) lived relatively short lives around the same time. But they weren’t fans of each other. Conrad once said of Lawrence that he “had started well, but had gone wrong. Filth. Nothing but obscenities.” He died before the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but it doesn’t take much to imagine what he would have made of it. Conrad, like Lawrence, had an acerbic tongue, claiming Herman Melville “knew nothing of the seas” to which Lawrence retorted Melville’s “vision is . . . far sounder than Joseph Conrad’s, because Melville doesn’t sentimentalize the ocean and the sea’s unfortunates. Snivel in a wet handy like Lord Jim.” Then just to rub it in a bit, added that pessimism “pervades all Conrad and such folks—the Writers among the Ruins. I can’t forgive Conrad for being so sad and giving in.”

Both writers were subject to glowing accolades from F.R Leavis and are acknowledged for their contribution to modernism. Whereas Conrad highlighted the similarities between London and darkest Africa in Heart of Darkness, the consistently restless Lawrence couldn’t get far enough away from the metropolis, crossing the globe in order to reconnect through primitive cultures.

It is with this in mind we welcome this guest blog from author Ben Zabulis, who, like us here at the digital pilgrimage, is retracing the steps of a literary figure. The following is Ben’s account of Gavin Young’s book on Joseph Conrad.

conrad books

‘I remember my youth and the feeling that will never come back any more – the feeling that I could last for ever, outlast the sea, the earth, and all men; the deceitful feeling that lures us on to joys, to perils, to love, to vain effort – to death; the triumphant conviction of strength , the heat of life in the handful of dust, the glow in the heart that with every year grows dim, grows cold, grows small, and expires, too soon, too soon – before life itself.’

So lamented Joseph Conrad (Polish-British writer) in the short-story Youth and a passage which deeply impressed a 15-year old Gavin Young: ‘Who was this unknown author telling us to wake up and start living?’ G. Young certainly did, becoming a successful writer (Return to the Marshes, Slow Boats to China) after years as a war reporter and foreign correspondent for the Observer.  ‘Conrad had taught me,’ he reasoned, ‘that there was really no question of choice when a romantically inclined young man is faced with adventure and life on the one hand and a battened-down existence on the other.’ In fact, Conrad’s influence was certainly deep-rooted, Young senior bore The Mirror of the Sea as a talisman during WW2, whilst Young junior, not surprisingly, selected Youth when covering more recent upheavals: ‘a reminder that my hectic life was probably on the right track.’

It was the tiresomeness of war which pushed Gavin Young in to writing books, culminating some years later in a little hero worship and a ‘pilgrimage’ through parts of Southeast Asia: ‘a search for scenes and ghosts known to that heavily accented foreigner from Eastern Europe.’ The result, In Search of Conrad, was published in 1991; winner of the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award.

To me, In search of Conrad is a book which works on three levels: firstly, a hugely entertaining travel book in its own right as the journey directs us from Bangkok to Singapore to Indonesia; secondly, an absorbing anecdotal layer of Conrad’s maritime meanderings and, thirdly, a fascinating correlation between people Conrad encountered or had heard of during those years and their subsequent literary reincarnations. ‘Part mariner’s log and part detective story’ reckoned JG Ballard, and so it is.

All the while Gavin Young’s love of Southeast Asia resonates throughout, evidenced by colourful and romantic descriptions of landscape, folk, flora and fauna. With humour he recounts the tackling of surly bureaucracy, dodgy hotels and a number of uncomfortable trips aboard ferries and yachts, island hopping between Java, Borneo and Celebes; exotic out of the way places enriched by well-defined route maps and Salim’s superbly sketched illustrations.

One doesn’t need to be a student of Conrad’s work to enjoy this book. A Dramatis Personae introduces the cast while Gavin Young scours the region skilfully interweaving fact and fiction as to how, when and where Austin Williams became Jim (Lord Jim), while Charles Olmeijer became Kasper Almayer, Syed Abdullah Al Joofree became Syed Abdullah and Captain William Lingard became Captain Tom Lingard (Almayer’s Folly, An Outcast of the Islands and The Rescue). Anguished characters all, rivalry, ruin, love and loneliness; shortcomings in some way relevant to their real-life counterparts. And what of them? What happened next? With library research and the tracking down of surviving descendants we get to know. Immortality? Or a long forgotten resting place in a far off land? – read it and find out!

Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski (1857-1924), Gavin Young (1928-2001): ‘It was strange. I had set out to follow Conrad from his first escape from death as Second Officer Korzeniowski – I could hear Captain Henry Ellis: “Polish? Russian? God knows” – in the Bangka Strait, to malarial Borneo where he had found Almayer, and to the Gulf of Siam where he had become master of the Otago. There had been storms and cholera and pirates on the way, but in the end it had come to this – a peaceful grave in a sunny cemetery in Canterbury in Kent.’

FURTHER READING