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6 January 2018updated 03 Sep 2021 7:59am

The Dawn Watch: a look at Joseph Conrad as a prophet of globalisation

Maya Jasanoff offers a compelling examination of the great novellist's life and work.

By Andrew Glazzard

The steamer Mavis arrived at Lowestoft on 10 June 1878 with a most remarkable young man on board. The 20-year-old Konrad Kor­zeniowski was the son of a poet and translator of aristocratic stock, but he arrived in Suffolk as an ordinary seaman, unqualified and undocumented, barely able to speak English and desperately in need of a job.

Korzeniowski’s parents, chafing under tsarist dictatorship in what is now Ukraine, were prominent Polish nationalists, and their involvement in dissident politics in Warsaw led to the family’s exile to eastern Russia. Mother and father successively succumbed to tuberculosis, leaving the 11-year-old Konrad an orphan.

As the child of political prisoners, Kor­zeniowski risked being conscripted into the Russian army. Partly to escape this fate, in his late teens he moved to Marseilles, where he joined the French merchant navy. He would later imply that his adventures on French ships included a perilous mission to supply weapons to the Carlist insurgency in Spain. But the French authorities eventually rejected this citizen of the Russian empire on bureaucratic grounds. After a financial crisis and a suicide attempt, Korzeniowski found refuge in Britain, which gave him a home and two careers.

His first career was in the British merchant marine, where he rose through the ranks from ordinary seaman to master (captain). His adventures included being hit by a falling mast during a storm, finding himself in the middle of the Indian Ocean with a burning cargo of coal, so that the ship sank in flames off the coast of Sumatra, and captaining a paddle steamer up the River Congo in the service of the Belgian king. There was a vacancy only because his predecessor had been killed and dismembered on the bank of the river, and after a dangerous, gruelling but curtailed mission, Korzeniowski returned to London, his mental and physical health shattered.

As he embarked on his Congo adventure in 1890, Korzeniowski had already begun to lay the foundations of his second, even more remarkable career. Despite it being his third language – possibly even his fourth – Korzeniowski nursed an ambition to write in English. He carried into the heart of Africa the manuscript of the first four chapters of a novel about a Dutch trader in Borneo dreaming pathetic dreams of wealth and glory. When it was finally published under the anglicised pseudonym “Joseph Conrad” in 1895 – earning the impecunious author a mere £20 – Almayer’s Folly was immediately noticed as something new and important in British fiction. The Spectator judged that its author “might become the Kipling of the Malay Archipelago”, while H G Wells predicted that it would “secure for Mr Conrad a high place among contemporary storytellers”. Almayer’s Folly is an astonishing debut, not least for its richly multi-ethnic cast and its background of complex, globalised power politics.

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Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch positions Conrad as globalisation’s unwilling avatar, examining his life and work from the perspective of a historian interested in empire and trade, migration and technological innovation. Conrad is a perfect subject for such an approach, given his upbringing under imperialist brutality, his long years working in a system of international trade and his attentiveness to political and geo­political dynamics. She is not the first to connect Conrad to globalisation, but despite the wealth of Conrad scholarship – what the Times Literary Supplement called “the Anglo-American Conrad critical-industrial complex” – no other critic or historian has attempted quite so ambitious a scope, or sought to reach such a wide non-academic readership. The result has many of the virtues of a crossover work and a few of the flaws.

Jasanoff examines three themes. A section on nationalism, terrorism and migration takes The Secret Agent (1907) as the major text. Another examines the technology of international trade, focusing on the displacement of sail by steam, and chiefly using Lord Jim (1900). Two sections address the ideology and practice of colonialism, imperialism and conquest, drawing mostly on Heart of Darkness (serialised in 1899; published as a novella in 1902) and Nostromo (1904).

Jasanoff has the gift of making even familiar material seem fresh and fascinating, as when she follows Conrad into Central Africa – a well-trodden path for scholarship on Heart of Darkness, but leading here to an exploration of different forms of colonialism and exploitation, indigenous as well as European. Examining Conrad’s sea fiction, she exposes the gap between his mythical world of sail and the historical and biographical realities, and shows the disruption caused by the steam engine not only to merchant shipping but also to previously hard-to-reach civilisations: steam is one of several factors that enabled the rapid expansion of Western empires in the 1880s.

Her most exciting section is on imperialism and Nostromo. This is in many ways Conrad’s most difficult work – Jasanoff admits finding it tough-going at first – but Arnold Bennett, F Scott Fitzgerald and Walter Allen believed it to be one of the greatest novels in English. Jasanoff charts its growth from a short tale of Italian émigrés in South America to a sprawling study of global capital, revolution and the transition from colonialism to imperialism, with the US emerging as the foremost global power. She shows how geopolitics in Latin America played into Conrad’s hands: the secession of Panama from Colombia, partly engineered by Theodore Roosevelt to secure US commercial interests, provided Conrad with real-time material for the novel’s major political plot, the secession of the province of Sulaco from the failing state of Costaguana.

The Dawn Watch is so compelling that it seems almost churlish to point out its flaws. Given that we do not lack fine biographies of Conrad, a little less retelling of his life story would have provided more room for historical analysis. Another flaw is Jasanoff’s uncritical acceptance of a theory of Conrad’s trajectory – usually dubbed “achievement and decline” – that was first advanced by Virginia Woolf. Conrad’s later novels, which are different from but not necessarily inferior to Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, receive little notice here except to be condemned.

When she dismisses Chance (1914) for its “relative narrative simplicity”, one wonders if she has actually read a novel that even Henry James criticised for having an excessively intricate structure. Jasanoff presents The Secret Agent as the work in which Conrad grappled most urgently with the legacy of his early life, but that description surely belongs to Under Western Eyes (1911), which receives barely half a paragraph of discussion despite being Conrad’s most mature analysis of utopian politics, national cultures and human agency, and almost tailor-made for an analysis of his global perspective.

Despite these shortcomings, The Dawn Watch succeeds in bringing its subject to life. Most importantly, it reminds us of the relevance of these novels of global networks, technological disruption and competing ideologies to our own interconnected and troubled world. 

The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World
Maya Jasanoff
William Collins, 375pp, £25​

Andrew Glazzard is the author of “Conrad’s Popular Fictions” (Palgrave Macmillan)

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This article appears in the 03 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old