The Dawn Watch: When fiction trumps history?

This is my review of The Dawn Watch by Maya Jasanoff.

Beneath Maya Jasanoff’s breezy style, stuffing cash into her shoes for safety as she retraces Joseph Conrad’s route along the River Congo, lies a perceptive portrayal of “what made the writer tick”, although of course we can never really know. She succeeds in distilling from clearly thorough research a telling selection of incidents, quotations, and her own insightful conclusions in a biography of only 315 pages, rather than the ever more frequent 800 plus page doorstopper.

It is unnecessary to have read much Conrad to be fascinated by him: the author admits to having struggled to read what some regard as his work of genius, “Nostromo”, and what most struck me when first reading Conrad is his remarkably fluent grasp of the English language, which he only began to learn when he went to sea as a young man.

What is really interesting about Conrad is his acute observation of human nature in a changing world where the romantic hardship of sail was giving way to the more profitable transport by steam, while European powers and the United States vied for control of resources in “less developed” areas, bringing the hell of exploitation, destruction and corruption with their good intentions to establish Christian culture, education, law and order. Maya Jasanoff finds in his life and fiction, “a history of globalisation seen from the inside out”, a grappling with “the ramifications of living in a global world”.

Conrad’s cynical, questioning approach must have been shaped by the hardship of early childhood in the exile to which his Polish parents, members of the landed gentry, were sentenced for his idealistic and unworldly father’s political activism against Russian domination. Yet it was typical of Conrad’s contradictions that years later he refused to sign the petition against the execution of his onetime colleague the Irishman Roger Casement for his part in the Easter Rising: “by emotional force he has made his way and sheer emotionalism has undone him”.

Being orphaned very young, a solitary only child with no stable home, may have triggered Conrad’s wanderlust, the desire to get as far possible from landlocked eastern Europe onto the open sea. Perhaps because his father had been a writer who taught him reams of patriotic Polish poetry, he developed the motivation to jot down stories about places “beyond the end of telegraph cables and mail-boat lines”…”among human outcasts such as one finds in the lost corners of the world”.

Since Maya Jasanoff is a historian rather than a literary biographer, her main interest is in how he dealt with “the moral and material impact of dislocation, the tension and opportunity of multi-ethnic societies, the disruption wrought by technical change”, with only passing reference to his writing style or any real literary evaluation of his work. Two interesting maps, which could have been superimposed, show the clear overlap between the far-flung countries he visited as a seaman and the settings for his novels: five months spent as captain of a steamship on the Congo inspired “Heart of Darkness”; service as first mate of the steamer Vidar plying between the ports of Borneo and Sulawesi led to “Lord Jim”. Yet, “Nostromo”, set in the imaginary South American republic of Costaguano, was based totally on the knowledge of an obliging friend.

Conrad was a man of strong opinions: although his son only once saw him pray over his own father’s grave, Conrad believed that “even the freest” is to some degree hemmed in by “fate”. Sickened by the fact that his later work, which he regarded as “second rate efforts”, which are no longer read, earned him so much more than such works as “Heart of Darkness”, he refused honorary degrees or a knighthood, but would have valued the reward of the international Nobel Prize, which was never offered. Even his humour was caustic: in his final years of belated fame after years of struggling as a writer, he remarked that Esperanto was “a monstrous jargon” but people could translate his work into it if they so wished.

Despite the earnest bleakness of much of his work, his periods of depression as a struggling middle-aged writer and his frequent illnesses, he clearly possessed a charm which drew a wide circle of friends, including well-known authors. After years of desultory flirting on shore-leave with attractive, highly respectable young women, and an intriguing correspondence with a widowed aunt only a few years his senior, he married a “to tell the truth rather plain” teenage typist called Jessie, perhaps as ever shrewdly realising how she could support him on a practical and emotional level – yet he clearly developed a strong affection for her to the end.

Minor criticisms: most of the historical maps included are too small-scale to be legible, the evocative photos embedded in the text would have been better if larger. Maya Jasanoff’s long, somewhat clunky resumés of Conrad’s better known works seem like padding, questionable since they include too many “spoilers” for those wishing to go on to read them. Although the chapters are mainly in chronological order, the thematic approach fragments Conrad’s life story so that a time-line would be useful. Despite all these reservations, this is an absorbing and very readable treatment of a complex and interesting man, flawed yet impressive.

 

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