The Dawn Watch by Maya Jasanoff

In seeking out the real Joseph Conrad, Maya Jasanoff hasn’t just read the books, she’s retraced the great writer’s routes both up river and across ocean. Thankfully, she finds companionship and friends where Conrad once looked into the Heart of Darkness:

the jungle wasn’t closing in [on a boat journey along the Congo River], there was no sense of menace, and rather than feeling alienated by my surroundings, I was embraced into a veritable floating village. Where Marlow had had scarcely any interaction with the African crew, I spent all day every day with my fellow travelers, gossiping … Where Conrad and his peers feared attacks from shore (and vice versa), barely an hour passed without pirogues approaching us from the riverbanks. Villagers sold fish, plantains, cassava and a menagerie of bushmeat—from fat white grubs to smoked monkeys on stakes

Jasanoff’s real focus is to try to understand Conrad the man. It is a thankless task. His personality seems as mysterious as one of those endless sentences that make up his novels. In fact, it is gratifying to learn that contemporary readers had as hard a time reading his novels as their modern successors.

Despite his merciless circumlocution, Conrad’s stories are full of adventure, but while Kipling and others glorified the empire builders, Conrad’s heroes are broken men who have long since lost their way in life. Washed up on alien shores, these nihilistic losers must make the most of their miserable lot, in the full knowledge that they are the agents of their own destruction.

Like Conrad himself.

Born Josef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, a Pole in Russian-occupied Ukraine, Conrad was an orphan by the age of 11. His father was a fanatical Polish patriot, who brought disaster on his family in his determination to liberate his people from the rule of the Czars.

Conrad’s early life was dogged by misery. Leaving his landlocked country for the lure of the sea, he ended up in Marseilles, There he tried to take his own life when he was twenty years old. The attempt failed, but he remained a lost soul for many years, drifting the oceans, never getting his due. A Polish noble, he became just another immigrant in the expanding British Empire. Qualified as a captain and capable of taking his own command, he was almost always forced to lump for the role of first mate instead.

Jasanoff weaves this tale of woe into a background for the novels. It isn’t necessary to have read all of them to enjoy this book. I have only read the main ones myself. As it happens, Conrad didn’t have much time for his later potboilers, despite the fact that they had made him wealthy.

just like that, the fifty-six year-old author had his first bestseller. Chance went into five printings in as many months. Edward Garnett attributed the book’s success to the cover design, others to its appealing heroine and its relative narrative simplicity … “How I would have felt about it ten or eight years ago I can’t say. Now I can’t even pretend I’m elated,” [Conrad confessed].

Though meticulously researched and an engaging read, The Dawn Watch leaves the reader wanting more. A complicated man who wrote deep, puzzling novels, Conrad remains a distant figure, elusive, almost an impossible subject for a biographer’s critical eye.