Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski was born in the Russian Empire in 1857, the year after the Crimean War, the major conflict in nineteenth century Europe, ended. His family was Polish and his father, Apollo Korzeniowski, was an intellectual and a revolutionary, intent on reestablishing the independence of the Polish Commonwealth within its historical borders. When the little Józef (whom people called Konrad) was 3 years old, the family moved to Warsaw to join a Polish patriotic movement in 1861.
Apollo was arrested by the Tsarist authorities and he and his family were sent into exile first to Vologda and then to Chernihiv in what is today Ukraine. Here Konrad’s mother, Ewa, died of tuberculosis in 1865. Two years later Conrad and his father were allowed to leave Russia, on the grounds of Apollo’s poor health. They went first to Lviv, in the Austrian Empire, and then moved on to Cracow, where Apollo died in 1869. The little Konrad was then eleven years old. His uncle Tadeusz, his mother’s brother, was to take care of him.
When Konrad was thirteen, he decided that he was going to become a sailor, a decision that was going to have an immense effect on his later career as a writer too. He joined first the French commercial fleet and from 1878 the British merchant marine.
Joseph Conrad (his literary pseudonym)’s career as a writer did not begin at 1895, when he was already 37 and had been at sea for 20 years. His first novel, Almayer’s Folly, like most of Conrad’s early literary works, was remarkable for its exotic settings, mostly in Southeast Asia.
Under Western Eyes
Under Western Eyes, published in 1911, is one of Conrad’s most mature works and unlike for the vast majority of his stories, its action takes places in city settings, namely Saint Petersburg and Geneva, far from the sea that had provided so much to his literary imagination. Its main subject in the Russian revolutionary movement that had been so ripe in the Russian empire for at least 50 years. Razumov, the novel’s main character, is a student at the University of Saint Petersburg, and inadvertently becomes involved in a plot that kills the Russian Minister of State. When one of the plotters turns out in his room, Razumov, who is by temperament and inclination not involved in any sort of dangerous revolutionary activity, cannot help but betray him.
Joseph Conrad was not a friend of Russia and he did not have to be. His life in the Russian Empire had been too full of sorrow for him to be able to feel any sympathy for the Tsar and what Russia stood for. “This very ignominy of infatuation should make clear to men’s feelings and reason that the downfall of Russia’s might is unavoidable. Spectral it lived and spectral it disappears, without leaving the memory of a single generous deed, of a single service rendered — even involuntarily — to the polity of nations. Other despotisms there have been, but none whose origin was so grimly fantastic in its baseness, and the beginning of whose end was so gruesomely ignoble” wrote Conrad in his essay Autocracy and war, written in 1905, at the time of the Russo-Japanese War that ended with Russia’s defeat. “The war in Manchuria makes an end of absolutism in Russia”, added Conrad. He was of course not right. 12 years later Tsarist absolutism was replaced by another kind of absolutism, more ideological, even more totalitarian.
Conceived as a sort of response to Dostoevsky’s (whom Conrad hated) Crime and Punishment, Under Western Eyes is one of Conrad’s most political novels, a novel of ideas and as such its subject remains powerfully fascinating.
You can buy “Under Western Eyes” here.