A lot of Polish celebrities and historical figures, known all around the world, share a strange similarity: their names do not sound Polish, at all. Copernicus lacks the traditional -ski or -icz suffixes; Marie Curie or Chopin are designated by an English name – the name of her husband for Maria Skłodowska Curie, his own family name for Chopin, whose father was French. One of the most prominent Polish writers, and probably the one who had the most important literary impact beyond the borders of Poland, is in the same situation: Józef Korzeniowski, better known under his pen name: Joseph Conrad.
Is Joseph Conrad a Polish writer?
However, an English denomination seems more fitting for Joseph Conrad than for Copernicus or Marie Curie. He wrote all his major novels, from Almayer’s Folly or The Secret Agent to Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim in English rather than in his mother tongue. A question then arises: Can Joseph Conrad, an English-speaking writer who left his country in 1874 to become a sailor when he was only sixteen years old can still be considered as a Polish writer?
The question has been lengthily debated by literary specialists throughout the years. The reminiscences of Poland in the life and the literary choices of Joseph Conrad is, nonetheless, undoubted: the Polish references are tenuous, but present. The writer’s pen-name itself can be read as a Polish memorabilia: the name ‘Conrad’ has had a long history in Polish literature.
Conrad’s subtle link to his native country
Adam Mickiewicz, arguably the most important Polish poet, used the name Konrad in two of his major works: the main character of Konrad Wallenrod as well as The Forefathers’ Eve Konrad both bear this name. Konrad Wallenrod tells the story of the eponymous character, a Lithuanian pagan who has been captured by knights of the Teutonic order. In an act of patriotism, he deliberately provokes the military defeat of the knights. In The Forefathers’ Eve, also called Dziady, Gustaw, a desperate lover, transforms himself into Konrad, who wants to rise up and fight for Polish freedom.
By choosing this pseudonym, Conrad references to his own true name (Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski) as well as Polish literature. Even more symbolically, all the main fictional characters linked to this name carry and embody the idea of Polish freedom and independence.
The influence of Poland is also noticeable in Joseph Conrad’s works. In Under Western Eyes, the writer portrays a negative image of Russia that reminds the reader of the revolt against the Russian Empire expressed by a lot of 19th century Polish writers, from Mickiewicz to Wyspiański. This novel tells the story of Kyrilo Razumov, a Russian spy. Falling in love with Natalia, the sister of Haldin, a revolutionary he betrayed, he will admit his treason to Haldin’s fellows.
Jessie Conrad, the writer’s wife, declared that while writing Under Western Eyes, Conrad, in his delirium, had conversations with the characters… in Polish. Under Western Eyes seems to have acted for Conrad as a return to his own childhood, native country and national roots; even if the novel takes place in Russia, the author experienced his writing like a tribute to Poland.
The struggle of exile and estrangement
In the same way, Conrad’s Amy Foster acts like a reminder of Poland for a writer known for a literature centered around the vast seas or Africa. This novella introduces the reader to the character of Yanko Goorall, a Central European emigrant and shipwrecked sailor, who marries Amy Foster. His name is the English transliteration of his real name: he was probably called Janko Góral, and was Polish.
This novella tells the life of a man estranged from the country he lives in, like Conrad himself, he who left Poland when he was sixteen years old to become a sailor, and never came back. Goorall is isolated in his language and his culture. When he and Amy Foster have a child, the narrator declares: “And I discovered [Yanko Goorall] longed for their boy to grow up so that he could have a man to talk with in that language that to our ears sounded so disturbing, so passionate, and so bizarre.”
Given these elements, a lot of literary specialists have wanted to qualify Joseph Conrad as a Polish writer. But Conrad wrote in English, and left Poland when he was a mere teenager: does a writer always need to stand up for his country? Does a writing have to be attached to a territory, a physical place?
Conrad, the ultimate stateless author?
Conrad’s most significant and influential novels do not speak about Poland nor Central Europe. Lord Jim takes place between the ocean and southern Asia, while Heart of Darkness is set in Africa. His first novel, Almayer’s Folly, takes place in Borneo. The list goes on. Joseph Conrad should firstly be seen as a writer in his own right, rather, as many specialists would have it, than as the translator and flag-bearer of a country.
His writing itself is strangely detached from his origins. Although he writes in English, Polish turns of phrases are absent from his style. Even more surprising, his English is keenly influenced by another foreign language: French. He only considers English as a third language, after Polish and French, that he learned when he lived in Marseilles. Joseph Conrad himself wrote that “when I write I translate the words of my thoughts in French. This is an impossible process for one desiring to make a living by writing in the English language”.
Conrad’s writing is filled with Gallicisms and French references. The writer often uses the determiner in a manner more French than English—”How the time passes!”, writes Conrad in Lord Jim. He often gets the false friends mixed up. Conrad’s writing idiom was neither French, Polish nor English, but a mix of all these languages.
Rather than a Polish writer, Joseph Conrad can be seen as the ultimate international author, or a stateless one. His influence is not limited to English-speaking countries, even though writers like Francis Scott Fitzgerald or William Faulkner recognised the debt their writings owe to Conrad.
Joseph Conrad back to his roots
One of the most striking echoes of his work in the last year, however, happened in Poland. Jacek Dukaj, a popular contemporary Polish writer, known for his science fiction works such as Lód or Katedra, decided to rewrite Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, under the title Serce ciemności. As Dukaj himself declared: “I’m not a translator, I am the author of Joseph Conrad writing Heart of Darkness for the 21st century reader”.
For a 21st century reader as well as for a Polish reader: With his endeavor, Jacek Dukaj gave Joseph Conrad back to his native country through Polish language, a restitution that could only be accomplished nearly a hundred years after Conrad’s death.
By Louise Ostermann Twardowski
A French student of Polish descent, Louise studies languages (Polish, Hungarian, Russian), linguistics and literature in Strasbourg. Passionate about Central European history, culture and literature, she joined the team of Kafkadesk contributors in April 2019. Feel free to check out her other articles here!