'Dawn Watch' Explores The Life And Legacy Of Joseph Conrad

Nov 20, 2017
Originally published on November 22, 2017 12:12 pm
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our critic-at-large John Powers has a review of a new book about the life and work of the great Polish-born writer Joseph Conrad. John says you don't need to be a Conrad buff to find it engrossing. The author, Maya Jasanoff, is the Coolidge professor of history at Harvard. She won a National Book Critics Circle Award for her 2011 book "Liberty's Exiles: American Loyalists In The Revolutionary World." Her new book is titled "The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad In A Global World."

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: We're in the middle of a boom in serious popularizing books that try to bring us closer to the classics by anchoring them in the lives of their creators, books like Stephen Greenblatt's "Will In The World," which explores how young Shakespeare made himself into Will Shakespeare, and Sarah Bakewell's "At The Existentialist Cafe," which grounds the work of Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir and others in their gaudy personal experience. A terrific example of such a book is Maya Jasanoff's "The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad In A Global World."

Weaving together biography, history, literature and her own travels, this fascinating, beautifully written work takes one of those literary giants frequently written off these days as a dead white male and reveals how he inhabited and grappled with a world startlingly like our own. Jasanoff clearly has a taste for uprooted people. Her previous book was about British Loyalists who fled the U.S. after the American Revolution. In Conrad, she has a subject who lived a globe-trotting life so extraordinary that it makes our beat writers seem positively suburban.

Born in 1857, Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski was the son of a Polish nationalist exiled for opposing Russian domination. Young Joseph spent part of his boyhood in exile, too, then in his mid-teens headed to Marseille to become a sailor. After a suicide attempt, he moved to London. England would become his home, and he joined the British merchant marine. Conrad went on to sail the world, having experiences that famously led Henry James to enthuse, no writer has ever known what you know. Conrad battled typhoons in the South Seas, traveled up a river in Borneo, wandered the teeming port city of Singapore and skippered a steamer up the Congo River back when Belgium was busy turning this colonial possession into a slave state, where African laborers had their hands chopped off for not working fast enough.

Eventually in his 30s, he began writing in English, his third language. Jasanoff does a nifty job of tracing how Conrad's travels shaped four of his greatest books - "Lord Jim," "The Secret Agent," "Nostromo" and of course "Heart Of Darkness," the fruits of that Congo journey and one of the defining documents of our modern age, even being turned into the movie "Apocalypse Now."

In the process, she makes clear how his writing is profoundly contemporary, exploring the very issues we deal with today - globalization, immigration, terrorism, amoral capitalism, imperial decline and disorienting technological change. In "The Secret Agent," you have the Russian government interfering in the affairs of a democratic state. In "Nostromo," you see the British Empire facing the threat of being eclipsed by America just as our own empire now sees the rise of China.

Now, Jasanoff doesn't whitewash the harsher truths about Conrad - for instance, his undeniable racism. Yet she also reminds us that this brilliant dead-serious artist wasn't some white supremacist marcher. Even as "Heart Of Darkness" treats Africans as a symbolic blur, not individuals, it still challenged his heirs' received notions of race. Conrad makes it clear that the book's true savages are the colonial Europeans and that blacks and whites share the same capacity for good and evil.

In her introduction, Jasanoff notes that it might seem strange that a woman who's half-Jewish and half-Asian should be fascinated by the work of a pessimistic conservative who served up Asian stereotypes, could be anti-Semitic and wrote almost nothing about women. Yet she explains why it's important that we grapple with figures like Conrad even if we don't share their values. History is like therapy for the present, she writes. It makes us talk about its parents.

She's right as well as witty. And reading "The Dawn Watch," we see how we are in many ways Conrad's children. Even if you hated "Lord Jim" in high school, this book will make you want to pick it up again.

GROSS: John Powers writes about film and TV for Vogue and vogue.com. He reviewed "The Dawn Watch" by Maya Jasanoff.

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GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, more on the connections between Russia, Donald Trump and his campaign. We talk with Luke Harding, author of the new book "Collusion." It's based on the Russian dossier as well as on his own reporting. He's a reporter for The Guardian and spent four years as their Moscow bureau chief. His book is in part about how the Russians cultivated Donald Trump. I hope you'll join us.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

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