Joseph Conrad, Collected Tales. The Tremolino/ Because of the Dollars/ The Secret Sharer ...


Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, published in 1977


Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) is born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in a Polish region that was then part of the Russian Empire and is now part of the Ukraine. Although Polish is his mother tongue and he speaks excellent French from early on in his life, he writes his great novels and stories in English, and becomes known as one of the most influential English authors of the 19th and 20th century.


In his life Conrad is driven by two great passions: seafaring and writing. He spends almost 20 years of his life at sea, working on French and British merchant ships. This life experience forms the horizon of many of his novels and short stories, in which the sea often takes centre stage, as in this collection of novellas put together by Manesse. “The Tremolino”, which is “a piece of autobiography” according to Fritz Güttinger, shows how closely his life and his fiction are intertwined. “Because of the Dollars” builds on Conrad’s visits to the Malay islands and “The Secret Sharer” fictionally explores how a young captain finds his place in the ship’s hierarchy.


The problems which such conceptual proximity or even a confusion of historical author and his work can cause are best exemplified by what is probably his most famous novella, “Heart of Darkness”. Very few other literary works in the late 20th century have engendered controversies on a comparable scale. In the novella, the British sailor Marlowe recounts his adventurous but equally terrifying expedition to the Congo, which bewitches fictive listeners and reader alike. The journey leads Marlowe deeper and deeper into the African continent, the impenetrable jungle, the metaphorical “heart of darkness”. In the encounter with the colonised black population of this strange continent, the white Westerner also encounters himself, confronted with the “brutish other” he is thrown back on his own animalistic nature. Through carefully crafted metaphors of light and darkness Conrad’s brilliant tale explores the legitimacy of imperialism as well as narratives about civilisation and progress.


His idiosyncratic syntax is often opaque, his words elusive, their meaning, like that of the metaphorical heart of darkness, can never fully be grasped. This complexity and ambiguity are uniquely beautiful and deservedly elevate Conrad to the rank of world literature, as some critics claim. Others, however, harshly criticize the racist world view of the work, which cannot, as they say, be erased by beautiful words alone. Since the now-famous lecture of Nigerian poet Chinua Achebe in 1975 about racism in “Heart of Darkness”, at the latest, scholars are fiercely debating: Was Conrad a racist or wasn’t he? Should a great author be able to rise above the values and world views of his time or is that an impossible demand? Can literature be appreciated as art even if its contents are racist? Both points of view are legitimate. When he declares that he doesn’t want his humanity denied by a novella, Chinua Achebe’s voice must be heard. But Hanna Arendt also has a point when she finds that literary works, like those by Conrad, are perhaps better suited to evoke the horrors of racism and imperialism than historical or political writings.


by Teresa Teklić

Signet Sunflower Foundation