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Excerpted from: The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad by John Stape

(Courtesy: Random House of Canada Limited)

‘Balzac got married in Berdichev. I must write that in my notebook. Balzac got married in Berdichev.’ In Chekhov’s Three Sisters, Chebutykin, memorably described by Randall Jarrell as that ‘one-character Theatre of the Absurd’, happens upon this fact while reading a newspaper. Some hundred miles south-west of Kiev in the western Ukraine, Berdichev was a strikingly unexpected and unfashionable venue for the wedding ceremony, in 1850, of the father of the French realist novel. It was arguably an even more unlikely place for the birth on Thursday, 3 December 1857, of a great English novelist: Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, coat of arms Nal-e²cz, later to become ‘Joseph Conrad’. As he himself acknowledged when preparing his reminiscences for publication, the town was an impossible starting point: ‘Could I begin with the sacramental words, “I was born on such a date in such a place?” The remoteness of the locality would have robbed the statement of all interest.’

In the mid-nineteenth century, Berdichev’s population was around 50,000. Passing through it in 1847, on his way to the estate at Wierzchownia of his beloved Countess Hanska (whom he married three years later), Balzac observed, with a novelist’s eye, that its houses, tiny and ‘as clean as pigsties’, were ‘all dancing the polka’. His impressions may have been coloured by an unfortunate incident while he was there: a small crowd of a couple of dozen Jews had gathered to inspect his gold watch-chain, and he beat them off with his walking-stick.

Polish from the sixteenth century, Berdichev fell to Russia, along with other substantial pickings from the Polish Commonwealth, in the Third Partition of Poland in 1795. It enjoyed an ethnic and linguistic diversity of a kind usual in Eastern Europe’s trading centres. A mainly Jewish community (around 80 per cent), the town boasted a strong Hassidic tradition, its cantors famed throughout the Ukraine by the mid-nineteenth century. The rest of the population was made up of the szlachta, the Polish gentry class,* which was Roman Catholic and Polish-speaking, and ‘Ruthenians’, as Ukrainians were then known, who were largely Orthodox, Russian-speaking, and mainly peasants. These communities, each largely self-enclosed, rubbed elbows for trade and services, but they spoke their own languages, maintained independent cultural identities, and followed different, and sometimes antagonistic, religious traditions.

By the time of Conrad’s birth, some sixty years after Russia had hived off this territory, ethnic Poles formed a minority in the region. Like many a minority, they clung jealously to their past, to their language and traditions, and some, like Conrad’s father, dreamt that, despite its actual ethnic composition, the territory would again some day make up part of a reconstituted and independent Poland. Conrad’s parents on both sides were ethnic Poles (not Ruthenians), whose ancestors had lived in the region for two centuries. To clarify matters of considerable complexity: although Conrad is almost always referred to as ‘Polish’, at the time this was an ethno-linguistic and cultural, not a political, identity. Although he did live for part of his childhood and youth on the territory of the present-day nation-state of Poland, he was born and spent most of his early years and some of his adolescence in what today is Ukraine and was, until 1919, part of the Russian Empire. Until he adopted British nationality and petitioned for release from Russian nationality, he was a subject of the Tsar and had lived in the Austro-Hungarian and in the Russian Empires, but not in ‘Poland’, which at the time, having no political existence, was absent from the map of Europe.

Conrad’s birth in a predominantly Jewish town was to give rise to a rumour that he himself was Jewish, one he vigorously denied but with no hint of racial prejudice: ‘Had I been an Israelite I would never have denied being a member of a race occupying such a unique place in the religious history of mankind.’ The town, in any event, played only a small role in his life, since his parents left it when he was an infant; on the other hand, it explains a sense of marginality that is often given expression in his writings and formed part of his psychology. A degree of mystery long persisted about the precise location of his birth, partly owing to his own misleading statements. His baptismal certificate indicates not his birthplace but the location of his baptism, or rather two baptisms, the first in a private ceremony performed in Zhitomir, a nearby town, by a priest of the Carmelite order belonging to Berdichev’s monastery, and the second in Berdichev’s parish church. The two baptisms suggest that there were fears for his life. When completing his British naturalisation papers, Conrad gave Zhitomir as his birthplace, and biographers later variously proposed Ivankivci and Terechowa, respectively south-east and south of Berdichev (see Map 1).

Conrad’s forebears, not distinguished, were solidly respectable — ‘land’ rather than ‘trade’ — and on his mother’s side included provincial officials. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, his paternal great-grandfather, Stanisl-aw Korzeniowski, married Helena Choin´ska, who bore him six children, the first some time before 1793, the last in 1809. The paternal surname means ‘someone from Korzeniów or Korzeniew’. A number of places are so named, and the precise one is irrecoverable at this distance in time. The maternal side of Conrad’s family has not been traced much further back. We know that his maternal great-grandfather, Stanisl-aw Bobrowski, fathered four children between 1790 and 1796, the year he died, a year after the Third Partition of Poland and three years after Louis XVI’s execution at the guillotine.

Both of these events were to have an impact upon Conrad’s life, although they occurred well before it began. Poland’s prolonged political agonies — by the eighteenth century, discounting Turkey as only nominally European, she was the Sick Man of Europe, ‘a laughing-stock to foreigners who believe in efficient government and progress’ — culminated in the Partitions of 1772, 1793, and 1795. Its lands ripe for the plucking, the country was easily divided up by her territorially ambitious neighbours, Austria, Prussia, and Russia, disappearing as an independent nation-state from 1795 until 1919 when the Treaty of Versailles restored her independence.

The Partitions of Poland involved geo-political rivalries and alliances of a complexity that makes hopeless any potted summary of them; in short, their effect was to make Poland a ghostly presence in Europe, her peoples under foreign rule and varyingly subject to assimilation by the powers that had divided the nation-state. The Tsar pursued a policy of intense Russification, with the result that Russian domination was virulently opposed in the territories that she had taken. Insurrections against Russian rule occurred in 1830 and 1863 when, rising up against the Russian yoke, Poles futilely attempted to re-found the Polish nation-state although facing vastly superior and better organised forces as well as entrenched interests. The political situation was further complicated by ideological upheavals in France, which foreshadowed and then finally effected the end of totalitarian rule out of which rose Napoleon and his new vision of his nation and Europe. Conrad’s writings display considerable interest in the political and social convulsions of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic period, both of which had substantially affected ‘Poland’ (an ideal or ‘nation’ in the French sense — that is an ethno-cultural grouping). Like many members of his class, he was both Francophone and Francophile from early childhood, and in writing about Poland he insisted upon her Western European character, particularly her French affinities and connections, in order to offset any association with what he contemptuously referred to ‘Slavo-Tartar Byzantine barbarism’ (that is, Russia).

Conrad’s maternal great-uncle Mikol-aj Bobrowski (1792—1864), vividly recreated in A Personal Record, was a believer in the grande illusion that Napoleon dangled before the Poles. In return for their support, they would, in due course, be rewarded, with the restoration of their country’s independence. Napoleon’s promise to patriot-dreamers when he was in need of canon fodder was both a cynical and a successful ploy. In the Battle of Somosierra (1808) during the Peninsular War to subjugate Spain, Spanish troops defended their country by proceeding to kill or wound two-thirds of the Polish Cavalry sent against them, and in an effort to restore slavery on Haiti, Napoleon sent a contingent of Poles to fight against the rebellious slave-leader Toussaint L’Ouverture. (Those who did not die fighting or succumb to malaria — a mere 600 of the 6,000 men who took part survived — mostly married and remained on the island.) Polish commit­ment to the Emperor proved unwavering, and contingents of Poles not only eventually accompanied Napoleon to Elba but also gathered round him for the Hundred Days.

Very much an idealist, Mikol-aj Bobrowski joined Napoleon’s Grande Armée in 1808 at the age of sixteen. He worked his way up from sub-lieutenant to captain, his military career ending in the fateful year of 1814, the year of Bonaparte’s defeat and exile to Elba. He served loyally and with courage, receiving the title chevalier in the Légion d’honneur, and thus automatically receiving Poland’s highest military award, the Order Virtuti Militari. He saw action under the command of Marshal Marmont, duc de Raguse, and in the decisive Battle of Leipzig (1813) gained glory, being the last man over the bridge crossing the River Elster before it was destroyed.

Bobrowski, who remained blindly loyal to the Emperor of the French throughout his life, may be a source for the Napoleon enthusiast Ferraud in Conrad’s short story ‘The Duel’. Bobrowski’s youthful idealism even survived the 1812 Retreat from Moscow during which, in the dark and cold forests, hungry and fearing for his life, he at one point ate a life-restoring meal of Lithuanian dog. The incident was immortalised by his grand-nephew a century later:

The dog barked . . . He dashed out and died. His head, I understand, was severed at one blow from his body. I understand also that, later on, within the gloomy solitudes of the snow-laden woods, when, in a sheltering hollow, a fire had been lit by the party, the condition of the quarry was discovered to be distinctly unsatisfactory. It was not thin — on the contrary, it seemed unhealthily obese; its skin showed bare patches of an unpleasant character. However, they had not killed that dog for the sake of the pelt. He was large . . . He was eaten . . . The rest is silence.

Eating mangy dog, in Conrad’s treatment of the incident, becomes a metaphor for dismembered Poland’s experience under foreign domination. Swallowing their humiliation and pride, and already living with a sense of defeat, Poles enthusiastically threw in their lot with Napoleon, joining him in a force some 100,000 strong. His view of their future was, however, vaguely formulated, and although he considered the Partitions ‘unfair’ he unhesitatingly blamed the country’s aristocracy for her demise and also expected Poles ultimately to fend for themselves. He committed himself to nothing concrete, but cynically fomented Polish hopes. For their part, the Poles willingly closed their eyes to the fact that their regained freedom would be purchased at the cost of that of others.

Another Napoleonic family connection is less direct. Conrad’s paternal grandfather, Teodor Korzeniowski as a young man served as a lieutenant in the army of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, in effect a Napoleonic puppet state, participating in the indecisive Battle of Raszyn (1809) against Austria. The Duchy provided concrete evidence of the Emperor’s good intentions towards the Poles, but the nationalist dream faded as the Grande Armée reeled and then collapsed, leaving unfinished business for later generations. Until the end of the First World War, Polish independence remained a dream, and suffering, defeat, and martyrdom were integral to Poles’ national self-image. But though ‘crucified’ and tormented, faithful daughter of the Roman Catholic Church and martyr amongst nations to nineteenth-century nationalists, Poland would in time not only redeem herself but by doing so save all Europe.* A cult of nobility, fidelity, and loyalty, of decidedly nostalgic character, took hold of the Polish collective conscious. ‘Polish Messianism’, the idea that Poland’s sufferings would redeem her, partly a product of late Romanticism, was to colour the nation’s sense of herself for nearly a century. Theorised and celebrated by the great poet of Polish patriotism, Adam Mickiewicz, it was to bloom luxuriantly after the failed November 1830 Insurrection in Russian Poland.

Teodor Korzeniowski left the Polish army and sold his lands to live on his wife’s estate in 1820, the same year that his son Apollo was born, but his family’s well-being was to be sacrificed to the nationalist cause: for supporting the Insurrection, his property was confiscated. The loss involved him with the Bobrowskis. A land-owning couple, Józef Bobrowski and Teofila Biberstejn-Pilchowska, between 1827 and 1840 had eight children. Apollo Korzeniowski fell in love with the oldest girl, Ewa Bobrowska, born in 1832. Conrad observes that Józef Bobrowski disapproved of his parents’ relationship, which began around 1847. But the love-match survived both Bobrowski’s hostility and a lengthy engagement, the wedding eventually taking place at Oratów (the Bobrowski family estate) on 4 May 1856.

Bobrowski’s opposition to Apollo Korzeniowski was, in part, simply economic. The Korzeniowskis’ prospects were uncertain, and he seems simply to have wanted to hold out for a bigger and better (that is, better off) catch for his daughter, the dream of many a doting father. With the Korzeniowski lands now in other hands, from the age of eleven Apollo Korzeniowski’s inheritance consisted mainly of a sense of life’s instability, and the realisation that he would have to rely on his wits to make his way in the world. After completing secondary school in the market town of Zhitomir, Volyhnia District’s provincial capital, he went to St Petersburg where he studied law, languages, and literature from 1840 to 1846 without, however, completing a degree. The latter subjects provided the basis for his brief life’s work.

Bobrowski may also have objected to elements in his prospective son-in-law’s personality, which, according to one observer, possessed elements of sarcasm, stubbornness, and impracticality. It has had both its contemporary and posthumous detractors and apologists. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, and the only hard evidence that matters is that Ewa Bobrowska was sufficiently charmed. She remained so during the long years between love more or less at first sight and her eventual trip to the altar. Surviving photographs of Korzeniowski in early middle age suggest that the beauty she discerned was of the inner kind. Extravagantly bearded, with unruly shoulder-length hair, short of stature and slight of build, he confronts the camera with almost disconcerting austerity and self-assurance. Earnestness, that quintessentially nineteenth-century virtue, is deeply engraved upon his brow. He appears as if only partly tamed and, whether seated or in mid-stride, ready to spring from the enforced pose. A later photograph in which he sports a trimmed black beard and tightly clipped moustache suggests a fundamental sternness.