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5 Fascinating Facts About Joseph Conrad

Updated: Feb 19, 2021

Today is the birthday of one of the most iconic writers of the 19th century. You may have heard of him: Joseph Conrad! Respected for penning books like Heart of Darkness and The Secret Agent, Conrad arguably created some of the most analysed works in classic literature. Not only that, but his work frequently makes ‘best novels’ lists and is required reading in many schools around the world. But how much do you know about the enigmatic writer himself? Today, in honour of Joseph Conrad’s birthday here are five fascinating facts about this famous author:

1. Joseph Conrad wasn’t a native English speaker.

Despite his name and the fact that he penned his most iconic works in English, this actually wasn’t Joseph Conrad’s native language. In fact, it wasn’t even his second language, but his third. Conrad was born in Poland in 1857 and christened with the rather hefty name Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski. As a result, Conrad was a native Polish speaker and also knew French. However, he didn’t learn to speak English until he was 21!

2. Joseph Conrad survived a suicide attempt.

Joseph Conrad led a rather eventful youth and in 1878, at the age of 21, he found himself swamped in debt due to his penchant for gambling. As an escape, Conrad decided to shoot himself in the chest. Fortunately, the bullet missed his heart and Conrad went on to live nearly another half century, penning some truly great works and becoming one of his generation’s most important writers.

3. Joseph Conrad based characters he wrote on himself.

‘Write what you know’ is a common mantra amongst authors, and Joseph Conrad certainly did that. Not only did Conrad serve in the British navy, but at one point he worked as the second-in-command on a Belgian trading company steamboat. To say he was well-travelled would be an understatement, hence he was able to write about places like Africa and India, and could base characters like Marlow from Heart of Darkness on himself and his experiences sailing the world!

4. Joseph Conrad was considered one of the first, and great, Modernist writers.

Modernist literature saw a break with the heavier styles of old and strove to tackle big topics such exile and loss, death and destruction, and war and imperialism in fresh and simpler ways. Conrad did this through his work, forming a style that would go on to inspire writers of the Lost Generation such as F. Scott Fitzgerald.

5. Joseph Conrad’s work casts a light on colonialism in the 19th century.

Love it or hate it, tout it as pro or anti-colonialism, there’s no denying that Conrad’s work brought attention to the impact of European colonialism in the 1800s. At times this scope is uncomfortable—as seen in Heart of Darkness when it is discovered the venerable Mr. Kurtz, an ivory trader for a Belgian trading company, has taken a dark turn into committing unspeakable acts. Instead of presenting colonialism as benevolent (the way it was usually perceived in that age), Conrad shows the grosser aspects of the practice. Given that he lived and wrote during a time when imperialism was in vogue, it’s fascinating to see a writer create work that pointed to colonialism as something other than good!

Have you read Joseph Conrad’s work? Tell us in the comments section which is your favourite and why!

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