If exile and alienation are the defining characteristics of twentieth-century literature, Joseph Conrad is the quintessential twentieth-century writer. From Roman poets to modern playwrights, many have written well in places and languages other than their own, but Conrad was more deracinated than most. The man who has been called the best French novelist in English (a compliment also paid to Henry James and Ford Madox Ford) was a Pole from what is now the Ukraine, stripped by circumstance of his culture, his class, his family, his language, his country, and even his name. But against these blows of fate Conrad fought back in original ways. Born in the landlocked backlands of Central Europe, he made a living for nearly twenty years working tramp steamers for the British merchant navy. Schooled in a rough and ready way of life, he changed tack at thirty-seven, started writing in English and published his first novel at thirty-eight. Remaining single until he was thirty-nine, he married a working-class girl from London and became a family man, ending his life as a rich and respected member of the Establishment with a mansion in Kent which looks not unlike a Polish manor-house. Quite a journey.
As usual with Conrad, this story – poor refugee unexpectedly makes good – is not quite what it seems. Konrad Korzeniowski had small private means and some connections to help him make his way in the world, not the normal lot of a working man in the late nineteenth century.