Five fun facts about Joseph Conrad, author of the classic novella Heart of Darkness
1. In his twenties, Conrad resolved to kill himself with a gun – but miraculously he survived. Joseph Conrad – born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in Russian-occupied Poland in 1857 – was a bit of a gambler in his youth. In 1878, up to his ears in gambling debts, the young Conrad attempted suicide by shooting himself in the chest. The bullet missed his heart, and he lived for the next 46 years, long enough to become one of the most important writers of his generation, with novels such as Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Nostromo, Victory, and The Secret Agent earning him the respect of critics and fellow writers (of which more below).
2. While serving in the British navy, Conrad befriended a pet monkey in India. Between 1878 and 1894, Conrad served in the British merchant navy. In 1884, he took a monkey as a pet, but when he later returned to England, Conrad found he was unable to keep the pet in the boarding-house where he was lodging. So – after an incident in which the monkey tore up some important papers – Conrad sold it. Jeffrey Meyers writes about this in his biography of Conrad.
3. Conrad avoided reading reviews of his work and instead measured them with a ruler. The longer the review, the better he felt. Although his work did receive some encouraging reviews in the press, it was not until 1914 – when much of his best work was behind him – that Conrad would achieve commercial success for the first time. This was, aptly, with a novel named Chance – and its success may have had as much to do with the cover design (which, depicting a young woman with a naval officer, made the novel look like a generic romantic novel, which in many ways it was). After that, Conrad started to make a good living from his writing, and his later works, such as Victory and The Shadow-Line, would achieve considerable popularity.
4. The spaceship in the Ridley Scott film Alien is named Nostromo after Joseph Conrad’s classic 1904 novel. The marine transport vessel in the sequel to Alien – James Cameron’s 1986 film Aliens – is named Sulaco, after a fictional place in Conrad’s Nostromo. Nostromo is a challenging novel because of its unconventional chronological structure, but is widely regarded now as one of Conrad’s masterpieces. Set in the fictional South American country of Costaguana, it follows, among others, the idealistic Charles Gould as he tries to turn around the fortunes of the silver mine he has inherited from his father.
5. Conrad died before he could complete his last novel – which was aptly titled Suspense. By this stage, Conrad’s talent for literary innovation had largely dried up, with his last few works – including the Napoleonic novel The Rover, published in 1922 – falling back on more tried and tested conventions of adventure fiction. But after his death he would be hailed as a pioneer of modernist technique. F. Scott Fitzgerald was a fan: the author of The Great Gatsby once danced on the lawn of publishers Doubleday to attract Conrad, but unfortunately Conrad didn’t notice him and the caretaker did – Fitzgerald was promptly removed.
If you enjoyed these Conrad facts, check out our list of the best Joseph Conrad novels we think everyone should read.
Image: Joseph Conrad by George Charles Beresford (1904), Wikimedia Commons.