Five Fascinating Facts about Joseph Conrad

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 DarknessLord JimNostromoVictory, 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 conrad1boarding-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 NostromoNostromo 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.


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  3. We often forget that this was (is) so true of authors we presume to be famous from book 1: “it was not until 1914 – when much of his best work was behind him – that Conrad would achieve commercial success for the first time. [and then it was a “romance” novel].” Considering that English was his 2nd or 3rd language, I think Conrad’s writing was impressive. Thanks for this post!

  4. As an Alien fan I loved the fact about the naming of the spaceships! I’m surprised no mention of the movie Apocolypse Now apparently being based on Heart of Darkness or the fact that English wasn’t Conrad’s native tongue. His command of this second language is quite remarkable.

    That all said, I recently read Lord Jim and I’m sorry to say I wasn’t impressed by Conrad at all. I feel he is somewhat overrated if that novel is anything to go by.

    • They’re both good facts too, Ken – and believe me, if there’d been room, we would’ve mentioned them! But one of the things we like to do with ‘Five Fascinating Facts’ is cast around for the rarer, really little-known facts concerning an author, and in this case I felt that the language fact, and the excellent Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness link, were available on a few other Conrad-devoted sites/pages, whereas the ones included here were not (or you had to delve deeper to find them, at least).

      I haven’t reread Lord Jim for a number of years, but I must say I shared your view when I did read it. Perhaps I wasn’t ready for it. I love Conrad, though, and my own recommendations would be Victory, The Shadow-Line, and (if you’re feeling daring) Nostromo, which are all challenging, rich, rewarding, thrilling novels – especially Victory, which is my personal favourite.

      • Because I trust your excellence I’ll refrain from dismissing Conrad completely then – I may return to him in the future and bear your recommendations in mind!

        I have to say that despite growing up on the great literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries and loving Dickens, Hardy, Bronte(s), Forster, Woolf and so many others as a child and teenager now I’m (much) older and I’ve read so many more modern books (and trained as a writer myself) I’ve struggled (just like my teenage daughter and her classmates) to return to a way of writing that nowadays would be considered wordy, extravagant, lacking depth and (in Conrad’s case) suffering from implausibility.

        Interestingly, Conrad was accused of the latter with Lord Jim and attempted to justify his writing in a preface to one edition. I think he fails but I wonder how much is a case of modern writing having moved on so far away from the classics that we struggle to read them now and how much it is that what was once considered a great story we can now see is really rather shoddy. Clearly, Conrad’s peers struggled with him too so perhaps it isn’t just me/us today?

        Perhaps there’s a post in this for you?! ‘How to read ‘the greats’ for a post-50 Shades generation’!

        • Talking about generation gaps in reading audiences isnt it true that in truly great literature you are not always consciously aware of the style. I’ve been reading short stories by Tolstoy recently and was blown away by his The Cossacks and The Death of Ivan Illyich. (review of the latter on my blog)

  5. Very interesting post. The only piece by Conrad I’ve read is HEART OF DARKNESS back in high school.

  6. One of my favorite authors. Read the story of the Tremolino. I think it is in Mirror of the Sea. So glad he didn’t succeed in offing himself.

  7. I’ve only read two Conrad books: ‘The Secret Agent’ and ‘Heart of Darkness’ but these were some interesting tidbits!

  8. Great list, but for me the most fascinating fact about Joseph Conrad is that English was in fact his third language and he acquired it in his twenties! Conrad spoke both his native Polish language and the French language fluently, but he learnt English when he was an adult. His first preserved texts in English are letters that were written when he was 28. It’s really inspiring to know that he could learn a new language so late in life and then become an amazing stylist.

  9. I’ll admit that I haven’t read much of Joseph Conrad’s work. But I remember reading Heart of Darkness in AP English my senior year of high school and hating it; I wound up writing my AP exam essay on the book despite this. Five years later, I reread the novel for a graduate class and loved it. It’s amazing how one’s perspective changes over the years, and how a book can “change” for the better or worse depending on one’s life circumstances or maturity.

  10. Reblogged this on Vauquer Boarding House and commented:
    Very interesting! Thank you for finding and sharing these.

  11. This is fascinating! Thank you so much for sharing.