Book Review: The Dawn Watch

The Dawn Watch:Joseph Conrad in a Global Worldby Maya JasanoffPenguin Press, 2017The Dawn Watch, Maya Jasanoff's new biography of Joseph Conrad, comes with the troubling subtitle “Joseph Conrad in a Global World,” which smacks of faddish anachronism. But readers familiar with this author's thought-provoking Edge of Empire and thoroughly excellent Liberty's Exiles will know to expect deep delving, and The Dawn Watch doesn't disappoint. This is a Joseph Conrad biography every bit as strange and ranging and confessional as Conrad himself, following him from his birth in 1857 in what was then the Russian Empire, through his adventures on sea and land (brilliantly illustrated by two maps – one for the travels, one for the settings of the books – provided by, to his unlikely final berth as a famous author. Jasanoff isn't intent on enlisting Conrad in any 21st century concept of globalism, but in the course of the journey of her book, she does contemplate the idea that he might have helped to create that concept:

Conrad wouldn't have known the word “globalization,” but with his journey from the provinces of imperial Russia across the high seas to the British home counties, he embodied it. He channeled his global perspective into fiction based overwhelmingly on personal experience and real incidents. Henry James perfectly described Conrad's gift: “No-one has known – for intellectual use – the things you know, and you have, as the artist of the whole matter, an authority that no one has approached.” That's why a map of Conrad's written world looks so different from that of his contemporaries.

In the course of The Dawn Watch, Jasanoff treks all over Conrad's world – the book is almost as much travelogue as literary biography – and this device, which could easily have become tiresome, instead becomes an ongoing revelation about the shifting meaning of place for Conrad in a world still entirely contoured by colonialism. This kind of approach leads naturally to the most familiar gambit of Conrad biographers, which is to talk about multiple Conrads (see John Stape's The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad from ten years ago, or Frederick Karl's Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives from 1979) – but it's a gambit that's always lacked a certain plausibility, and although Jasanoff's approach leads naturally to it, she mostly avoids indulging. True, she splits Conrad the writer from “Konrad” (born Josef Teodore Konrad Korzeniowski) the non-writer, but the effect of her all her island-trekking and continent-hopping is to show readers one single and remarkable man changing over time, rather than an entirely different man periodically emerging from chrysalis. It's a large part of what makes this the most engaging Conrad biography yet written: readers come to know him.And – crucially, for literary biographies and a point at which most Conrad biographies falter – Jasanoff is equally interesting when discussing the written works that are, after all, the only thing that most people ever know of Conrad. Here, too, her approach is “global”: she tends to look at the most famous of Conrad's books at least as much from the outside as the inside, giving readers the texts as they were encountered by other readers, including them most famous of those texts and some of its most famous readers:

In the 1970s, Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe declared Heart of Darkness “an offensive and totally deplorable book,” rife with degrading stereotypes of Africa and Africans. Conrad, said Achebe, was “bloody racist.” Not long afterwards, a half-American half-Kenyan college student named Barack Obama was challenged by his friends to explain why he was reading “this racist tract.” “Because …,” Obama stammered, “because the book teaches me things … About white people, I mean. See, the book's not really about Africa. Or black people. It's about the man who wrote it. The European. The American. A particular way of looking at the world.”

Ultimately, as Henry James was attempting in his cephalopodic way to convey, the appeal of Conrad, the peculiar gust of cold wind (and windiness) he admits to the literary canon, boils down to that “particular way of looking at the world,” and The Dawn Watch captures this with tremendous erudition and readability. And it emphatically pushes readers to revisit the writings of its subject, which is exactly the kind of tilting sloop-deck of peril the later Conrad claimed the younger Conrad so much enjoyed.