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Polish Blood, English Heart

by Kevin D. Williamson

The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World, by Maya Jasanoff (Penguin, 400 pp., $30)

Joseph Conrad and Thomas Hardy were near-exact contemporaries: Hardy was 17 years older, but he outlived the younger man by four years — the quiet life in Dorset was more healthful than Conrad’s melancholic and lonely existence down the road in Kent, where he died of heart trouble and was buried, under a marker with his surname misspelled, as oblivious crowds of sport enthusiasts descended on Canterbury for the 1924 cricket festival. The two might have passed each other on the beach at Brighton or on the street in London, and they were conjoined in the minds of their contemporaries. “Except Thomas Hardy,” The New Republic editorialized in a literary eulogy, “no English man of letters could have given by his death such historic importance to the year 1924 as Joseph Conrad.”

Strange, then, that Hardy, enjoyed from the vantage point of 2017, is an absolutely thoroughgoing Victorian: “Celestial imperiousness, love, wrath, and fervour had proved to be somewhat thrown away on netherward Egdon. Her power was limited, and the consciousness of this limitation had biased her development. Egdon was her Hades, and since coming there she had imbibed much of what was dark in its tone, though inwardly and eternally unreconciled thereto.” Etc. It is difficult to imagine the words “celestial imperiousness” surviving the blue pencil of a modern literary editor. But in Conrad — who wrote in his third language, English, which he did not begin to acquire until adulthood — we encounter something and someone different: “one of us,” as Maya Jasanoff puts it in The Dawn Watch, a new literary biography of the Anglo-Polish sailor and storyteller that attempts to situate him within that much-remarked-upon phenomenon of the moment, globalization.

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