Unbeknownst to many of his readers, Joseph Conrad spent his formative years in Kraków. Culture.pl presents an academic paper by Grażyna Branny situating Conrad there and examining the potential threads that wove through the city, Conrad himself, and his writings.
Conrad in Krakow
Grażyna Branny, Jagiellonian University
Joseph Conrad once wrote in Poland Revisited:
It was in that old royal and academic city that I ceased to be a child, became a boy, had known the friendships, the admirations, the thoughts and the indignations of that age.
Conrad's 'political sensibility'
In his letter to Stefan Buszczynski (March 17th), written a year before their arrival in Krakow on February 20, 1869, Apollo Korzeniowski asserts his desire 'to bring up Konradek not as a democrat, aristocrat, demagogue, republican, monarchist, or as a servant ... of those parties – but only as a Pole', the wish in tune with his other plans for his 11-year-old son to which he gave expression in the same letter, i.e. to settle in Krakow, 'in the vicinity of that Holy Sepulchre', which may become little Konradek's 'holy, royal cradle!' (CUFE 113).
Although, taking Apollo's words literally, Kocówna states that in spite of his father's plans for him it was the Ukraine that constituted Conrad's actual 'cradle' (34), the observations made by Milosz in his study of Conrad and a stereotype may in fact point out to the success of Apollo's plans for his son, despite appearances to the contrary (Dabrowska 185-7).1
Comparing Joseph Conrad and the 'old Polish szlachta' from the borderlands, whom he remembered from his childhood, Milosz finds the writer's 19th century 'political sensibility' strikingly similar to theirs despite the fact that, unlike them, Conrad had the chance to distance himself from the stereotypical way of thinking about Russian autocracy as a source of unmitigated resentment and terror, by removing himself from the places of persecution and captivity.
Milosz sees the only explanation of this phenomenon in the fact that on the day of Conrad's departure from Poland 'his political sensibility was wholly formed, and the new experience, belonging to a totally different sphere of life, had absolutely no bearing on that sensibility' (Dabrowska 185, trans. mine).2Incidentally, the place the young Conrad departed from for Marseilles in 1874 was Kraków, where he had spent the most formative years of his life, from the age of eleven to sixteen.
In fact one can hear the echo of that 'sensibility' in Conrad in his letter to Cunninghame Graham of Feb.8th 1899, in which he refused to speak up at a socialist meeting in London, making it clear that he did not trust the idea of international brotherhood because it ignored 'the national sentiment the preservation of which is my main concern' (CL2 158). In the same reply to Graham, he explained his lack of interest in socialism in terms of his 'fidelity to an absolutely lost cause, to an idea without a future' (161). It is also this attitude on his part that seems to have been responsible for his hatred of the idea of a revolution.
Hence it is hardly relevant, as Addison Bross does in his article on the missing theme in Conrad 'The January Rising and Its Aftermath', to question the validity of either Conrad's assertion that the Polish Risings of 1830 and 1863 were not revolutions but 'revolts against foreign domination', or dismiss his insistence that his father as a Januarist did not plan 'for the subversion of any social or political scheme of existence' (PR xiv), or, for that matter, to regard as 'simplistic' (Bross 80) his vision of the class relations in his homeland, which he claims were marked by 'a special regard for the right of the unprivileged of this earth' (PR xiii). In fact the issue, which Bross finds 'problematic', is best explained by Miłosz: 'The cause of radical reform was championed as the means to an ultimate end: [Poland's independence] ... [T]he leading militants ... contenting themselves with a purely emotional sympathy for the downtrodden'(129).
The political debates of Conrad's Kraków days
According to Bross, Conrad's opinions on the two Polish uprisings and on his father's role in the latter are not only perfectly attuned to his general silence about the event which had deprived him both of his parents and his childhood, but also to his failure to come to terms with the political issues discussed in Galicia during his residence there, on the eve of his voluntary exile.
While it is true that with both Risings the social issue of serfdom3was a by-product of the national issue, it is also psychologically justifiable that with his painful familial memories, faced with the debate which either questioned the wisdom of the 1863 Insurrection or discredited it altogether, Conrad should have held his peace. For, the debate raging in the intelligentsia circles of Kraków and Lwów during Conrad's sojourn there was directed against traditional Polish romantic patriotism represented by his father. While Kraków's 'Stanczycy' group advocated revisionist attitudes aiming at demythologising and rewriting Polish history, the positivists urged economic development and conciliation with the partitioning powers (Bross 68).
Bross notes that Conrad's silence on those debates coincides with his 'striking' lack of recognition, 'considering his close relation with Tadeusz Bobrowski' (74), of the discrepancy between his uncle's positivist Pamietniki('Memoirs'), on which he relied for the writing of A Personal Record (1912), and his own 'post-romantic vision of his homeland and its plight' (Bross 82) presented in that book.
Conrad's Polish reading
Although Milosz's, Dabrowska's and Bross's comments on Conrad's unshaken 'political sensibilities' may sound disparaging at times, this is exactly the heritage that Conrad may be legitimately said to have derived not only from his childhood in the Ukraine, his father's conspiratorial activities in Warszawa and his exile in Siberia, but first and foremost from his six years in Galicia, and especially the five spent in Kraków (1869-1873). It is there that he was first exposed to regular education and began to pursue his later almost compulsive reading habits, at first guided by his father's recommendations – during his illness an escape from despair (NLL 168) – and, after Apollo's death, cultivated on his own to be later followed even on ships, even in the remotest corners of the globe (Kosek 'Bagaż' 44).4
As, however, Karol Kosek rightly suggests in his article on Conrad's 'literary baggage' from Galicia, foreign critics tend to underrate the influence of Conrad's Polish cultural heritage and his reading during the Kraków days of his life on his future literary career, the attitude which Conrad himself unwittingly encouraged, for not only did he (or Jessie) not mention any specific titles but was also in the habit of citing different authors to different audiences as if to meet the expectations of his interlocutors, which led especially English critics to mistaken conclusions that Conrad was well-versed exclusively in Western European literatures.
At the same time, in his 1914 interview for a Polish journalist Marian Dabrowski (CUFE 199), Conrad ignores all foreign writers, citing only Mickiewicz and Słowacki as his masters, whereas in a letter to Garnett (20th Jan., 1900) he curiously confines Polish literature to the 15th [sic!] century poet Kochanowski, his contemporary Józef Korzeniowski, and his own father (CL2 243-7), leaving out the two Romantics, Mickiewicz and Slowacki altogether.
Kosek offers a highly convincing explanation why Conrad refrained from giving his non-Polish 'friends' any information concerning Polish literature or his Polish cultural and literary background ('Bagaż' 50). In his 1920 correspondence with Count Eustachy Sanguszko Conrad complains: 'I have been long aware of Western Europe's ignorance of the character, history, ideals and essence of the Polish nation' (Jabłkowska 264-5, trans. mine), while in a letter to H. D. Davray (26th Jan., 1908) he explains that he has been writing for the English, always keeping in mind the impression his writings will evoke in the British readers (CL4, 28).
Moreover, he was well aware of the British aloofness towards foreigners as well as England's reluctance to act on Poland's behalf at the expense of the propriety of their relations with Russia, whether tsarist or Soviet, the attitude which has unfortunately hardly become outdated over the period of 80 years that have elapsed since Conrad's death. He felt this attitude most keenly after publishing The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes, when he had to rebut Garnett's accusations of serving the English audience what they did not want to hear, i.e. the truth about tsarist Russia (Kosek 'Bagaż' 50).
As to Conrad's 'literary baggage' from Galicia in general and Kraków in particular, there indeed was one, literally speaking, as Conrad-Bobrowski correspondence from the two years (1874-6) immediately following the young man's departure for Marseilles testifies to. Conrad in fact lost that luggage twice on his distant voyages to Martinique and the Carribean, begging his uncle to replenish his Polish stock soon afterwards, to which the practically-minded Bobrowski replied by advising Conrad to order the missing copies in Kraków or in a Polish bookshop in Paris as a cheaper and safer solution (Jabłkowska 20,27).
This suggests that Conrad was in constant touch with a selection of Polish books, especially Pan Tadeusz, which he 'never tired of reading on [his] unending journeys', as he himself admitted to Retinger (Retinger 29), and which may have accounted for his perfect Polish accent despite the forty years that elapsed between his departure from his homeland and his return to it on the eve of WWI.
Speculating about the names of the Polish authors whose books Conrad may have taken along, apart from Mickiewicz and Slowacki, Krasinski, Rzewuski and Fredro are mentioned. On the basis of Bobrowski's letters to Conrad, Kosek adds to that list the authors evidently known to the writer at the time, as might follow from Bobrowski's references to some catchy phrases used by them in their books, which Conrad's uncle may have counted on the boy to find pleasure in recognising, and thus quoted – Pol, Zaleski, Kochanowski, Wężyk (Kocówna 63-4; Kosek 'Bagaż' 57).
Next, Kosek points out that in the aftermath of the 1863 Rising, the Polish market, especially in Kraków, Warszawa and Lwów, was literally flooded with magazines, periodicals, publications and literature for children and young people, written to popularise Polish history and culture, i.e. subjects which were either altogether missing from the school curricula concocted by the partitioning powers, or completely distorted and falsified.
That during his Kraków days Conrad must have come across such publications seems almost inevitable in view of the fact that upon his arrival in Kraków Apollo was invited to contribute to the Kraj magazine, and when still in Lwów he had written a comedy for children about the Polish national hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko. Incidentally, at that time, as reported by J. Kałuska, Konradek was said to have himself tried his hand at plays about the January Rising and wrote a drama titled The Eyes of King John Sobieski (Kocowna 32-3).
Judging by Konradek's habit of reading whatever his father recommended (Najder Zycie I, 42), the boy must have read the books produced by Apollo's friends and such contemporary Polish writers as the notorious and extremely prolific Kraszewski (Kosek 'Bagaż' 62), and Łoziński perceived as the Polish Balzac or Scott and translated into foreign languages (69), as well as many others. In conclusion of his nearly 50-page article on the issue, Kosek emphasises that the 'cultural baggage' from Conrad's Kraków days with which Conrad left for Marseilles was indeed huge, contrary to the claims of both Polish and foreign Conradians, and did not only cover Polish history and literature but also publications on all current issues – Polish and European alike, foreign literature in the original (French, Latin, German) and in translation, as well as theatrical productions, including Shakespeare (75).
Finally, Kosek puts forward what seems to be a valid claim, that Conrad's later interest in geography may have also been incited by Wincenty Pol, a professor of geography and Apollo's friend (62). Moreover, without disclaiming the validity of all the other motives behind Conrad's decision to go to sea, he suggests that it may have been directly inspired by Conrad's reading of Łoziński's Narwoj's Stories, whose serialisation in Przeglad Lwowski in 1872 coincided with Conrad's first mention to his uncle of his dream to go to sea, and his harping on the idea for the two years to come. The main hero of The Twelfth Guest, Wit Narwoj, the most popular literary creation of the day, was seventeen, exactly Conrad's age at the point of the writer's departure for Marseilles, when he travelled abroad, after having extracted himself from the custody of his grumbling father. The other stories of the series present Narwoj's adventures abroad, combined with his social advancement in the world, a situation evocative of Conrad's own.5
The idea of fidelity
As Najder points out in his illuminating article 'Fidelity and Art', Conrad's indisputable cultural heritage from his native Poland included the idea of fidelity. Although little Konradek's early days had been steeped in the idea of fidelity to the national cause through the example of his parents' devotion to it, it is in his formative years spent in Kraków that he seems to have adopted it as his own.
This happened both owing to his father's educational efforts and Conrad's exposure to public education in whatever gymnasium he attended in Kraków at the time, or whatever private tutoring he received either there or in Przemysl and Lwow,6 where, as Najder suggests: 'Polish Romantic poetry and patriotic literature were read and reread'('Fidelity' 13), particularly if the pensions he was sent to were run by former Insurrectionists, i.e. Ludwig Georgeon (Krakow) and Antoni Syroczynski (Lwów). Moreover, as stressed in Kosek's article on Conrad's education in Galicia ('Wpływ' 53-6), the years 1865-1874, almost exactly coinciding with the period of Conrad's sojourn in Kraków, were crucial for the reinstatement of Polishness in the Austrian partition of Poland,7 culminating in the acquisition of autonomy on 21 Dec.1867, slightly over a year before the Korzeniowskis' arrival in Kraków.
In 1868 Apollo wrote to Buszczyński: 'I am now writing only because I cannot act', suggesting that the demands of life, in the sense of national and social obligations, were far more important for him than the demands of art (qtd in Najder, 'Fidelity' 14). Although 44 years later in 'A Familiar Preface' his son asserted that 'the temporal world rests on a few very simple ideas ... among others on the idea of Fidelity' (PR xxi), he appears to have opted voluntarily for what his father was forced to choose, i.e. the demands of art over those of life, even though it is on the idea of fidelity, as Ian Watt asserts, that Conrad's ethic rests in all his novels (6).
As Najder emphasises, Stein's declaration in Lord Jim 'to follow the dream ... usque ad finem' (to the bitter end; LJ 215) directly echoes the principle of fidelity celebrated by the Polish Romantics, and curiously enough, for lack of an alternative, also the positivists like Bobrowski, who often resorted to the phrase himself while exhorting his nephew to perseverance ('Fidelity' 15-6). That despite some allegations to the contrary Conrad did take up this Romantic heritage of fidelity to the national cause can be seen from his words addressed to Garnett in 1907, in which he compares the Polish and the English definitions of fighting: 'You forget that we have been used to go to battle without illusions. It's you Britishers that 'go in to win' only. We have been 'going in' these last hundred years repeatedly, to be knocked on the head only'... (CL4 492), the statement which proved painfully true once again, barely 20 years after Conrad's death, in 1944 in Warszawa.
Kraków revisited – 1914
Conrad's 1914 visit to Poland (July 28 – Oct. 9), undertaken at the initiative of Otolia Retinger, the wife of his Polish friend Jozef Retinger,8 and the official invitation of her mother Emilia Zubrzycka, turned out to be more than introducing his boys to their father's life, more even than telling his family: 'il'a quelque chose derrière moi' (Retinger 155).
In Retinger's own words, it was a 'pilgrimage', during which '[T]he past was talking to him... and to him alone'.... And the past did come to him not only through his astonishing ability after forty years to find his way from the Grand Hotel by moonlight through the narrow streets to where he could see Rynek as he remembered it as a schoolboy, 'from the side view of the Florian Gate under the shadow of the Church of the Holy Virgin' (150).
First and foremost, the past came to him through his astounding realisation upon being shown on July 30 through the vaulted rooms of the old Jagiellonian Library, then housed in Collegium Maius, that, firstly, his father, a helpless 'victim of Muscovite tyranny', severely criticised by Bobrowski, was in fact a great man, still revered nation-wide half a century after his death; and, secondly, that his manuscripts had survived rather than being burnt (Najder Zycie II, 174-5; Adamowicz 35-6) as Conrad had long mistakenly believed and reported in The Mirror of the Sea and in his letter of Jan. 20th 1900 to E. Garnett (CL2 247). A few months later, he made his first written public statement about his father when in 'Poland Revisited' he recollected Apollo's last journey, to Rakowicki Cemetry, which turned into a huge national manifestation of 'all the generous 'Youth of the Schools', the grave Senate of the University, the delegations of the Trade-guilds' (NLL 169).
And it is only the outbreak of WWI the next day after Conrad's visit to the Library that prevented the curator, incidentally Józef Korzeniowski, from making the copies of Apollo's manuscripts for Conrad. And those would have comprised a two-volume collection of Apollo's poetry, drama and prose (1849-68), until 1907 in the hands of Stefan Buszczyński, some of his correspondence (with J.I. Kraszewski, among others) as well as personal poetry addressed to his wife Ewelina and little Konradek, formerly in the hands of Teofila Bobrowska, Conrad's grandmother.
A later deposit, made by Jessie seven years after Conrad's death, in 1931, consists of the Korzeniowski and Bobrowski family documents and papers, including Apollo's and Conrad's Russian passports from 1868, the year of their arrival in Galicia; a copy of the 1889 document annulling Conrad's Russian citizenship; and Bobrowski's financial accounts from the years of his custody over his nephew.
Kraków saw two unusual, emotional scenes involving Conrad, as observed by his son Borys and Retinger, respectively: his kneeling down to pray at his father's grave, and kissing a man (the man was Retinger) on both cheeks, in accordance with 'the ancient Polish custom ... which he held in detestation' otherwise (Retinger 153). The third instance of uncommon conduct in the family, triggered by this emotional Polish visit, concerned Jessie, Conrad's wife, who was reported praying in front of Queen Jadwiga's black cross at the Royal Cathedral of the Wawel Castle, as a Catholic might (Retinger 154).
Extremely moved by the sight of the Wawel and the cathedral, which had been recently rebuilt and restored to the nation, after serving as barracks for the Austrian occupier, Conrad observed that nothing much had changed in Kraków between 1874 and 1914, least of all in the Market Square: 'the unnecessary trees the Municipality insisted upon sticking between the stones .. steadily refusing to grow' and 'the paving operations... exactly at the same point', the sight ominously familiar to the eye 90 years later, Conrad's 'suspicion of the unchangeability of things' (NLL 164-6) ironically confirmed today.
'[T]he helpless prey of the Shadows [he] had called up' (NLL 169f), caught between the Austrian and the Russian partitions on the fatal day of August 1, 1914, Conrad observed a general aura of anticipation and optimism in the nation, awakened by an all-European military conflict that many believed spelled freedom for Poland. No longer able to visit Retinger's mother's estate on the Russian side, after barely five days in Kraków, the Conrads had to take refuge in Zakopane on 2 August.
And it is there, as previously in the Royal city, that the writer met with a number of representatives of the contemporary political and literary elite of Poland, for 'those long nocturnal Polish talks', which both updated him on the recent developments on the Polish literary and artistic scenes (Zeromski, Prus, Wyspianski, Nalepiński, Rembowski, also through extensive reading (Najder Życie II 176-7) – and gave rise to his later Memorandum to the British government concerning the Polish cause (177-9). Two months later, financially aided by Pinker and supplied with a special travel pass obtained through 'connections' for their return journey to Vienna, Conrad with his family left for Nowy Targ in a peasant horse-drawn carriage, on the night of 7/8 October, arriving in Vienna three days later on a train full of wounded soldiers.
The Secret Agent in Kraków
Conrad's last encounter with Kraków can easily be regarded as a misadventure. The dramatised version of The Secret Agent prepared jointly by Aniela Zagórska, the authorised Polish translator of his works, and Bruno Winawer, an interwar Polish playwright, whose comedy The Book of Job Conrad translated into English, survived merely five nights on the stage of Kraków's Bagatela theatre at Easter time, i.e. March 26-28th, 3rd and 7th April, 1923.
Objections to the dramatic version of The Secret Agent in Poland were similar to those made to the London performance: 'defective stagecraft and absence of concentration of effect' (CPB 282) despite the fact that Conrad had reduced the number of acts to three, and reshuffled the scenes to compress the action. Ludwik Skoczylas, the reviewer of Goniec Krakowski, showed more consideration for Conrad as an internationally renowned writer than for his play, blaming the director for opting for an unfortunate blend of realism and symbolism instead of hitting upon a uniform convention.
Why, then, did Bruno Winawer report to Conrad that the play had been favourably received (Conrad's letter to Aniela Zagorska; CPB 282)? The answer perhaps lies in a short, unequivocally laudatory note in Ilustrowany Kurier Codzienny on March 28, two days after the first night, which celebrates the play's great success. The newspaper showed considerable interest in the appearance of Conrad's play in Poland, by publishing a leader on the writer's life and work on the day of the premiere and a review three days later.
Ringing the note of national pride in Conrad's international reputation, the leader intended to re-introduce Conrad to the Polish audience and anticipated a quality performance. The review itself was much less enthusiastic, although it began with a laudatory and reassuring tribute to Conrad's achievement as a writer who had 'jumped out of his Polish skin' while never betraying his Polishness. Praising the acting, the reviewer none the less characterised the plot as a morbid reflection of Conrad's nightmarish memories of his childhood spent in partitioned Poland, concluding that neither the play's subject nor its rendering of the novel deserved to be called high art.
Another unfavourable review appeared on the same day in the Kraków daily Czas. Remarking that Conrad was apparently more at ease in the middle of an ocean than on stage, the author blamed the play's failure on its very prerequisites – vagueness of plot and character, which roused the curiosity of the audience without satisfying it. 9
To conclude, let me evoke the assertion expressed by Czeslaw Milosz in his article on Apollo Korzeniowski, of an overpowering, if often implicit, influence of the firmest beliefs, commitments and loyalties of Conrad's father on the writer's own way of thinking, despite appearances to the contrary, and thus stress the pivotal role in Conrad's further life of his Krakow days.
In this context Milosz's inspiring suggestion in the conclusion of his article that perhaps Krakow will live to see a monument to Apollo, 'portraying the man with the boy who owed him so much... both men fanatics of persevering tenacity... appealing to lost virtues amid a world of commerce and industry', with 'a kind of greatness peculiar only to Quixotes' (Milosz 138, 140), sounds particularly relevant. Although it is not entirely implausible that Retinger could also be counted in that number, what certainly bound him and Conrad together was what also bound Conrad and his father, i.e. concern for the Polish cause.
A Cracovian by birth, by initiating Conrad's visit to the Royal city in 1914, Retinger brought to a full circle what Apollo had begun 45 years earlier: Conrad's youthful days in Kraków bore the fruit of his patriotic memorandum 'A Note on the Polish Problem', written at the request of Retinger for circulation in the Foreign Office (Knowles 122). The Paine of Europe, however mysterious his dealings, undertaken in whomsoever’s name and by whatever means, at that time Retinger seems to have been mainly concerned with the issue best expressed by the title of his own memorandum: an independent Poland as a safeguard of Europe's political equilibrium (La Pologne et l'équilibre européen).
Both of them, as Retinger insists – Conrad and himself – 'nothing else than ... Pole[s]' (152), despite some personal issue that seems to have cast a shadow over this unusual friendship – between an elderly gentleman that Conrad was at the time, and the 'devil's little cousin', as General Sikorski was later to refer to Retinger, Conrad's junior by over 30 years, whose political activities the writer viewed with 'dismayed admiration' (Najder CPB 260 ftn.1).