The Joseph Conrad Society of Poland organized a memorable conference October 17-18, 1997, in Gdansk, entitled "Various National Perspectives on Conrad." Zdzislaw Najder, Staszek Modrzewski, and other conference organizers were thoughtful and able hosts throughout our visit, and had arranged for a van to meet us at the small airport and drive us to our "hotel," the Sanitorium Ministerstwa in Sopot overlooking the rather cold looking Baltic Sea. Najder set the proceedings in motion the first morning by contending that "while Conrad was multi-cultural, he was not cosmopolitan," and that the diverse elements that made up his work, albeit interwoven, remained distinct and identifiable; thus the usefulness of this conference that might respond to those diverse elements differently, from the various national points of view. The papers that followed indeed told diverse stories of national perspectives and receptions over the past 100 years. Issues of national types, of translation and translatability, of foreignness, of border crossings and cross-cultural readings emerged in all the papers that followed and in their surrounding discussions. The meetings were ably chaired by Andrzej Zgorzelski, Tony Tanner, Anne Luyat-Moore, and Jakob Lothe.
Owen Knowles focused on the complicated influence on Conrad's work by it's reception by at least three English audiences: those of the popular sea stories, the middle brow Blackwood's readers who were so taken with his "genius of word painting," and a more refined audience who claimed him as a writer's writer. While for all those audiences, Conrad's foreignness was an issue, the French wondered, according to Sylvere Monod, if Conrad were a French writer. He had lived there, many of his works took place there -even his Africa is Francophone, Sylvere reminded us- and he was largely influenced by French writers. "Conrad is closer to us than other English writers who remain foreign," Sylvere concluded.
Anthony Fothergill's presentation contrasted Conrad's depiction of Germans and Germany in his non-fiction (negative) and his fiction (positive), allowing a more complex treatment of Conrad's view of national character than is sometimes granted. In the twenties, Conrad was well translated and well read, particularly by those readers like Thomas Mann who themselves were forced into exile for the very skepticism of nationalism they so admired in Conrad. Censored in Hitler's Germany, Conrad's works were also banned in Mussolini's Italy, Mario Corelli told us. They were popularly read as adventure in Italy between the wars. For they brightened up a dismal time, Mario said. The original book covers-Mario passed around several prints at dinner one night-stressed the exotic, even the lurid, and the titles themselves underwent telling transformations. Conrad's first novel was known to Italians as "The House on the Big River." While many Italians critics placed Conrad rather differently, arguing that he belonged primarily to a tradition of meditative, introspective writers, by 1940 the matter was temporarily settled by the censors.
Censorship became an issue as well in Poland, according to Andrzej Busza. Under Russian rule, much of the non-fiction was banned, including the Author's Note to Under Western Eyes, "Autocracy and War," and "The Crime of Partition." Very popular in the 20's-more popular than in England at the same time-the works were then banned by the fascists, although Lord Jim continued to be an icon for the young Polish resistance movement during the war; in the 50's, some of Conrad's works were condemned for their "bourgeois ideology." Amid ongoing accusations of abandonment, Poles also wondered whether Conrad was Polish or English. Ted Billy and Christopher GoGwilt presented papers representing American perspectives on and particular concerns with Conrad's works. Ted talked about early responses to Conrad dominated by the formalists and psychological critics while Chris addressed current responses that often see Conrad as an initiator of post-colonial discussions. Appropriately, the conference was held at the Central Maritime Museum in Gdansk, and the papers and discussion they generated proceeded well in those rooms overlooking the canals and narrow, cobbled streets of the medieval port city. As well as providing a substantial feast of learned delights at the conference, the organizers also provided tasty meals in nearby fish restaurants, as well as a photography exhibit, "Conradian Landscapes in Photography" and a concert of Polish composer K. Penderecki's music directed by the composer at Gdansk's impressive Oliwa Cathedral, a final event in Gdansk's year long celebration of its millenium. Najder closed by announcing his hopes for another conference in Krakow in 1999, one that would focus particularly on Conrad and history.
as reported in
Joseph Conrad Today,
Volume XXIII, Nos. 1-2,
Publication of the Joseph Conrad Society of America, 1998