JOSEPH CONRAD DIED IN 1924, but in her bold and winning book on the writer Maya Jasanoff sees him as a prophetic “embodiment” of today’s globalised world, whispering through his characters “in the ears of new generations of anti-globalization protesters and champions of free trade, liberal interventionists and radical terrorists, social justice activists and xenophobic nativists.” He didn’t just see through the pieties of his own imperial age; he espied the contours of our own. Conrad, Jasanoff says, “was one of us: a citizen of a global world.”
Jasanoff is one of the smartest and coolest-headed members of a newer generation of historians of empire: sensitive to complexities, sceptical of brute and overly ideological assessments, and given to probing Britain’s imperial history through new, oblique angles, so as to explore what empire enabled as much as what it pulverised. Her previous books spanned the arc of the British Empire’s geography. The first, centred on India, examined collecting as a way of representing imperial possession; the second recovered the histories of American loyalists who fought for the king and, after the colony became independent, fled as exiles.
The Dawn Watch is given over to one of the more curious and profound figures of the age of empire. How did a central European of vaguely aristocratic descent named Konrad Korzeniowski, born in 1857 in a landlocked Ukrainian town (known proverbially as “nowhere”) grow up to sail the world, become a fabulist of empire and spend his last decades in squire-like existence in a quiet Kentish village, come to be revered as one of the great writers in English—his third language?
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