In Marseilles 1874-1878The journey must have been enjoyable: a seventeen-year-old boy heading through Vienna, Zurich, and Lyons for Marseilles, free at last from adult supervision, and with his pockets reasonably full. On his way he stopped at Pfäffikon, Switzerland, to visit an old friend of his father, Tadeusz Oksza-Orzechowski, the former plenipotentiary of the Polish National Government in Istanbul. Conrad recalled later how everyone there laughed at his enthusiasm for the sea. “ ‘You want to become a sailor, but have you got a knife in your pocket?’ I had not. I knew nothing about it.” Much has been written about Konrad Korzeniowski’s stay in Marseilles – tales of fascinating episodes of youthful follies, great romance, and a duel. But this attractive tableau is not supported by documentary evidence; it is the result of a peculiar collaboration of excessive good will on the part of biographers – and Conrad’s flights of retrospective imagination. To the French period of his life Conrad devoted two chapters of The Mirror of the Sea, a couple of fragments in A Personal Record, and The Arrow of Gold. The discrepancies between the descriptions of the same persons and facts in The Mirror of the Sea and The Arrow of Gold ought to warn us against treating those books as valid evidence, particularly if we bear in mind that Conrad asserted the authenticity of both. And then the contrast that exists between the plot of the novel about the charming Doña Rita and the unfinished novel The Sisters, where the same two sisters appear as in The Arrow, as well as their uncle the Basque priest, the Ortegas, and the painter – at first glance they seem the same and yet they are quite different. What are we to believe? It is best to trust only the documents. Conrad altered facts, confused dates, and changed effects into causes, even in his private correspondence. Although scholars have shown beyond doubt that his literary works are mostly based on material drawn from real life or from reading, with his imagination playing a lesser part, we should not conclude that whatever we find in those works is a faithful rendering of fact. Conrad’s tendency to color and turn into a myth his own past is most apparent in his “autobiographical” works. Thus, these writings are least qualified to be taken literally. In Marseilles, Korzeniowski was to have been looked after by Wiktor Chodźko, a Pole who lived there and sailed on French ships. It seems he was temporarily out of town and recommended the young man to a Jean-Baptiste Solari, who in turn recommended him to his cousin, the owner of a shipping firm, C. Delestang et Fils in Marseilles (at 3, rue Arcole). Jean-Baptiste Delestang was a Royalist and in the salon run by his wife gathered local supporters of the Bourbon restoration. This distinguished and snobbish society may have made an impression on Konrad. However, at the beginning of his stay in Marseilles he apparently spent most of his time in the steep, narrow back streets of the old town and in the port. Ship pilots, whom he always remembered with gratitude, were his first instructors in the art of sailing. He accompanied them to meet approaching vessels and apparently in time acquired sufficient experience to pilot boats unaided. He grew to love the Mediterranean, “the cradle of sailing,” a love that lasted throughout his life. After two months’ stay in Marseilles he set off on his first sea voyage as a passenger on the Mont-Blanc, a barque belonging to the Delestang firm, commanded by Sever Ournier. The boat was old (she was built in 1853) and, despite her grand name, quite small, under 400 tons. Korzeniowski embarked on 8 December; on 15 December 1874 she sailed for Martinique and reached Saint-Pierre on 6 February 1875. We do not know where Korzeniowski spent the time of over seven weeks the Mont-Blanc remained in port. Saint-Pierre, although the largest town on the island, counted not much more than ten thousand inhabitants. It is possible that instead of staying put, the young man undertook some independent traveling in the Caribbean. The easiest and cheapest way of doing this was to board some coasting ship. It was apparently at this time, or perhaps during his next and longer stop at Saint-Pierre, that Korzeniowski made an excursion (or excursions) to the ports of Colombia (Cartagena) and Venezuela (Puerto Cabello, La Guaira), about which he would later reminisce. In any case, on 31 March the Mont-Blanc started her homeward passage and was back in Marseilles on 23 May. According to Claudine Lesage, Korzeniowski was no longer a passenger but a member of the crew. There were probably two objectives to this voyage: to promote the young passenger’s health and to give him a closer look at sailors’ work. Chodźko continued to keep an eye on him and received “for his troubles” 60 roubles from Bobrowski. G. J. Resink has advanced a tempting hypothesis that the future author met at that time in Marseilles Arthur Rimbaud, in whose writings he later became interested. It is not impossible, since they moved in the same circles, but they would have had barely a week in which to meet because Rimbaud, who had suffered a sunstroke in Leghorn (Livorno), arrived at Marseilles – perhaps going straight to hospital – on 18 June, and on 25 June Korzeniowski left again in the Mont-Blanc, this time as an apprentice (“novice”), with a monthly salary of 35 francs. (The captain received 200, a sailor 90.) A historian of the merchant marine describes the work on small sailing ships of that time:
The crew consisted usually of ten to twelve seamen, depending on the vessel’s tonnage, and were housed in the forecastle, the captain and first mate in the poop-house. Divided into two teams, they kept their watch around the clock: four hours of work alternating with four of rest, that is they worked twelve hours a day. When the weather was good, the team on duty could sleep on the deck, of course, apart from the man at the wheel and those keeping an eye on the davits. In rough weather that was impossible, and sometimes the whole crew was called on the deck because of a storm.
Every morning, at 7.20, the “down” (i.e., resting) watch would be wakened for coffee and biscuits with butter à volonté; in bad weather eau de vie was added. At 11 lunch and at 17 hours dinner. The time of meals was counted as part of the rest. Food was little varied but sufficient and consisted of salted bacon three or four times a week, potatoes, salted cod, seasoned beef, sardines in oil or tuna. Every evening there was soup and dried beans.The barque, now commanded by Captain Jean-Prosper Duteil, arrived at Saint-Pierre on the last day of July. She remained in the roads for two months; again nothing is known of how the young man (“Korrcuiwski,” as his name was spelled on crew list) spent his time. Only on 23 September the Mont-Blanc left Martinique for St. Thomas (at that time Danish East Indies, now the Virgin Islands), where she arrived four days later, to leave 28 September for Cap-Haïtien; she entered port on 1 October and remained there nearly a month. She left for Le Havre on 29 October with a load of log-wood. The return passage was difficult; the ship ran into very rough weather and reached port on 23 December damaged, her sails torn. This baptism of sea water must have been unpleasant for Konrad; he left the ship in Le Havre and, losing his trunk with his personal belongings on the way, rushed off for a few days to Paris and then back again to Marseilles. Perhaps he sought the company of non-sailors to recover from his disturbing experiences. The contrast between the environment in which he had grown up and that of professional sailors was enormous. Doubtless he was fascinated by their dissimilarity but vexed by their lack of polish and limited intellectual horizons. In 1875 Konrad spent seven months at sea. This does not appear to have stirred his enthusiasm for his chosen profession. He gave himself over six months’ rest from sailing – perhaps he had enough salt water for the time being or perhaps, temptations on land proved irresistible. Nothing of any importance awaited him in Marseilles; he was a young man able to enjoy his freedom without having to count every penny, and he could also impress landlubbers with his experiences at sea. […]
Zdzisław Najder. Joseph Conrad. A Life. Translated by Halina Najder. Rochester, N.Y. : Camden House, 2007.