Epiphanies

Józef Korzeniowski: A Note

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Perhaps the greatest writer ever born in Ukraine …

By Brian Doyle


 

Some years ago, my lovely bride and I had the incredible luck to house-sit a vast old house by the sea. This was one cool house for any number of reasons; it was rent-free for us for 10 months, since the owner and her family only came back in summer; it had a coterie of maintenance men assigned to it and paid ahead of time by the owner, so my job was to sit on the porch and smoke cigars; it was ringed by a small wood in which there were pheasants and night-herons; it was flanked on one side by a genius artist and on the other by a lovely old church; and it had the greatest personal library I had ever seen, thousands of books, among which I discovered complete sets of three writers: Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens, and Joseph Conrad.

This posed an immediate problem. None of the three were parsimonious with their works; all of them had their glowing virtues, and one had been a partner in saving civilization from slavery; but even I, then in the full flush of youthful arrogance, knew that I could not read all of all of them in 10 months, or even all of two of them. I would have to choose one, I told my lovely bride.

Sensibly she asked why I had to choose one to read in toto when I could read some of all, or even graze freely among all the books in the house, but I was and am a man, and therefore willing and able to set off on vast silly projects, so I did.

First I decided to test each man by reading the first chapters of three of his books. Churchill showed early promise, but then I dipped into A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, possibly the most boring book in the history of the English-speaking peoples, and stopped cold. Dickens had me through Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities, but then I ran into Bleak House, and froze. With trepidation I turned to Conrad, fearing that my lovely bride was right and all I could do those 10 months was read the greatest hits of the house … but no! Youth, Typhoon, Lord Jim, The Shadow Line, The Nigger of the Narcissus, all superb! and then, deliberately, with my heart in my mouth, I read The Secret Agent and Nostromo, hoping that he would be as good on land as he was at sea, and he was! And then, blessedly, delightedly, every night in my little study lined with the works of the historian Page Smith, who had lived and worked in the house, I read most of the astonishing outpouring of stories and novels and novellas and essays Joseph Conrad published between 1895 and his death in 1924, including his lovely collection of personal essays, The Mirror of the Sea.

We had to leave that house at the end of June, as the gracious owner and her clan returned for high summer by the sea, and there is much I miss about it even now—the croak of pheasants in thickets, the plethora of bedrooms (15!) for awed houseguests, the cheerful burly pastor next door, the friendly repairmen with whom I shared cigars, the lovely loneliness of life in a free mansion with my paramour when we were young; but also I miss the patent joy of spending almost a year with one extraordinary writer, who never once disappointed me, even over the course of some 30 books. Offhand I can think of only Graham Greene and Georges Simenon and maybe John Steinbeck for that sort of quality over a long shelf of books; how rare it is to be very good and very productive; and how rarely today do we stop and salute and celebrate Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, born in what is today the seething Ukraine, who unquestionably is one of the finest writers in the history of the English-speaking peoples—all due respect to Sir Winston.

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine and the author of numerous books, most recently the novel The Plover.

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