Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Conrad in Cardiff

Cathedral Road is not exactly Cardiff’s heart of darkness but it’s where I journeyed today in search of Joseph Conrad. The famous Polish author is long-since dead, of course, but I wasn’t going to allow such a minor detail to deter me. The object of my quest was the house in which Conrad completed his manuscript for The Nigger of the Narcissus back in 1896.

The Nigger of the Narcissus is a controversial novella, not least because of its unfortunate title. It’s the tale of James Wait, a black sailor, who suffers sickness on a voyage from Bombay to London. But is he really ill or just feigning tuberculosis to avoid having to do some hard graft? Members of the ship’s crew are divided in their opinions. The subject matter of this book - along with its follow up, the more famous and influential Heart of Darkness - has led to accusations of racism. We’ll leave that particular debate to the critics.

Conrad arrived in Cardiff in 1896 (his third visit to the port) armed with his manuscript. He lodged with his friends the Spiridion family on Cathedral Road. They provided him with a room overlooking the tree-lined street where he could work undisturbed. The family owned a watchmaker’s/jewellery shop on Duke Street so they obviously weren’t short of a few quid. A previous visit to Cardiff central library to check the relevant street atlas furnished me with the Spiridion family’s exact address: 78, Cathedral Road.

This affluent thoroughfare has seen a lot of redevelopment over recent years so I was praying that number 78 hadn’t become an office complex or a car park. Weaving my way through Pontcanna’s half-terming jeunesse d'orée I squinted at house numbers. To my relief number 78 was still there. As Conrad must have done in 1896 I strode up to the front door. The house has been converted into flats. Thankfully I resisted the temptation to pretend I was from the council and con my way inside. Instead I stood in the doorway absorbing Conradian vibes.

I was in a kind of reverie. Conrad once spent Christmas in this very house. At a Christmas Eve supper his host Joseph Spiridion (a Polish nationalist) is said to have offered up this toast to the author: “May Conrad through his talent for writing, bring glory to Poland’s name and in his stories publicise the sad fate of his country.” This didn’t go down too well with Conrad who responded thus (in French!): “My friend – what do you want of me? I would alienate my public if I made writing a propaganda tool.”

In Cardiff during this particular visit Conrad gave an interview to the Western Mail in which he expressed his admiration for Dickens. In the published article (01/01/1897) details of his family background appeared. It was the first time that his Polish heritage had been publically revealed. When he, later, discovered the contents of the article he was said to be furious as he wanted such personal information to remain private. Conrad also found time to visit the Old Library on the Hayes. In fact, Cardiff central library still have a visitor’s book with Conrad’s signature in it, dated 30/12/1896.

*If you get the opportunity give The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897) a try - it's a fascinating novella and even contains the odd reference to Cardiff and Penarth.