Mark Gilbert, Chair of the Jury, said: “The Dawn Watch is a striking portrait of an exceptional man and his times. Maya Jasanoff is a visitor in Conrad’s world, a recreator of it and in some ways its judge. Capturing this world required remarkable research, an eye for telling detail, a roving spirit similar to Conrad’s own, and a gift for historical narrative. Fortunately, Jasanoff’s pen, like Conrad’s, is a magic wand.”
Juror Jeffrey Simpson said: “Maya Jasanoff shows Joseph Conrad as a guide through issues bigger than him. And, in so many ways, these are the same issues we are grappling with, in different ways, today. Extremely well plotted, technically brilliant and beautifully written, this is a work of history that presents us with new ways of reading about authors, and their times.”
This stylishly written biography presents Joseph Conrad as a frank and original interpreter of his times and a prophet of our own. Maya Jasanoff, a Harvard historian, skips a straight “birth to hearse” telling of his life story, instead grouping his writings into four themes: nation, ocean, civilisation and empire...In 1897 Conrad wrote in his novella The Nigger of the Narcissus that he wanted to use “the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel . . . before all, to make you see”. Laurel Lefkow’s energetic narration succeeds in making Jasanoff’s exceptional book do all that.
The Dawn Watch is so compelling that it seems almost churlish to point out its flaws. Given that we do not lack fine biographies of Conrad, a little less retelling of his life story would have provided more room for historical analysis. Another flaw is Jasanoff’s uncritical acceptance of a theory of Conrad’s trajectory – usually dubbed “achievement and decline” – that was first advanced by Virginia Woolf. Conrad’s later novels, which are different from but not necessarily inferior to Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, receive little notice here except to be condemned.
For those who haven’t read all of Conrad’s four masterworks, or who read them a long time ago and need some refreshing, Jasanoff’s insightful and deft sketches of their contents will fill in any gaps. Above all, this book is a timely reminder of the artistic greatness of Conrad, an untutored outsider whose innovative use of questing, uncertain narrators, of fractured timelines and grim yet exotic plots, influenced generations of admirers...
In “The Dawn Watch,” Jasanoff goes behind the mask and, like Stanley in search of Livingstone, or Marlow in search of Kurtz, sets out to find the elusive Conrad by tracing the physical, historical, biographical and literary footsteps of the writer...This is the Conrad who comes alive in Jasanoff’s masterful study. “The Dawn Watch” will become a creative companion to all students of his work. It has made me want to re-establish connections with the Conrad whose written sentences once inspired in me the same joy as a musical phrase.
The Dawn Watch will win prizes, and if it doesn’t, there is something wrong with the prizes. Is this a biography of Joseph Conrad? Not entirely. Although it follows the chronological form of his life, there are elisions and diversions. Is it literary criticism? No, though Jasanoff gives bravura renditions of the novels, laying down a story, quoting lines, revealing their essence and showing the links to Conrad’s own experience. Is it a study of globalisation, a historical commentary on our times? Yes, but this is done so deftly that you barely notice.