photo: Agnieszka Sikora

Bedside table #73. Agnieszka Adamowicz-Pośpiech: I have always been attracted to literature which explores moral dilemmas

Agnieszka Adamowicz-Pośpiech, Professor of the University of Silesia and an outstanding scholar of Conrad, talks about her latest book Adaptacje biografii i twórczości Josepha Conrada w kulturze współczesnej (“Adaptations of biography and works of Joseph Conrad in contemporary culture”), the beginnings of her adventure with the works of the author of Heart of Darkness, the Conrad brand in pop culture, as well as her formative and future reading.

How did you come across Conrad? And what was it about his work that attracted you so much that you decided to devote the lion's share of your academic career to him?

I came across Conrad's book by accident in high school when we had to give a presentation on an extracurricular reading. It was Almayer's Folly. I still have that old copy on my bookshelf. I knew nothing about the writer at the time, but the novel made an electrifying impression on me. A father sacrificing everything for his daughter, living the dream of her happiness, building his whole life around her future when confronted with her choice, leaving, rejecting paternal fantasies. I still have the last scenes of the novel in my mind today: Almayer alone on the riverbank, walking home alone, betrayed, abandoned. Today, I know it was a classic theme that Shakespeare elaborated on perfectly in King Lear, but, at the time, the father's despair moved me to the core.

When I started studying English philology in Krakow, this was the first book in English I borrowed from a library. Unfortunately, I hardly understood anything and forgot about Conrad. However, when during my MA seminar Professor Jerzy Strzetelski suggested a few authors on whom we could write our theses and Conrad was among them, I immediately decided to do so. Later, when I met Professor Stefan Zabierowski, an eminent Conrad scholar, during my PhD studies at the University of Silesia, my early fascinations took on academic dimensions. I started with a multicultural biography of Conrad-Korzeniowski, then examined the cultural significance of his Polish translations, and finished with contemporary adaptations of his works in comics, graphic novels, plays, and films.

Speaking of Conrad adaptations in contemporary culture, I suppose it's hard to find a writer from the turn of the 20th century who is still so much alive. What surprised me in your latest book was how many of these adaptations are still absent from the Polish language. But I wanted to ask the question that you yourself pose: is there a 'Conrad' brand? And if so, then - in a few words - what does it consist of? Or in other words: who is our contemporary Conrad?

As for adaptations, you are right, many of them have not been translated and are in fact absent from Polish culture. In the UK, the BBC made a mini-series based on the novel The Secret Agent, which was very popular. In our country, Under Western Eyes was performed in theatres, but I believe that a TV series shown on streaming platforms would reach a large audience, especially now, in the face of the war in Ukraine and the threat from Russia. Both novels contain intriguing themes of love, motives of betrayal, conspiracy, but, above all, they accurately show the methods and actions of the Russian secret service.

Coming back to your question about the "Conrad" brand, I think yes, this brand exists in contemporary Polish culture - if we understand brand as "a name, sign, or graphic symbol used to identify and distinguish products". One example: Conrad became the patron of an international literature festival in Krakow – why so? Because his name is recognised in Poland and abroad, and it is associated with good literature and high standards. In a word, it is a good brand that the consumer of culture can trust and be guided by when choosing cultural products.

However, I feel that recognition of the name itself is not followed by knowledge of the writer's works. First, Lord Jim was removed from school reading lists, followed by Heart of Darkness, so young people have fewer and fewer opportunities to get to know this writer. And when playing the computer game Spec Ops: The Line, they may not realise how many references there are to Heart of Darkness...

Two questions come to mind here: what are these references like in Spec Ops? I think that not many of our readers have had the opportunity to play it. And second - why is Conrad disappearing from school reading lists? After all, we have very few writers who are so recognisable in the world; perhaps our Nobel Prize winners are equally well known, but even among them some are more so (like Olga Tokarczuk and Henryk Sienkiewicz in particular), and others less so.

In Spec Ops, it's mostly about the plot, which is a nightmare, with characters dying early on, but few players realise this. The whole game is a re-enactment of this nightmare: in utterly shattered Dubai, a group of American soldiers under the command of Colonel John Konrad remain to protect the inhabitants, but contact with them is lost. The Army sends a Delta Force squad under the command of Captain Martin Walker. It soon becomes apparent that Colonel Konrad and his men do not want to be rescued and attack their own colleagues. Konrad goes into hiding, and the central protagonist, while trying to reach him, discovers the war crimes committed by the Americans, yet he also kills civilians himself and believes he is doing good. Players have to make morally ambiguous decisions and don't quite know what is reality and what is the hallucinations of the characters. So here we have a reference to Kurtz and Marlow, massacres of indigenous people. But also, a very clear reference to the film adaptation of F. F. Coppola's Apocalypse Now, in which the main character, Captain Willard, also recreates the massacres of Vietnam and his mission to Cambodia to eliminate Colonel Kurtz. And in this case, we observe the now ubiquitous phenomenon of cultural recycling or, as John Ellis put it, the circulation of cultural memory. Often subsequent adaptations of a work do not refer to the original work, but to a previous version present in the culture. And it is the same in this case, the computer game refers significantly to Coppola's film. Umberto Eco sees it in a similar way, describing certain literary characters as 'migrating’ - characters who live outside the text concerning them. Most people know them better through their adventures outside the text than through the texts in which they appeared. He included Medea, Don Quixote, Monte Christo, Superman, or Anna Karenina. And I’d add Kurtz and Lord Jim.

As for the second part of your question, I don't know why Conrad's works are disappearing from school reading lists. Unfortunately, I cannot answer this...

Let us dwell for a moment on what you mentioned, which is, in a way, adaptations of adaptations. Is it not the case that, indeed, Conrad is a brand, he is well-known, but we know his works more through indirect means?

You worded it very well. That is indeed the case. I point this out in my book, where in the French reviews of a graphic novel, one reviewer admits that she hasn't read Heart of Darkness, but after perusing the adaptation, she feels as if she has read it... The same is true of reviews of the game Spec Ops: The Line, in which reviewers make only passing mention of Conrad's novella and concentrate on Coppola's film Apocalypse Now. Or, for example, in the multimedia London theatre adaptation of Heart of Darkness, when selected excerpts of the work resound against the background of video clips from Coppola's picture, or one of the more recent film adaptations of Apocalypse Oz, which combines the 1979 film Apocalypse Now and the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, using dialogue from both, and only indirectly refers to the original works by Conrad and Frank Baum. There are many more examples...

But the same goes for screen adaptations of Anna Karenina or Batman, which are polemical towards previous adaptations and not towards the original, as Umberto Eco aptly pointed out. So here we have a certain cultural process, sometimes called cultural recycling, which builds on previous products of the culture industry.

In the case of Heart of Darkness (but also Star Wars or Sherlock Holmes), they exemplify so-called transmedia narrative, but that's a different story I'm currently looking into...

I would like to move slowly on to your formative readings, but before that, one more word about Conrad. If you had to name your favourite interpretations and adaptations of Conrad, what would they be?

If I had to name my favourite adaptations it would definitely be Ridley Scott's The Duellists, the BBC mini-series based on The Secret Agent, and the production Lord Jim directed by Laco Adamik from the Television Theatre series. I also like the recent theatrical production of Heart of Darkness by the London-based group ‘imitating the dog’.

My formative readings? It is difficult to single out a few as they were different at each stage of my development. I won't be unique if I admit that in high school, it was definitely Albert Camus' The Plague and The Fall, Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, and Cortazar's short stories. At university - Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf, Max Frisch's Homo Faber, Friedrich Dürrenmatt's plays, and, of course, English writers, for I studied English Philology. My favourite ones, apart from Conrad, were Graham Greene (A Burnt-Out Case) and William Golding (Pincher Martin, The Spire). Of playwrights, I particularly value Harold Pinter for his approach to language. During my studies, I was also strongly influenced by reading “Tygodnik Powszechny” (“The Common Weekly” - a Polish Roman Catholic weekly magazine focusing on social, cultural, and political issues – translator’s note), which I used to read regularly in Krakow in the 1990s. In general, I have always been attracted to literature that explores moral dilemmas, how people act when faced with a difficult choice or a situation with no way out...

This largely explains Conrad. And with such an intense academic career, do you still have time for some reading for pleasure? If so, what are your favourite reads these days?

Oh, yes! Certainly. I mostly like to read writers’ and artists’ diaries, biographies. I recently read Astrid Lindgren's latest biography The Woman Behind Pippi Longstocking. I also read biographies in the form of graphic novels, such as Audubon. On the Wings of the World and Salazar: Agora Na Hora da Sua Morte (“Salazar: Now, At the Time of Your Death”).

Of English-language novelists, I have followed the artistic careers and subsequent books of Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, and Martin Amis since university.

A wonderful generation. And do you still experience reading delights?

Yes! I've recently been very impressed by Emilie Pine's collection of essays Notes to self, and when it comes to visuals, I've revisited Shaun Tan's The Arrival several times....

Finally, I would like to ask you about your reading and research plans. We have already talked a little about the latter.

I've set aside Martin Amis’s Inside Story for the May Bank Holiday, supposedly his autobiography. I am very curious to know how he sees himself. My academic plans, as I mentioned earlier, concern research on transmedia narratives, the conditions of their emergence, formation, and development in popular culture.

Interviewer: Krzysztof Cieślik

Translated by Justyna Lowe


The book Adaptacje biografii i twórczości Josepha Conrada w kulturze współczesnej (“Adaptations of biography and works of Joseph Conrad in contemporary culture”), discusses widely understood adaptations in relation to the figure of Joseph Conrad. The publication is an analysis of the transformation of Conrad’s figure and his works by contemporary artists within five categories: graphic novels (Heart of Darkness. A Graphic Novel by C. Anyango and D.Z. Mairowitz, Congo by T. Tirabosco and Ch. Perrissin, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness by P. Kuper and Au coeur des ténèbres by S. Miquel and L. Godart), comic books (The Amazing Tales by J. Conrad, Ł. Godlewski and M. Jasiński), literary appropriations (Heart of Darkness by J. Dukaj, Dżozef by J. Małecki, Condition by E. Rylski), theatre plays (Conrad by I. Villqist, Wyspiański/Conrad by T. Man), film scripts and radio plays (Victory by H. Pinter). Finally, the work discusses the presence of the figure of Conrad in the context of contemporary branding as well as the factors conducive to building a strong “Conrad” brand in contemporary Polish culture.