Wednesday, October 26, 2011

#67 - Heart of Darkness

The horror… the horror.

Joseph Conrad is one of the early, dominating presences on our list. As many readers will already know, this feat is made all the more incredible by the fact that Conrad (born Jozef Konrad Korzeniowski) was not a native speaker of English. Conrad’s father, a Polish aristocrat, was exiled for inciting rebellion against the czar in the 1860s, and young Conrad lived a life of adventure on the high seas before settling down in England to write, among other things, four of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century.

(What is it with the Slavs and beating us at our own game? Nabokov would go on to do much the same thing in the mid-century. Without the adventure.)

What to say that’s not been said about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness? It is to my mind one of the unquestioned Greats on this list – but as with many such greats it has suffered from generations of over-teaching (and usually, inept over-teaching) at the secondary level. I worried all through my reading - and worry now, in my writing - that the corruption of Mr. {Redacted}’s 10th grade English class has ruined my ability to approach the novel freshly.[1]

First, for the half-dozen of you in the Anglosphere who didn’t read it in high school –

Heart of Darkness is a tale told by the sailor Charles Marlow, of one of his “inconclusive experiences” as captain of a steamboat in Africa in the employ of a (never-named) Company. The Company is engaged in classic Colonial villainy – swindling Africans out of ivory in exchange for baubles, and extorting via violence when fraud will not meet quota. While engaged in this unsavory business, Marlow hears many men speak of the semi-mythical Kurtz, the greatest of Company ivory men, who plies his trade off in the wilderness up river and will one day surely become the Company manager.

Charles continues his steamboat voyage deeper into Africa, through several surprisingly harrowing encounters with the elements, the Company men, and the natives, and eventually locates Kurtz’s self-made kingdom. What he finds there, and what becomes of Kurtz, I leave to the reader to discover.[2]

The first thing that strikes me whenever I read Conrad is his vocabulary. Writers of his kind of nautical background (Melville was one, Jack Vance the fantasy author was another) always seem to adopt some of the capaciousness of the sea via long exposure. Conrad has a way with depth that turns wordsmithing which would be over-florid in anyone else’s hands into something stately.
The moon had spread over everything a thin layer of silver—over the rank grass, over the mud, upon the wall of matted vegetation standing higher than the wall of a temple, over the great river I could see through a sombre gap glittering, glittering, as it flowed broadly by without a murmur. All this was great, expectant, mute, while the man jabbered about himself. I wondered whether the stillness on the face of the immensity looking at us two were meant as an appeal or as a menace.
The image of two men - one thoughtful, the other yammering about his prospects of promotion within the Company - against the backdrop of a menacing, primeval night leaps out from this passage. Throughout the voyage up the river, Conrad continues to work his words towards this threatening end.

Conrad employs a frame narrative in Heart of Darkness. Instead of being told the story directly, our nameless first-person narrator encounters Marlow while they are both serving on a ship on the Thames River, and then Marlow begins to tell his tale, and the remainder of the story is Marlow’s account in the first-person to his shipmates. Conrad wields this complex narrative with a light touch[3], allowing occasional intrusions and asides to the (fictional) audience but not letting things get distracting. The effect of the structure is to make the whole thing feel a bit more like a sailor’s yarn. It also allows for a fallible (though not too fallible) narrator. Conrad even points this out to us on occasion.
“I don’t want to bother you much with what happened to me personally,” he began, showing in this remark the weakness of many tellers of tales who seem so often unaware of what their audience would like best to hear...

The themes behind Heart of Darkness have been rehearsed in high school exam essays practically since Conrad’s ink began to dry, and I’ll not belabor them here. Fundamentally, Conrad’s work talks about the complexities of the human condition - good and evil, civilized and savage, and how these opposites lurk beneath the surface of every human face and every human institution. The Africans of the Congo are savage - but so are the Company men who ruthlessly exploit them. Kurtz is a genius, with unlimited talent and unlimited ambition - but he is also brutal and, in the final analysis, short-sighted.

What struck me most on this re-reading was how short the damn thing is. I do love my Melville and Tolstoy and other books I have to register as deadly weapons. There is a place for (very) long-form fiction. But since reading Day of the Locust I have begun to develop a new appreciation for the cogency and the focus of the novella format. Conrad beats West here, writing a gripping little tale, full of Vivid Descriptions, Complex Narrative, a Political Message, Musings About the Human Experience, and all those other necessaries of the modern novel - and still clocking in at under 100 pages in most editions. Prolix post-post-moderns, you are on notice. (Looking at you, Franzen. And don’t think you’re off the hook, Pynchon.)

One final note –

Ever since Chinua Achebe first brought it to the attention of the world’s literati, the question of racism in Heart of Darkness is all but inevitable in discussions of the book. Achebe contended that Conrad’s book dehumanized the black Africans Marlowe encountered, turning them into part of the wild scenery of Africa rather than people.

Faced with this unavoidable question, I have decided – to avoid it, more or less. I will say that to my (privileged, affluent, white) eyes, the racist element was no more prevalent than any other author of his era. The white characters have more agency, yes, and the description of black characters has a bit of the old notion of the ‘savage’ attached to it. But they are far from dehumanized. Here and there, black characters are still singled out and given individual, human personalities, and the ‘savage’ depiction is undercut in several places. I am not placed as Mr. Achebe is and cannot read with his eyes; he is doubtless more qualified to speak on the matter than I am. But probing this kind of question is not why I read books; to go further simply doesn’t interest me – and even if it did, I don’t have the background or a framework from which to launch on that discussion.

[1] Yes, this is actually the kind of thing I worry about when I’m reading. No, I am not neurotic.

[2] Come on, it’s only 94 pages (my edition). You can do it! I’ll wait.

[3] Noted in my reviews so far - I seem to like light touches in modern fiction. I’m usually in favor of something a bit more bombastic when it comes to the antique authors who are my natural habitat. Things for me to think about!


  1. I think this blog may be the Modern Library's #101 greatest novel.....if it were in novel form. And you're better that 'To The Lighthouse', too. Who's doing Ulysses and when? Now I actually want to read Conrad, rather than just watching Apocalypse Now: Director's Cut, which you sadly failed to mention....

  2. Hi! Thanks for your comment- we're really glad you've been enjoying our little project so far.
    'Ulysses' was originally assigned to M., but since I am the resident Irish Literature expert and have some experience working with Joyce, we thought we might do it in tandem around the winter holidays. We would love it if you would read along with us! It's definitely one of the tougher texts on the list, and the more voices we have contributing, the better.
    I've actually never seen 'Apocalypse Now' (sadly, I am not what could be called a "movie person") but M. assures me that it's a really good adaption.