Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

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Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) was Polish, a seaman, and one of the great writers of English prose. That is about what we “all” know of him. Researching, I find that he was born into the Polish intelligentsia in Russian- ruled Poland, was well-read in Polish literature, his father was if not a revolutionary, at least anti-Russian. He was mostly home-schooled, but received some formal education in western Poland which was under Austrian rule, spent four years in the French Merchant Marine, then another 15 years in the British merchant marine. He became a British subject in 1886, though shades of our own dual citizenship pollies, he was not released from Russian citizenship for another three years.

My introduction to Conrad came via The Secret Agent which I see my father inscribed for my 15th birthday in 1966 and which was the eleventh of Conrad’s 20 novels and novellas. I have always been a Conrad fan though I am not particularly knowledgeable about either the author or his work. Heart of Darkness (1899) I own, in a Bantam paperback together with Youth and Typhoon but I chose the Penguin cover above for its realistic portrayal of the river steamer at the heart of HoD. I also have a downloaded audiobook copy from Project Gutenberg, and when my cd player jammed (with 2 cds to go of a 19 cd SF space opera) this last trip, I dug out some old flash drives and re-listened to HoD (and Howard’s End).

The novel is framed as a story told by Marlowe, a captain in the merchant marine, to a group of his businessmen friends whiling away the evening on the deck of a yacht moored in the Thames estuary. This is an old-fashioned gambit now, but the writing is timeless, spare and descriptive (ie. both efficient and effective). It reminds me of the factoid I’ve quoted a couple of times recently that Murakami pares down his prose by writing first in English before rewriting in Japanese. Conrad, for whom English was his fourth or fifth language – after Polish, Russian, German and French – was probably also working from a limited – for a writer -English vocabulary.

While listening, I thought also of two other great writers who were contemporaneous with and stylistically similar to Conrad – Jack London and Henry Lawson, also self-taught, working men and who probably also worked from limited vocabularies. Conrad is described variously as being at the tail end of C19th Realism and at the beginning of C20th Modernism, and perhaps he, London and Lawson were just caught up in the zeitgeist, but I think also their similar backgrounds played a part.

The story is that Marlowe, at a loose end, and wishing to extend his considerable experience as a seaman by working as “a fresh water sailor for a bit” in Africa, applies to rellos on the Continent to gain him an introduction. This is soon achieved and after a cursory interview in a city like a “whited sepulchre” (Marseilles?) he finds himself making his way down the coast of Africa.

“I left in a French steamer, and she called in every blamed port they have out there, for, as far as I could see, the sole purpose of landing soldiers and custom-house officers. I watched the coast. Watching a coast as it slips by is like thinking about an enigma. There it is is before you – smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid or savage, and always mute with an a air of whispering, Come and find out. This one was almost featureless, as if still in the making, with an aspect of monotonous grimness.

Marlowe is landed, walks 200 miles to his station, finds his “ship” has been sunk in a shallow part of the river, spends months recovering and repairing it. Sets out on a voyage up river with various passengers to the isolated station of the famed Kurtz. Rescues Kurtz who is dying. Sails (sorry, steams) back.

The heart of the story concerns the atmosphere around Kurtz, who is believed to be favoured back home, and who is phenomenally successful at securing ivory for the Company, and so is regarded with both awe and jealousy by his colleagues. I’m not competent to add to the century of learned commentary around this great work, so this ‘review’ is just a token to say I’ve read it.

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French colonies in Pink (how counter-intuitive is that!)

The specific location is never stated, or not that I noticed anyway, but I believe is generally held to be the Congo River. My first thought was that the Congo was not then even a colony, but the personal possession of the Belgian King. However, more research shows that the French had a neighbouring colony (now Congo) which bordered the River, but only well upstream and hence the 200 mile walk.

Since writing the above I have read a learned introduction (in my 1960 Bantam edition) which states that Conrad’s intention was to expose the heartlessness of King Leopold’s rule of the Belgian Congo and that Marlowe in fact signed on in Brussels. Make of that what you will. My memory is that Marlowe talks all the time of working for the French. (Which reminds me that the one defect of the novel is that all the characters are so English in their speech).

In his initial remarks Marlowe muses on young Romans coming up the Thames to their British possessions:

They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force – nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind – as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness, The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look at it too much …

Not surprising maybe from an author whose own homeland was a colony, but heresy in the pre-War Britain of Empire.

We are made conscious all the time of the ill treatment of the locals, and of the worthlessness and casual brutality of the colonists. At one point Marlowe remarks that English villages would be deserted too if every passing party raided them for supplies and manpower. But I’m afraid that in the end I read these great works for the flow of the language, and am barely conscious – and not at all retentive -of the ideas being expressed. Not very satisfactory for a reviewer I know.

 

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, first published 1899. Available (free) for download as an audiobook from Librivox (catalogue).

 

 

 

24 thoughts on “Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

  1. Well, I welcome a review like this. Having read this book much as you have, enjoying the language and absorbing the idea that the Belgian colonists were not only exploiting but also abusing the locals, I was rather surprised to discover that this book is commonly criticised very harshly by post-colonialist scholars. I gather it’s because it depicts the locals as Other, Primitive and therefore inferior.
    Which I think is a bit hard on Conrad. Instead of writing the kind of triumphalist adventure novels that everyone else was writing, he wrote a book that was, as you say, heresy in Imperial Britain, and as a consequence is now the prime target for post-colonial criticism…
    To me, that’s a bit like having a go at Harriet Beecher Stowe. Yes, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is sentimental and patronising, but it was also a book that was brave enough to depict American slaves as real people with families, dreams and feelings, at a time when America thought of its slaves as property and nothing more. It was IMO an important step on a pathway that had a long way to go, and I think of Heart of Darkness in the same way.

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    • Thank you Lisa, (though I must say, not having read it, I accept the orthodoxy about Uncle Tom’s Cabin). But as you say Conrad did well to buck the racism of his time as much as he did, and certainly much better than the following generation of colonist-writers and thoughgoing racists Evelyn Waugh (Black Mischief) and Joyce Cary (Mister Johnson).

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      • Oh, I wouldn’t recommend reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I read it years ago not knowing anything about the criticism of it and I found it nauseating even then. These days I can’t even watch Gone with the Wind without feeling repelled by the depiction of Mammy, and I loved that movie to death when I was young and romantic.

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    • Yes, we really need to “read” books within their context and recognise what they may or may not have achieved within that. Like you I’ve also picked up these negative ideas about Heart of darkness, which seem not to deny what Conrad did in his time.

      I liked your comment Bill that “I’m not competent to add to the century of learned commentary around this great work, so this ‘review’ is just a token to say I’ve read it”. I feel that about some older books too that have been done by academia for a long time. It feels ridiculous to “review” these books. But we can add some reflections – as you have done.

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      • BTW I would recommend reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Lisa, if you are interested in American literature and its history. Stowe’s book was important in the history of abolition, despite her paternalistic and uncomfortable attitudes about race.

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      • I’m all for reading books critically, but I don’t see that as a reason not to read them. Even Enid Blyton – I think children would easily learn to distinguish where she was ‘old fashioned’ or pandering to racial prejudice. What we don’t get exercised enough about is all those books whose assumptions favour royalty, authoritarian leadership, the natural goodness of rich people (and of slender, blonde, beautiful people) …

        I’m often intimidated by the scholarship surrounding many of the older books that I enjoy, but I think I/we still have to say why they are still worth reading.

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      • No, I don’t either Bill.

        Re Enid Blyton. Do you think children would see the pandering to racial prejudice? I think they could, but that would depend on the environment they are growing up in or are reading in. Perhaps that’s what you mean by “easily learn”? They can be envcouraged to think about the values?

        I’ll have to think about books I’ve read “whose assumptions favour royalty, authoritarian leadership, the natural goodness of rich people (and of slender, blonde, beautiful people)” ie which don’t question these things? Do you have some contemporary-to-our-era books in mind?

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      • Re kids books I’m worried about the tendency of the left towards censorship, it could easily be used against us. As for examples of unthinking right wing bias my go-to is The Scarlet Pimpernel and all those (old) Bonnie Prince Charlie books. Today I run into most often in SF with its Kings and Empires and the ‘need’ for strong rulers.

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      • Ah, those books are all books I don’t read – not adventure, not SF. But now I see what you mean.

        Re the tendency towards censorship. Yes, I take your point. It is a tricky one – when is something valid “free speech” and when is it “censorship” to want to stop it. It came up in a coffee group I have where the members are more diverse than most groups I’m in. One on the left wanted to ban some discussion (not among us) while another asked why shouldn’t an opposing opinion be allowed. We didn’t really tease it out because we didn’t want to confront tensions. (Which, in this group is fair enough. Only two of the 8 of us are in our 60s with the next youngest being 79. They are handling spouses with dementia, or they have chronic pain etc. This needs to be a relaxing time. Politics, however, ALWAYS comes up. Fortunately they all believe in climate change. It’s asylum seekers and indigenous issues that result in tensions. Hmm.)

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    • See, that’s the difference between us. I know there are layers of meaning, in life as well as in books, but mostly they pass right over my head. I forget now how I got through my Lit degree – the lecturers got sick of me probably. I do often re-read though, because I enjoy good writing, and because after a week or so I’ve forgotten enough for the story to be new all over again.

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      • That happens to me sometimes too. I was giving away some books recently and, although I was generally able to remember if I loved or hated something, I could not recall why and would have no idea what the book was about unless I started reading it again. The upside to that is that, when travelling recently, I reread a heap of books I have on my Kindle and it was almost like reading them for the first time! Ha!

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  2. It’s a challenging book because those themes are so intricately embeded in the novel, you have to peel back several layers of meaning. But like you Im still not convinced I really understood even half of what Conrad was trying to impart. I would read it against n though if only for the power of the description especially in the opening scene which seems like an impressionist painting of the Thames .

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    • I certainly agree with you about Conrad’s powers of description. Impressionism is right because he describes the mood as much as the scene – the dark jungle overhanging the River – “the reaches opened before us and closed behind, as if the forest had stepped leisurely across the water …” or “the sea and sky .. welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide …” Only one of those is the Thames.

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  3. This was NOT my favorite Conrad novel/novella.
    I had to force myself to sit down an listen to this audio book.
    Part 1 started with lyrical descriptions of moon, sea, mist, light
    that initially hooked me to keep reading.
    Unfortunately these were the only beautiful descriptions in the book IMO.
    Part 2: chaotic description of a steamship struggling to creep up river.
    Part 3: climax: Marlow and Krutz finally meet.

    Conrad captured something about the way power
    operated across continents and race.
    I would highly recommend the award winning
    book Congo by David Reybourck. (2014)
    It is a gripping epic imperialistic policy of the Belgians in Congo.
    . . . more exciting than the novel The Heart of Darkness!

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    • Thanks Nancy, we’ll have to disagree about HoD – found the beginning (relatively) banal and the rest gripping. The Secret Agent is my favourite Conrad, but that’s because it’s been with me so long – and read every decade. I’ll look up your Congo, the nearest I’ve got to date is the Barbara Kingsolver book.

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  4. I think I’ve tried to read this novel twice and have not finished it. I want to read an European’s perspective on Africa, as I have read a least a handful of Africans’ experiences with Europeans and Americans. There’s something about the opening chapter that makes me feel like I’m lost before I’ve begun. Honestly, it might just be the writing from that time period. It’s not only Conrad. Anything that is published right there around very late 1800s tends to play with my head as I read. I’m impressed that you read Conrad at 15!

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    • I grew up reading as much C19th fiction as C20th so Conrad wasn’t a stretch. Old fashioned books often – it seems to me – have an almost irrelevant first chapter, my favourite is Tom Brown’s School Days, and as a kid if I was struggling with an old book I would skip the first chapter altogether. I don’t know whom to recommend you read, I’d be happy to read more of the current wave of Nigerians, but maybe Kingsolver or South Africans like Nadime Gordimer or (now Australian) JM Coetzee, both Nobel Prize winners.

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      • Coetzee I’ve read. I know there are several works by white anthropologists who go into Africa.

        Now that I know that first chapter isn’t terribly useful, I might try Heart of Darkness again, plow through the first chapter without worrying about it, and keep going. Then, after I get into the book a ways, I can re-read that first chapter. When I was teaching literature, I would always tell students the last thing they should do is re-read the first chapter; it typically gives away the whole novel, only you didn’t know it the first time around.

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