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.
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).