Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Book Review: Heart of Darkness (1899) and The Secret Sharer (1910) by Joseph Conrad

Paperback cover of the Signet Classics edition of Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer, by Joseph Conrad.

Author Joseph Conrad, 1857-1924. English was his third language.
While reading King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild, which I reviewed here, I decided that I needed to finally read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Hochschild devotes a fair number of pages in King Leopold’s Ghost to examining Conrad’s 1890 trip to the Congo Free State. Conrad was a sea captain then, and not yet a novelist. This 1890 journey up the Congo River would inspire one of Conrad’s most famous works, the 1899 novella Heart of Darkness. Hochschild does an excellent job detailing Conrad’s experiences in the Congo Free State, and he profiles several colonial officials who may have been the models for Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. 

Joseph Conrad had a very interesting backstory. He was born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski to Polish parents in Berdychiv, in what is now the Ukraine. English was his third language, after Polish and French, and he didn’t start to learn English until he was in his twenties. Pretty impressive, as he is now considered one of the greatest novelists of the English language. After a career at sea, Conrad published his first novel Almayer’s Folly: A Story of an Eastern River in 1895, when he was thirty-seven years old. Conrad devoted himself to writing for the rest of his life, and he produced a substantial body of work. 

The Signet Classic edition that I read pairs Heart of Darkness with the short story The Secret Sharer. The Secret Sharer was first published in 1910. It’s the tale of a young man who is making his first voyage as a captain. He is insecure as he takes command, as he thinks: “I wondered how far I should turn out faithful of that ideal conception of one’s own personality every man sets up for himself secretly.” (p.5) He has the opportunity to face a moral test right away, as while he is on watch, he finds a young man clinging to the ship’s ladder. The young man’s name is Leggatt, and he has escaped from his ship after killing a fellow crew member. The captain makes the dangerous decision to shield Leggatt from danger. 

The captain and Leggatt resemble each other physically, and this is remarked on many times during the story. It may be the reason why the captain decided to hide Leggatt in the first place. It seemed to me that there was a fair amount of sexual tension between the captain and Leggatt. I have no idea if that was intentional on Conrad’s part, of it that’s simply me reading too much into it. However, the captain and Leggatt are always in close quarters, as Leggatt must be hidden at all times in the captain’s cabin. Just after he has discovered Leggatt, the captain narrates, “I was extremely tired, in a peculiarly intimate way, by the strain of stealthiness, by the effort of whispering and the general secrecy of this excitement.” (p.21) There are other times when the two men are very close together: “…we took up our position side by side, leaning over my bed place.” (p.32) “I conveyed that sincere assurance into his ear.” (p.33) “At night I would smuggle him into my bed place, and we would whisper together, with the regular footfalls of the officer of the watch passing and repassing over our heads. It was an infinitely miserable time.” (p.35) Infinitely miserable? The captain doth protest too much, methinks.

One of my favorite quotes from The Secret Sharer is from the beginning of the story, as the captain is conversing with Leggatt for the first time. After hearing Leggatt say that he had two choices: keep swimming until he drowned, or come on board the ship, the captain narrates, “I should have gathered from this that he was young; indeed, it is only the young who are ever confronted by such clear issues.” (p.10) So very true. 

Heart of Darkness isn’t very long, just about 100 pages in the Signet Classics edition, but it’s a dense book that packs a powerful punch. It’s a strong indictment of imperialism and colonialism, specifically as practiced in the Congo Free State. (Although the colony Marlow travels to is never identified by name in the text, it’s obviously meant to be the Congo Free State.)

Marlow has a brilliant quote at the beginning of the story: “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 into it too much.” (p.58) Marlow then relates what he has seen.

Heart of Darkness is a very impressionistic piece of writing. We don’t learn specifics, like other character’s names. All we get is Marlow’s vision as we listen to him tell his story. The only other name in the text that matters is Kurtz. Kurtz is in charge of one of trading stations in the colony. He is mentioned many times by many different characters, and he becomes a figure of mythic importance. Fortunately, I knew from watching Apocalypse Now that Kurtz’s appearance in the narrative would inevitably be anticlimactic. Thanks, late-period Marlon Brando. 

I wonder if Samuel Beckett was influenced by Joseph Conrad? There were definitely characters in Heart of Darkness, like the brick-maker and the Russian disciple of Kurtz, who could easily crop up in Beckett’s barren landscapes, waiting for a Godot who will never come, occupied by nonsensical rituals that hold meaning only for them.

Heart of Darkness is full of Conrad’s beautiful prose. One of the sentences that stood out to me was Marlow’s description of one of the trading stations: “And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion.” (p.80) 

Marlow’s view of life is beautifully, if harshly, summarized: “Droll thing life is-that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself-that comes too late-a crop of unextinguishable regrets.” (p.144-5) 

Heart of Darkness has become one of Joseph Conrad’s most famous works, and I found that it lived up to its reputation as a brilliant and important book.

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