Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Heart of Darkness

I had always resisted reading this book, or indeed any other Conrad, as I had the idea he was a racist writer, and I also object to reading writers who are not writing in their first language - because I support translation and translators, see previous post.  But in June this year, when sig other and I were on holiday, finishing our capitals of Europe with the last three in the Balkans (Montenegro is fab), I did read Heart of Darkness.  I have it as an ebook, and I can no longer buy ebooks in English, or almost not, because of the iniquity of UK booksellers (see previous post) but that is another story, and one which will be returned to.

Anyway, I did not get this book.  I could appreciate it, but I did not really get it.  Conrad says the seaman is not a wanderer but a sedentary creature: his home, the ship, is where he always is, and the sea is always the same.  "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" (p. 12).  I know what he means about being on board ship though.  I have always wanted to live and work on a ship, and I never will now.  This is probably why I like the Yotel pod hotels so much.  But anyway, spot on there, Joe. However, "the contorted mangroves, that seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair" (p. 21).  What bollocks is this?

But - some nice turns of phrase - "this papier-mâché Mephistopheles" (p. 35).  Cool.

Mr Kurtz, Mr Kurtz.  So what?  The few days I once spent in Ghana, near the border with Togo, show me that his description of an African river is an excellent one.  But it was a different river. And another country.

So, anyway - some white bloke goes to Africa after ivory, and manages to get a whole bunch of Africans to do as he says.  A different white bloke is captain of a steamer which goes off up the river to find the first white bloke - why? and a whole bunch of Africans are hired to crew the steamer.  But nobody gives them anything to eat.  Is this not barbaric conduct?  Conrad does not say so.  And apparently "savages" chant "some weird incantation" (p. 85). Do they?  Am I supposed to be impressed?  More "weird incantations" (p. 85) - what does this even mean?  And apparently, along the river bank there are "secular trees" (p. 91) - huh?  "I looked at him as you peer down at a man who is lying at the bottom of a precipice where the sun never shines".  Yeah, right.  Like we've all done that.

And then at the end the narrator, Marlow, is in bad faith because he lies about Kurtz's last words.

Oh, do me a favour.


Anonymous said...

Oh Jane, the horror, the horror.


Jane Griffiths said...

I was waiting for someone to say that. And kind of hoping they wouldn't.

Augustus Carp said...

Objecting to reading something not written in the author’s first language seems a bit harsh. Surely the point of learning another language is to facilitate communication, and the fact that Conrad, Nabokov and others have written in good English as well as their native tongues is to their credit.

OK, Heart of Darkness is not Conrad’s best, but try Lord Jim or the Secret Agent. Both were far ahead of their time, both in style and subject matter. Racist? No, I don’t think so – racially aware, certainly, but any notion of racial superiority displayed by any of the characters is always questioned.

Jonny said...

Good grief! Conrad is one of my favourites ("Nostromo" is one the great great books of all time), so I'll declare an interest, but that has to be the most reductive reading I've ever read! "Ulysses" - some bloke has a shit and wanders round Dublin. "King Lear" - old man goes a bit doolally.It rains.
Conrad is famous for his dodgy narrators and unreliable authorial voice, and at one level the book is a metaphor for a search into meaning, that probably ultimately fails. Try "The Secret Agent".

Anonymous said...

I don't know who chose to use the 'horror' quotation as a response to the original post and don't propose to write an essay about Conrad here. Although I could. Suffice to say, he was not a racist writer any more than DH Lawrence or Enid Blyton come to that - although all may not have been very 'nice' people - whatever nice means.
For what it is worth - despite the fact that Herat of Darkness is probably the most 'famous' Conrad novel ( thanks, TS Eliot and Francis Ford Coppola), it is certainly not the best Conrad novel. And neither is The Secret Agent - although very good indeed and much better than Heart of Darkness.

For my money, the best one is Under Western Eyes - also this novel is complex and not easy to categorise - so that is, no doubt why most people have not read it and most people do not know it exists. Neither do they know of the existence of The Secret Sharer - another superb Conrad novella.

Incidentally, TS Eliot used 'The horror, the horror' as one of the epigraphs to The Wasteland.

Great poem, incidentally, April is the cruellest month and all that - the young man carbuncular - when lovely woman stoops to folly and paces round the room again alone, she smooths her hair with automatic hand and puts a record on the grampohpne ( how many of us have not done the latter?) but Eliot was not a nice man either. In fact, very nasty indeed.
Doesn't matter a jot.

Shantih, shantih, shantih.

Anonymous said...

I tried reading the Heart of Darkness in my 20s, but it was the first book I didn't bother to finish. I just didn't 'get' it

Jane Griffiths said...

cool, peeps! may even follow some of your recommendations! I point out that I did not say I objected to writing not in the writer's first language, just that I find myself a bit reluctant to read it, and I did not say Heart of Darkness was racist, just that I had read that it was. I did not find it so. But here is a fab new meme!
(1)little girl falls down rabbit hole, eats some funny mushrooms and has a long strange dream
(2) two sisters live in a house. Bloke forgets his umbrella. One sister gets pregnant. Bloke who forgot umbrella dies.
(3) woman has crafty extra-marital shag. Husband finds out and takes dim view. Stops woman seeing son. Woman throws self under train.
What books are the above? Yours?

Anonymous said...

Alice in Wonderland
Howard's End
Anna Karenina.