Friday, April 26, 2013

Book Review: Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad (1899)

Yes, this is the book on which the movie Apocalypse Now was based.  Same kind of deal, a man, Marlow, traveling up a river to find another man, Kurtz, who has gone crazy and needs extracting.  Along the way we're treated to surreal and brutal scenes of inhumanity.

This book is far more introspective than I realized it would be.  It's told in the manner of a person looking back on a great sadness or horror, after reflecting on it for some time.

Joseph Conrad was a master literary figure, I gathered that much even if most of what he was saying was far too obtuse for an adventure novel.  Plus his writing can sometimes be a bit long winded.  Take this sentence for example.
I looked at them with a swift quickening of interest—not because it occurred to me I might be eaten by them before very long, though I own to you that just then I perceived—in a new light, as it were—how unwholesome the pilgrims looked, and I hoped, yes, I positively hoped, that my aspect was not so—what shall I say?—so—unappetizing: a touch of fantastic vanity which fitted well with the dream-sensation that pervaded all my days at that time.
Quite a lot of punctuation going on there.  In one sentence I see four dashes, a question mark, a colon, six commas and a period.  He was paid by the keystroke, maybe?

One problem with the lead-up to meeting the ambiguous Kurtz was that the narrator developed in his own mind this great mythos of Kurtz before ever even meeting him.  But we as readers don't feel that same yearning.  We were never given enough information about Kurtz to warrant that kind of emotion.  Perhaps the whole impression (or oppression) of the jungle and surroundings weighed so harsh on the narrator's mind that he built Kurtz up to greater heights than he deserved.  Either way, Kurtz was a great man by more than his own doing. It was others who made him great.

There was a double narration going on, the book was narrated by one man, who encountered Marlow who narrated his own story.  For the most part the book is entirely the narration of Marlow.  Almost every paragraph starts with a quote.  Somewhere along in the middle he breaks stride, asks for a match to light a cigarette, and we are jarringly pulled back into the narration of the first man.  The idea of this double narration is apparently just to make the book feel more real, like it's the narration of someone who actually met Marlow and is telling his story.  This kind of thing may have been popular at one time but today it feels tedious and contrived.  It adds layers to a story that aren't needed and just get in the way.  We don't care if the author wants us to believe this whole mess is real or not, we know it's not real.  But we read it anyway so give us credit for that.  It's like a picture of a picture of a picture of a...  on and on.  Forget it, just tell the story and don't layer it up.

Parts of the novel are so obtuse the average reader is left scratching his head, or worse, laying he book down.  Long paragraphs of self discussions leave you wondering what the heck he's talking about.  I'm not saying it's bad writing.  Far from it.  If you take the time to patiently read it, you can gain some understanding into the mind of the author, and of what he's trying to convey.

It reminds me of a writing class I took years ago.  In the first session, we were all asked to write a dialogue between two characters from a novel.  I was given Watership Down.  Well, I ended up with a rambling, non-cohesive discussion on the nature of life.  We all read our little efforts and everyone garnered a slight applause from the group.  But when I finished people looked around at each other in silence.  No one applauded.  That's what Conrad is writing throughout large portions of this book.  And while my discussion between two rabbits may have been meaningless mumbo jumbo, Conrad's thoughtful ramblings have some meaning behind them.  They are worth taking the time to understand.

It's a little sad, and almost frightening, to consider the cheapness of human life portrayed throughout Heart of Darkness.  For thousands of years man has walked this planet and has lived and died.  We live in a wonderful time when human life is given such great respect compared to other times and places.  It can break your heart to think of humanity being so cruel to itself in all of times past, and even now in some places in the world.  Hurt feelings are not even a consideration when you beat someone nearly to death and then let them die of want and hunger, without even thinking of them as human.

There is a surreal scene of the man firing a cannon out into the jungle, with the idea that enemies are encamped there.  On the one hand, it seems harmless.  It's just a bunch of trees and he's shooting a cannon at nothing.  On the other hand, the strangeness of it comes to mind when you realize that the only way for it not to be a pointless act is if he actually kills innocent people.  When you read that you suddenly realize this is no ordinary novel.

The book is filled with layers of meaning.  Even the title is a double entendre.  Heart of Darkness describes the dark heart of the men who lived in the jungle long enough to forget the value of human life.  Kurtz's heart has become dark to the point where he believed everything belonged to him, including human life.  It also means they are traveling deep into the dark continent, into the heart of not only Africa, but of a very dark place.  But Conrad goes a bit overboard in the use of the phrase.  He's not subtle in displaying its meaning.  He uses heart and darkness together and with other words no less than 30 gazillion times.  Heart of darkness, heart of an immense darkness, heart of a conquering darkness, heart of an impenetrable darkness, barren darkness of his heart, all the hearts that beat in the darkness, dark places of the earth, men enough to face the darkness, those who tackle the darkness, a place of darkness...and on and on.  Not very subtle.  I think we get it, he could have stopped short of beating us over the head with that.

Some of the paragraphs are humongous rambling discourses about God knows what.  I should paste one in here for you to see, but the one I had in mind is 1500 words.  Imagine writing a 1500 word paragraph.  Some writers strive to write at least 1000 words a day.

In the end, the story never seemed to go very far.  We never got to hear Kurtz speak more than a few words here or there, nothing much was done in the jungle, and a very few sentences after that we’re back in london.  Then it’s a year later.  Compared to traditional stories this one sort of floats along.  We don’t have things like “he got on the boat, he went back up the river, he returned to london.”  Instead, all the action drifts in a haze just out of sight, swirling around the central thoughts of the protagonist.

I will give an example, and this is very important to understand.  In this section, Marlow is first in the jungle on the boat traveling up the river, he is very ill, then he returns to London, is nursed back to health by his aunt, and has made inquiries about Kurtz' family.  But we are never told any of that.  Watch how subtly Conrad delves into the description of Marlow's actions without actually saying it.
"No, they did not bury me, though there is a period of time which I remember mistily, with a shuddering wonder, like a passage through some inconceivable world that had no hope in it and no desire. I found myself back in the sepulchral city resenting the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams. They trespassed upon my thoughts. They were intruders whose knowledge of life was to me an irritating pretense, because I felt so sure they could not possibly know the things I knew. Their bearing, which was simply the bearing of commonplace individuals going about their business in the assurance of perfect safety, was offensive to me like the outrageous flauntings of folly in the face of a danger it is unable to comprehend. I had no particular desire to enlighten them, but I had some difficulty in restraining myself from laughing in their faces, so full of stupid importance. I dare say I was not very well at that time. I tottered about the streets—there were various affairs to settle—grinning bitterly at perfectly respectable persons. I admit my behavior was inexcusable, but then my temperature was seldom normal in these days. My dear aunt's endeavors to 'nurse up my strength' seemed altogether beside the mark. It was not my strength that wanted nursing, it was my imagination that wanted soothing. I kept the bundle of papers given me by Kurtz, not knowing exactly what to do with it. His mother had died lately, watched over, as I was told, by his Intended.
It's quite impressive, right?  He takes passive voice to the nth degree.  Instead of "I returned to London", he "found himself" there.  He didn't say "my aunt nursed me back to health", instead he states "my dear aunt's endeavors to nurse up my strength".  He "was told" about Kurtz' mother's death, instead of boldly going out and gathering that information.  And of course we know he did gather that info, and he did return to London and so on.  But perhaps passive voice could describe much of this novel, just as that sentence describes the entire narration - Marlow, just like this story, wandered "mistily, with a shuddering wonder, like a passage through some inconceivable world".  That's what I mean when I say the action drifts in a haze just out of sight, swirling around the central thoughts of the protagonist.

The idea that kurtz is such a charismatic person that everyone who hears him speak falls in love with him, is willing to give him their all, lives in both fear and awe of him felt more like the true central theme of this book.  But after reading it I’m trying to pull out some purpose in the story.  Was it only to demonstrate that such a person could exist, and to show his affect on others?  Because we certainly didn’t get to meet that person after all that hungering and waiting.  We were treated to a few lines, but that’s it.  I certainly couldn’t call this an adventure story.  Adventures did happen, that’s true, but they only played about at the fringe of the real story.  It’s hard to imagine a book about a trip down a river through the jungle actually being character driven, and I’m not willing to say it was.  But it’s certainly more literary than genre.  In fact, I wonder if it really fits in with our Manly Months theme, but I based it on other people saying this book was “gritty”.  Gritty?  I don’t know about that.  I think of tough guys duking it out, of war stories being gritty.  All Quiet on the Western Front, for all its literary merits, was gritty.  This book, for all its supposed grittiness, was too chimerical to be an adventure tale – full of fantastic imagery and always threatening action that rarely materializes.  It’s the sort of book that probably has to be read a few times to be fully understood.

Some people can read this and give stellar reviews about the basis of mankind’s inner needs, or other deep thoughts.  I don’t think that can be done from a single reading.  Joseph Conrad has a way with words, it’s hard to deny that.  And if he has a way with philosophy, societal needs or human breakdown, you could probably cull that from this book as well.

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