Author: Joseph Conrad
Year I read it: 2010, 2011
One sentence summary: Allegorical on so many levels, this novella relays the story of Charles Marlow's journey up the Congo river and of Kurtz, the man he meets there.
Interesting fact: When Conrad decided to become an author, he had to choose to write in Polish (his native tongue), French, or English. He chose English.
[Bonus fact: Yes, this novella is the basis for Apocalypse Now.]
Three reasons to read it:
- When I was first reading this book, I wasn't enjoying it too much until at one point, I was talking to my brother, and I realized the deep intertextuality in this little novella. My favorite is an ongoing parallel with the Aeneid, the white man stopping in Africa on the way to his own European empire - there are several specific references with the death of the helmsman, Kurtz's African Mistress, etc. Anway - that's just one example!
- This book offers a very interesting perspective. Some argue that Conrad was racist and helped establish stereotypes. While some of that may be true, he does bring to attention the many "horrors" of colonialism.
- This is one of the best examples of framed narrative. It's use is both masterful and significantly adds to the storytelling. For instance, it makes the retelling of the narrative dream-like. This is random, but I have a theory that Heart of Darkness helped inspire Inception. Marlow compares his story to a dream multiple times - "It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream..." “We live as we dream--alone....” "I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice." The plots of both stories turn (if you'll pardon the pun) on an idea left open-ended [the spinning top, and "the horror!"]. I will have to develop the theory more fully in another post... but I promise - it's trippy!
One reason you maybe shouldn't:
- This is a hard book. One of the harder ones I've read. It's only 70 pages long, but the first time I read it, I had such a hard time making out what was going on.
“And this also," said Marlow suddenly, "has been one of the dark places of the earth.” [First lines of dialogue - he's referencing London colonized by the Romans]
"No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence--that which makes its truth, its meaning--its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream--alone.”
"The intimate profundity of that look he gave me when he received his hurt remains to this day in my memory--like a claim of distant kinship affirmed in a supreme moment." [Marlow on the death of his African Helmsman]
“the mind of man is capable of anything--because everything is in it, all the past as well as the future”
“I think the knowledge came to him at last — only at the very last. But the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude — and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating.
"The horror! The horror!"