Today, one hundred and fifty-six years ago, Joseph Conrad was born in Russia. He was Polish, but became a nationalized British subject in 1886. In 1899, his masterpiece Heart of Darkness first appeared in print, serialized in a British magazine.
There’s a simple, almost unbelievable fact hidden in the above paragraph. Conrad was Polish, did not learn English until he was in his twenties, and always spoke with a marked Polish accent. Yet he wrote in English. He didn’t write in his native language and then have it translated, he wrote some of the greatest prose in English, in English. Writing in a second language is hard enough; but to produce masterpieces in it (he also wrote Lord Jim and The Secret Agent, among other classics) is almost too extraordinary for words.
I came to Heart of Darkness via Apocalypse Now, which I saw on my sixteenth birthday during its original theatrical run. While I loved movies, I never realized until I saw this one that movies could be both art and entertainment. My previous experiences with “art” films were that they were long, boring, hard to understand, sometimes (given the video technology of the time) literally hard to see. I assumed there was a dichotomy between entertaining films like (inevitably) Star Wars and more “artistic” faire such as The Seventh Seal. But Apocalypse Now showed me that a movie could be both.
And the movie led me to Conrad’s novella. Briefly, it’s about a steamship captain, Marlowe, going up a river in Africa to find Mr. Kurtz, an ivory trader who has set himself up as a god to the natives. I’ve read it countless times, and like every great book, I find something new to like each time.
I’ve also listened to it on audio, back when I had a job with a commute. It’s been read by many different people, including some (Richard “John-Boy” Thomas) who really should’ve know better. But Anthony Quayle’s version remains my favorite, even though it’s abridged, because he brings it to life in such a dynamic way, as if he were actually telling the story to the people gathered on the deck of the Nellie.
So what’s so great about Heart of Darkness? First, it’s about the nature, and the uses, of truth. It’s also a compelling description of colonialism, written by someone who had been there. Mr. Kurtz is one of the great shadow-figures of literature: like Dracula, he’s talked about much more than he’s seen, and when he does appear, it’s riveting. The structure is interesting as well, a nesting story told in first-person by someone relating Marlowe’s first-person tale to the rest of those on the Nellie.
My favorite line, perhaps because of the way Quayle reads it, remains, “I had immense plans!” and that’s a huge part of the appeal. Kurtz does aim incredibly high, which makes his fall that much more dramatic; when he says, “The horror! The horror!” he’s not kidding. Marlowe’s own position as observer changes with one line at the climax, forcing the reader to suddenly re-evaluate everything s/he thought s/he knew about the character.
But ultimately, what speaks to me (and to a lot of other people for the last century or so) can’t be broken down into simple elements. Heart of Darkness either speaks to you, or it doesn’t. If it does, you know what I’m talking about. And if you’ve never read it, I encourage you to give it a shot. You can read it for free online here.