[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]


Joseph Conrad

Folio Society, 1997; bound in illustrated cloth boards, with slip case; illustrations by Francis Mosley; introduction by Jeremy Harding.

Some writers let you know that they can write immediately.  Graham Greene was one; so was Joseph Conrad.  Both were also, and this is a different point, natural spinners of yarns.  Here is the beginning of Heart of Darkness.

The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest.  The flood had made, the wind was nearly calm, and being bound down the river, the only thing for it was to come to and wait for the turn of the tide.

What could be simpler?

Conrad was born into the Polish nobility, but he spent a large part of his life at sea before settling down to write and living in England.  Most of his work is set in foreign climes.  This is what T E Lawrence said:

He’s absolutely the most haunting thing in prose that ever was: I wish I knew how every paragraph he writes (…they are all paragraphs: he seldom writes a single sentence…) goes on sounding in waves, like the note of a tenor bell, after it stops. It’s not built in the rhythm of ordinary prose, but on something existing only in his head, and as he can never say what it is he wants to say, all his things end in a kind of hunger, a suggestion of something he can’t say or do or think. So his books always look bigger than they are. He’s as much a giant of the subjective as Kipling is of the objective.  Do they hate one another?

Like much of Conrad’s work, Heart of Darkness is a story told by a narrator standing on the set, as it were.  The story is narrated by Marlow on the Nellie in the Thames.  It is about a white man – Kurtz – who gets primitive savages to worship him.  He has gone native in the worst possible way.  The story was brilliantly adapted in the film Apocalypse Now, with Marlon Brando as the film version of Kurtz set in Vietnam.  The book got up the noses of Africans, but who would now deny to the regions around the Congo the title of ‘heart of darkness’?

Here is a description of the tragedy of the rape of Africa by white traders and empire-builders.

They were conquerors and for that you want only brute force – nothing to boast of when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others.  They grabbed what they could for the sake of what was to be got.  It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a grand scale, and men going at it blind – as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness.  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.  What redeems it is the idea only.  An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea – something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to….

That is strong stuff, but what was the idea and what’s left of it?  Kurtz we are told was educated partly in England and ‘his sympathies were in the right place.’  But this was before ‘his nerves went wrong and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rights.’  This happened because white men ‘must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings – we approach them with the might of a deity.’  Kurtz said:

I’ve done enough for it to give me the indisputable right to lay it, as I choose, in the dust-bin of progress, amongst all the sweeping, and, figuratively speaking, all the dead cats of civilisation.

This is Kurtz at the end.

It was as though a veil had been rent.  I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror – of an intense and hopeless despair.  Did he live his life again in every detail of desire temptation and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge?  He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:

‘The horror!  The horror!

There is something almost sacramental there.  Conrad admired Flaubert and, in particular, Madame Bovary.  ‘There are few authors who are creators to the extent he is.’  In his introduction to the Folio Edition, Jeremy Harding sees a link between the two novels.  ‘…the social constraints of small-town life are as testing for the heroine as a long sea passage is for one of Conrad’s seafarers.  Remoteness, isolation, difficulty: these, for Conrad especially, are points of vantage from which to reflect on the order of things.’  In Heart of Darkness, Conrad makes the Congo into a test tube for all humanity.

This is a wonderful read by a great natural novelist.

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