Sunday, August 19, 2007

HEART OF DARKNESS by Joseph Conrad

I picked up Heart of Darkness because I thought Apocalypse Now (not the Redux, which sucks) was a really good movie. As it turns out, there's little in common between the two. The story concerns Marlow, an Englishman, who takes a job ferrying ivory down a river in Africa. He becomes interested in Kurtz, another trader who has set himself up as a god over the tribes in this area.

Heart of Darkness, again, has been elevated to that divine status of "English literature." The same people who have promoted it thus have also attempted to explain away the novel's flagrant racism, although I don't know how that would be possible. How many English professors would be up a creek (you know which creek) if everybody suddenly figured out that authors like Conrad are overrated?

Like The Secret Sharer, Heart of Darkness is boring and difficult to read. Conrad is one of those who liked sentences the size of paragraphs and paragraphs that went on for a page or more. Often, given his penchant for changing topics mid-paragraph, I did not see why he used half the paragraph breaks he did. The boringness of the novel is compounded by the Marlow's rambling narrative. Certainly, this helps define the personality of the character, but it certainly doesn't help the book's readability.

Conrad presents the whole story as told as narrative by the main character after everything has taken place. Here, glaringly, Conrad's style doesn't work. "The moon had spread over everything a thin layer of silver – over the rank grass, over the mud, upon the wall of matted vegetation standing higher than the wall of a temple, over the great river I could see through a somber gap glittering, glittering, as it flowed broadly by without a murmur." Obviously, people write like this, but nobody ever talked like this. You tell a story to an audience like this and every last one of them will be asleep.

Conrad's work is highly symbolic. Far be it from me to say he was not a talented writer. But I think he, as well as those who cling to his coattails, have missed this: you can go to far with symbolism, and most any other literary device, and absolutely kill the story. While Conrad was busy creating vividly-descriptive sentences and cathedrals of paragraphs, the story fell by the wayside, and nobody went back for it.

This is my problem. I don't want to see word pictures of nothing, no matter how lovely those pictures might be. Just tell me a story. If you can do both at once, so much the better. But if you're only going to have one, this is the wrong one to have.