A benign immensity of unstained light

Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness
by Joseph Conrad

Perhaps if I had come to this book with no surrounding knowledge my response to it would be different, but I’ve read Chinua Achebe’s essay and many other articles on the subject so I came to this looking for the racism. That said, I think it’s pretty hard to ignore. The question is: is it still a good book, even so?

This is a short, readable book but I’d have to say it’s not gripping because I often found the floweriness of the writing disguised the action – it’s essentially an adventure story but you’d almost not notice that from the style. It is very descriptive – the kind of writing where you can miss the plot moving on because you’re mesmerised by the words.

“The day was ending in a serenity of still and exquisite brilliance. The water shone pacifically; the sky, without a speck, was a benign immensity of unstained light; the very mist on the Essex marshes was like a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded rises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds. Only the gloom to the west, brooding over the upper reaches, became more sombre every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun.”

What is the plot? An unnamed narrator on a boat on the River Thames introduces fellow crew member Marlow, who in turn tells his story of a job he took in Africa to transport ivory, having had a whim to go on a voyage of discovery like the great explorers. Marlow describes his journey from Europe to Africa, around the coast, then inland by various means (the destination is unnamed but widely agreed to be Congo, where Conrad had himself worked as a riverboat captain for a trading company) until he reached the station where he was to captain a riverboat, only to find that the riverboat has been wrecked and he must rebuild it before he can start his job. Urgency is added by reports that Mr Kurtz, the manager of a remote station upriver, is gravely ill and Marlow needs to fetch him as soon as possible. Kurtz is a bit of a legend within the Company and Marlow feels that their fates became dangerously entwined.

Because this is a story within a story, it can be difficult to decipher the book’s attitude toward Africans. Yes, there are plenty of racist things said, but we hear them through the filter of not one but two narrators – so is this a comment on how European trading companies saw Africans or is it Conrad’s own opinions?

“They howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity – like yours – the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you – you so remote from the night of first ages – could comprehend.”

To be clear, we’re not just talking about racist language that might be deemed “of its time” and therefore to an extent excusable. We’re talking about language that characterises many of the Africans as lesser beings, as supernatural monsters or as inferior idiots. And while Marlow develops a fondness for at least one African member of his riverboat crew, he also states that it was wrong to train this man to do a job, that it is somehow an unnatural pretence.

On the other hand, the Company’s treatment of natives appears to be condemned by Conrad, as he describes in clearly negative language enslaved Africans and the devastating effect of the trading routes on the settlements that they pass through or near. Marlow certainly shows no love for the Company in general, finding fault with most of its employees whom he meets and struggling to bite his tongue in the face of nepotism, incompetence and corruption.

An added level of ambiguity comes from the dreamlike, or rather nightmarish, quality of the story as a result of Marlow’s psychological state. The unfamiliar heat, lack of sufficient food and recurrent illness combine with a growing fear of attack (which is in fairness justified as the riverboat and its crew are indeed attacked) to create a kind of madness. The Company sends Marlow to see a doctor before he leaves Europe and the doctor does a psychological assessment, stating that he finds the effects of such voyages on Europeans to be “scientifically interesting”. Fairly early on in his travels in Africa, Marlow states that he feels he is becoming “scientifically interesting” (it’s one of my favourite moments in the book). So by his own admission he is therefore unreliable.

“No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is…Don’t you know the devilry of lingering starvation, its exasperating torment, its black thoughts, its sombre and brooding ferocity? Well, I do. It takes a man all his inborn strength to fight hunger properly. It’s really easier to face bereavement, dishonour and the perdition of one’s soul – than this kind of prolonged hunger.”

Of course this actually raises more questions. If this degree of psychological imbalance is common in western Europeans who travel to central Africa, is that an excuse for some of the behaviour depicted? Is it a comment on the continent itself – a place that sends men mad? Or is it simply an honest observation of people going there ill equipped for the conditions? (Which would, thinking about it, be further condemnation of the Company, as it was responsible for the wellbeing of its employees.)

I can certainly see how so many books, essays, articles and theses have been written about this book, as there is far more I could say about these subjects and more. But for me it comes down to quality of writing, and on that count Conrad scores fairly high. The writing is gorgeous and atmospheric. I suspect I could pick out any line and it would be a great quote. Perhaps the story would benefit from more straightforward language but the prose would not.

“Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream – making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams.”

Which, overall, leaves me predictably on the fence about this one. I’m glad I’ve read it but I can’t say I side wholly with Conrad’s detractors or his defenders. I got the uncomfortable feeling that he was objecting to the mistreatment of Africans much as he might object to dogs or horses being beaten, overworked, made homeless, etc. But it’s hard to deny that it’s a beautiful piece of writing.

Have you read this? What did you think?

Originally published 1899 in Blackwoods Magazine.

Source: Project Gutenberg.

Challenges: This counts toward the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

I had to crack every word one by one

The Invention of Wings

The Invention of Wings
by Sue Monk Kidd

It is a while since I have been so thoroughly engrossed by a book, to the point where no matter where I was, day or night, I wanted nothing more than to be reading this book. Which of course means that it was over far too soon. So this definitely comes under the category of A Good Read.

It’s the fictionalised story of real-life anti-slavery campaigner Sarah Grimké, who was raised in Charleston, South Carolina, in a slave-owning family. But it’s also the story of the (almost entirely fictional) slave girl Hetty who was given to Sarah as a birthday present when she turned 11. The two girls take turns at telling the story, painting two lives closely linked and yet starkly different.

“The skies were bright cerulean, teeming with ferocious winds, spilling mallards and wood drakes from the clouds. Up and down the lanes, the fences were bright with yellow jasmine, its musk a sweet, choking smoke. I rode with the same drunk sensuality with which I had reclined in the copper tub, riding till the light smeared, returning with the falling dark.”

Sarah is the middle daughter (there are also several brothers – her mother is…prolific) and while considered a little plain and too intelligent for her own good, it is her wilfulness and ambition that get her in trouble. As a child she dreams of becoming the first female lawyer and devours the books that her father (a powerful legislator) secretly allows her until he realises that she is taking her dream seriously. When he shoots down that dream, it takes her many years to find another way to do something about the issue nearest to her heart – abolition of slavery.

Hetty, or Handful as she is known among the slaves, might have been happy with her lot – the cruelties of Mrs Grimké, or Missus, notwithstanding – were it not for her mother Charlotte who harbours such hatred of her lot that she devises small revenges against her owners and plots their eventual escape. Handful is practical and in many ways protected by Sarah, but between Charlotte’s unhappiness and Sarah’s abolitionist leanings, she catches the bug – the yearning for freedom.

“The man’s writing looked like scribble. I had to crack every word one by one and pick out the sound the way we cracked blue crabs in the fall and picked out the meat till our fingers bled. The words came lumps at a time.”

The other major character is Nina, Sarah’s youngest sister, who is in many ways a daughter to her. They are so close that it is never clear whether Nina’s small revolutions – from refusing baptism to writing anti-slavery pamphlets – are entirely her own, or the influence of Sarah. She’s an interesting character because she is more beautiful, more determined, more confident than Sarah, and yet it is Sarah’s lead that she follows.

I think it’s important that Kidd chose Sarah to narrate the story, not Nina, because Sarah is undoubtedly more troubled. She suffers from a stammer and, after the dream to become a lawyer is snatched away, never again feels that confidence in her abilities. She fervently feels that slavery is wrong (in fact, the day that she is given Handful she tries to grant her freedom, but of course that isn’t allowed) and more than that, she feels that women and coloured people are equal to white men in the eyes of God, but for much of her life she feels helpless to do anything about those beliefs.

“They say in extreme moments time will slow, returning to its unmoving core, and standing there, it seemed as if everything stopped. Within the stillness, I felt the old, irrepressible ache to know what my point in the world might be. I felt the longing more solemnly than anything I’d ever felt.”

What I thought was wonderful about this book was that it isn’t an anti-slavery treatise (after all, I think we all know these days that slavery is bad, we don’t need persuading), it’s a warm engaging story full of characters painted in all sorts of shades of grey. And there’s action and adventure too, from the terrible punishments meted out to slaves to a planned slave revolution. But there’s also romance, broken hearts, social faux pas and outright castigation. There are complicated relationships between people and there are terrible decisions that have to be made.

I also appreciated that the publishers have included quite a long author’s note at the end detailing Kidd’s historical research, including where she did and didn’t deviate from history in her fiction.

Clearly, I outright loved this book. I now plan to look out all Kidd’s previous works and hope that it all lives up to this high standard.

Published January 2014 by Tinder Press, an imprint of Headline.

Source: This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.