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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

hearts of darkness

Having set aside, as I mentioned, the historical novel Spartacus by the young Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon, I continue to read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Now about 20 pages in, I find I'm continuing to really enjoy it.

Let's take a look at how Conrad opens the story:

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.

I found this opening interesting, but not especially exciting. Its high content of nautical jargon shows that this is a special interest of the narrator, but for me has a slightly distancing effect. And although the Wikipedia article on Conrad says that he is "recognized as a master prose stylist," I personally find his prose a little bit awkward, a little bit hard to follow. I sometimes find myself having to read his sentences a couple of times to get their meaning. Maybe this is due to the fact that English was a language that Conrad, a Pole, did not pick up until he was an adult. Still, his opener is good because he does not talk down to the reader; the narrator is treating me with respect, so I'm willing to extend him lots of credit.

Prose style is important, of course, but I think it is not by any means the main ingredient of high-quality writing. Trying to think of what actually is the main ingredient, I've come up with: "way of seeing". It's the writer's way of seeing the world--along with the ability to express this--that sets him or her apart. What details does he relate in order to convey his meaning?

Conrad opens Heart of Darkness by setting the scene: the Nellie rides at anchor at flood tide on the Thames estuary, and its officers are hanging out on deck waiting for the tide to change. The narrator names three of them by title only--Director, Lawyer, Accountant--but the fourth by name: Marlow. I found the first sketch of Marlow striking:

Marlow sat cross-legged right aft, leaning against the mizzen-mast. He had sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect, and with his arms dropped, the palms of his hands outwards, resembled an idol.

I would say that at this point, in paragraph 4 of the story, I felt myself engage with the narrative. Marlow, after this short introductory description, is already an interesting and unusual character--very specific. I found myself curious about him right away. You won't find a character description like this in an average potboiler novel. An average writer doesn't see people this way--isn't able to see them this way; that is exactly why that writer is average. It is not the flattering description of a hero (sunken cheeks, yellow complexion), but an interested and detached description by a keen observer who chooses telling details. A sailor, sitting cross-legged against the mizzen-mast, palms outward, to me is an excitingly real image. It engages my belief in what I'm reading, and bonds me to the narrator. I start to feel that I can really trust him with my attention and credulity.

I first read Heart of Darkness in, I think, 1979, probably just after seeing Apocalypse Now, when I learned that the movie was based on Conrad's book. Since Apocalypse Now was regarded as an "important" movie, and I was a budding film-maker, I wanted to get a better grounding in what it was about. (The movie itself was, for me, a disappointment.) I didn't give the novella the attention it deserved, and raced through it to "get it read." I didn't remember much about it.

The thematic path that has led me back to it is via Sven Lindqvist's "Exterminate All the Brutes", an investigation into the origins of genocide. Heart of Darkness is one of the central books he looks at. Lindqvist shows persuasively the documents and events that Conrad was exposed to just before he drafted his famous work--tells the story of how the ideas were formed and shaped.

It's part of the story of evil: where do the evils of our world come from? What drives us to commit acts of evil? These are questions that preoccupy me now.


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