Reading Joseph Conrad works

2020-05-23 @Literature

I’d recently finished Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness in an edition that also assembles the short stories Youth, Amy Foster and The Secret Sharer. In hindsight, I enjoyed the shorts at least as much as the main feature.

Irrespective of the length of these works, they pack severe density. Conrad showcases mastery of English rhetoric, and this all the more impressive, English being his third language after Polish and French.

Youth, with a predominant air of light humour, relates an incessant attempt at a shipping voyage. We are introduced to an older Marlow, a recurring protagonist, retelling his younger employment as a second mate on a vessel destined for Bangkok (then Siam), the ship endlessly beset by (oftentimes comical) tragedies.

Conrad in fact employs a proxy narrator, one of the older Marlow’s companions, listening as Marlow recounts his younger tale. This degree of storytelling separation leads to an interesting possibility of unreliable narration, making the read all the more intriguing.

The prodigious Heart of Darkness reintroduces Marlow, once again on a ship in company of the same few companions as Youth, and once again relating a voyage of his younger years; this time a darker and savager voyage across the Belgian Congo of the latter half of the 19th century. The same narration device of Youth applies to this novella.

A certain film enthusiast might recognize this opus as an inspiration for Apocalypse Now, although the latter based during the Vietnam war nearly a century later.

Amy Foster is a humorous yet tragic immigration story, not entirely unrelated to Conrad’s own experiences as a British import.

The Secret Sharer explores a doppelg√§nger theme, similar to Edgar Poe’s William Wilson or Dostoevsky’s pre-Gulag novella The Double. Tons of humour in this tale set yet again on a shipping vessel, this time narrated by a young, first-time captain finding himself profusely out of his element.

Now in the course of all this reading, I felt increasingly less concerned for the underlying scenario, and more drawn by the pure storytelling prowess.

See the following fragments of Amy Foster:

Smith is notoriously hot-tempered, but the sight of some nondescript and miry creature sitting cross-legged amongst a lot of loose straw, and swinging itself to and fro like a bear in a cage, made him pause. Then this trap stood up silently before him, one mass of mud and filth from head to foot. Smith, alone amongst his stacks with this apparition, in the stormy twilight ringing with the infuriated barking of the dog, felt the dread of an inexplicable strangeness. But when that being, parting with his black hands the long matted locks that hung before his face, as you part the two halves of a curtain, looked out at him with glistening, wild, black-and-white eyes, the weirdness of this silent encounter fairly staggered him.

Note the meticulous care for the subtle.

The dust rose in clouds from the sanded floor; he leaped straight up amongst the deal tables, struck his heels together, squatted on one heel in front of old Preble, shooting out the other leg, uttered wild and exulting cries, jumped up to whirl on one foot, snapping his fingers above his head - and a strange carter who was having a drink in there began to swear, and cleared out with his half-pint in his hand into the bar.

In the latter excerpt, Conrad describes what someone on a social feed might refer to as the ‘Russian dance’.

This cultural propensity to peg concepts with instantly associable labels leads to rapid communication, sure, but at the expense of impoverished descriptive language and imaginative faculty. In plain words, it leads to boring interchange.

For this reason, even if you do expose yourself to a severe dosage of superficial internet content, I say, at least counterbalance the nutritional deficit (the poison) with a bit of high-caliber literature.

But I have a tendency to digress.

Questions, comments? Connect.