Posted on | August 25, 2010 | 1 Comment
I have read Heart of Darkness. This is not a lie, but it was until yesterday. Last month, Robert McCrum, in a short blog post in the Guardian, asked readers to share the most embarrassing gaps in their reading, as he himself trundled off on vacation with an unread copy of Middlemarch in tow. The comments on the post numbered 74, as reader after anonymous reader listed their sins of omission, eager to unburden themselves as if in a literary confession booth. Not a one, however, mentioned Heart of Darkness, which made me feel worse. At least there was some solidarity about Bleak House.
At any rate, in the spirit of penitence, I have now read it. There were two things, in particular, that I found striking about Conrad’s maddening fable of colonial cruelty and blindness. The first was its beauty. Conrad is so entrenched in our culture as a kind of moralist-cum-hypocrite—a case study in the murkiness of historicization—that his language often falls by the wayside. But of course, as I should have suspected, the novel only carries so much cultural baggage because its sentences can bear the weight. By the second paragraph, Conrad had assured me of his greatness:
In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.
He writes like Turner paints—in stately, conventional images whose subtle formal liberties grasp after something more modern.
The second thing that struck me about Heart of Darkness was its familiarity. I didn’t feel like I was reading a novel for the first time so much as returning to a novel I’d read years earlier, its basic frame in place but the details hazy. Marlow holding his shipmates in his thrall deep into the night; the maniacal Kurtz’s haunted last words; the darkness itself, “so impenetrable to human thought, so pitiless to human weakness”—these had already made their way, in vague outline, into my brain. It’s a novel that occupies that kind of place in the culture.
What other books that I’ve neglected to read make that cut? One confession is enough. Perhaps I’ll save the others for another post.