Sunday, July 30, 2017

Irreview, Book Review: Heart of Darkness and Selected Short Fiction

I have, as it stands, two Bachelors degrees in English.  One with two additional English-related minors.  I had not, as it stood, ever read anything by Joseph Conrad.

Blasphemy, I know.

I had actually purchased a Conrad collected edition several years ago, but never read it.  Funnily enough, it was only after I bought Barnes & Noble paperback editions of Nostromo and Heart of Darkness and Selected Short Fiction that I even remembered I had that previous book (also a Barnes & Noble edition, though hardcover).

Anyway, I'm meandering (I do that, if you haven't noticed).

Given my current reading streak and the fact that several filmmakers whose work I admire have seemingly unhealthy infatuations with Conrad (Francis Ford Coppola, Ridley Scott, and James Cameron among them), I figured it was high time to give Mr. Conrad a read.

So I did.

And in Heart of Darkness and Selection Short Fiction, I read the Heart of Darkness along with the following short stories: "Youth", "Amy Foster", and "The Secret Sharer".  (Yes, I've adopted the Commonwealth system of placing punctuation outside of quotations.  Deal with it).

I can tell you, I wholly appreciate Joseph Conrad's ability to psychologically profile his characters, but I can't tell you that I'm entirely a fan of Mr. Conrad's writing.

The first two stories in the collection ("Youth" and Heart of Darkness) were told from the perspective of Marlow, a seasoned sailor with a particular disdain for human nature.  In "Youth", Marlow recounts a tale of a ship destined to sink on its way to the Far East from England, and while based heavily in truth, it's basically just a tale of a ship destined to sink on its way to the Far East from England.  Comical, in some sense.  Harrowing, in another.  But mostly just... meh.

And "meh" is pretty much what I thought of Heart of Darkness.

Now, don't get me wrong, I am both well aware and observant of the influence Heart of Darkness has had on both English and American Literature.  Indeed, particularly with Hemingway, the influence is palpable.  But... I found Heart of Darkness itself to be relatively boring.  In fact, I find Apocalypse Now to be the far superior version of the tale.  Yes, I get that Apocalypse Now would not exist without Conrad, but that's beside my point.  I'm at a loss to explain why Heart of Darkness is so influential.  Sure, there were some fascinating bits, bit it mostly bored me to tears.


Before you blurt that maybe I just hate Conrad, let me offer a couple of caveats: Yes, I don't particularly like Conrad's "narrator within a narrator" style.  It irks me.  It feels both lazy and sloppy, though I suppose it does suggest the "unreliable narrator" concept better than any other style could or can.  But... I adore "Amy Foster" and I quite like "The Secret Sharer."

So... I dunno.  If anyone in my circles should love Heart of Darkness, I suppose it should be me.  But it isn't.

The second two stories in the collection ("Amy Foster" and "The Secret Sharer") are told from perspectives of other characters (the author, in the latter case) and share the same stylistic complaints I have against the first two stories.

But, I find "Amy Foster" to be a fascinating study of character.  I don't know exactly what sets it apart from the Marlow tales, but it's wonderful.  Boiled down, it's two lost souls finding each other almost randomly, falling in some sort of magical love, and then falling out of it equally randomly.  There's more to it, of course, but I would be remiss if I stole any of the experience of reading it away from you.  Seriously, I like it that much.  Probably as much as I found Heart of Darkness to be underwhelming.

Maybe, though, it's the sailing aspect of it all... not that I don't find the age of sail and the lives of sailors fascinating (on the contrary, several reference books of Lord Admiral Nelson reside on my shelves)... but "Amy Foster" only touches upon the sailing life, using it as the backdrop for the tragedy that unites the two lovers.  "Youth" and Heart of Darkness are wholly reliant upon Conrad's experiences as a sailor.

But (again), that doesn't account for why I like "The Secret Sharer", which is also wholly reliant upon Conrad's experiences as a sailor.  To me, "The Secret Sharer" is far more effective than Heart of Darkness at showing the slow descent into madness (and at less than one-third of the page count!).

So... I dunno.  Maybe I just hate the Marlow narratives.  I know I am loathe to read the remainders.  And I am hoping with great hope that Nostromo is a stylistic improvement.

We shall see.

Rating: 8 (Style: 2 stars; Story: 4 stars)

I feel I should expound on my story rating by specific story...
  • "Youth" - 3 stars
  • Heart of Darkness - 3 stars
  • "Amy Foster" - 5 stars
  • "The Secret Sharer" - 4 stars
That's an average of 3.75 stars, so I just rounded up to 4.

Things I Learned:
  • "apple pie order" - basically, something organized in a neat and tidy way.
  • Sclavonian - an old world that can mean Slavonia (Croatian) or Scalovian (Prussian).

New Words:

If there's one thing I can count on by reading late19th and early 20th century literature, it's the abundance of words I'm going to have to look up.  Edgar Allan Poe is the author who usually does it to me (along with the slightly more recent Lovecraft), but it appears I have to add Conrad to the "oh, shit, better grab my dictionary" list.

There were quite a few words I've never seen before, but could easily figure out (like bepatched and discomposed), and I've left those off this list.  The two words marked with an * are words I knew, but found myself looking up anyway (no doubt a result of my meekness in front of Conrad's vocabulary).  And, as there were so friggin' many in this anthology, I've listed the words in alphabetical order, rather than my usual practice of in order of appearance in the text.
  • adjured - to command solemnly under or as if under oath or penalty of a curse; to urge or advise earnestly
  • *alacrity - promptness in response :  cheerful readiness
  • apoplectic - of a kind to cause or apparently cause stroke; extremely enraged
  • ascetic - practicing strict self-denial as a measure of personal and especially spiritual discipline; austere in appearance, manner, or attitude
  • declivity - downward inclination; a descending slope
  • diaphanous - characterized by such fineness of texture as to permit seeing through; characterized by extreme delicacy of form; insubstantial, vague
  • festoons - a decorative chain or strip hanging between two points; a carved, molded, or painted ornament representing a decorative chain
  • hardihood - resolute courage and fortitude; resolute and self-assured audacity often carried to the point of impudent insolence
  • jocose - given to joking; characterized by joking
  • languor - weakness or weariness of body or mind; listless indolence or inertia
  • offing - the part of the deep sea seen from the shore; the near or foreseeable future
  • particoloured - showing different colors or tints; especially :  having a predominant color broken by patches of one or more other colors
  • pellucid - admitting maximum passage of light without diffusion or distortion; reflecting light evenly from all surfaces; easy to understand
  • perambulator - one that perambulates; chiefly British :  a baby carriage
  • peroration - the concluding part of a discourse and especially an oration; a highly rhetorical speech
  • pestiferous - dangerous to society; carrying or propagating infection :  pestilential :  infected with a pestilential disease; troublesome, annoying
  • piebald - composed of incongruous parts; of different colors; especially :  spotted or blotched with black and white
  • plashing - splash
  • precipitately - to throw violently :  hurl; to throw down; to bring about especially abruptly; to cause to separate from solution or suspension; to cause (vapor) to condense and fall or deposit; to move or act with violent or unwise speed
  • prevaricator - to deviate from the truth
  • privation - an act or instance of depriving; the state of being deprived; especially :  lack of what is needed for existence
  • promptitude - the quality or habit of being prompt
  • propitiatory - intended to propitiate; of or relating to propitiation
  • punctilious - marked by or concerned about precise accordance with the details of codes or conventions
  • *rapacious - excessively grasping or covetous; living on prey; ravenous
  • recondite - difficult or impossible for one of ordinary understanding or knowledge to comprehend :  deep; of, relating to, or dealing with something little known or obscure; hidden from sight
  • recrudescence - a new outbreak after a period of abatement or inactivity :  renewal
  • sententiously - given to or abounding in aphoristic expression; given to or abounding in excessive moralizing; terse, aphoristic, or moralistic in expression :  pithy, epigrammatic
  • serried - crowded or pressed together :  compact; marked by ridges :  serrate
  • soughing - to make a moaning or sighing sound
  • tenebrous - shut off from the light :  dark, murky; hard to understand :  obscure; causing gloom
  • worsted - a smooth compact yarn from long wool fibers used especially for firm napless fabrics, carpeting, or knitting; also :  a fabric made from worsted yarns

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