Like Death in Venice or The Great Gatsby, Heart of Darkness is not just a book but a modern myth—everyone has read it, even if they have not done so personally. The actual book is far stranger than accounts of it sometimes suggest. It’s a shame in a way that the book has become so famous as to dull our sense of this pervasive strangeness. Re-reading it now I find it scarcely less bizarre than when I plodded through it as a mystified seventeen-year-old (we were doing The Secret Agent for A-Level). What H. G. Wells wrote of Conrad’s earlier book, An Outcast of the Islands, also holds good for Heart of Darkness: “his story is not so much told as seen intermittently through a haze of sentences.”
Strictly speaking, the book is narrated not by Marlow but by someone listening to him and reporting what has been said so that we peer at the narrative river through a forest overgrown with quotation marks. Much of the time Marlow seems simply to be waffling on—even more extraordinary given what a short book it is, how little room there is for waffling.
We are perched up on a roof high above the river but the weather has been so terrible, for so long, that the boat feels like a submarine. The over-boat has become a U-boat, at risk of flooding courtesy of what’s above (rain), rather than the river below. My God—or by Jove, as Marlow likes to say—it seems like it could just float off the roof and slide into the river like a ship being launched up in Tyneside or Glasgow where they don’t make boats anymore and where the weather has probably been—inconceivable though this seems—even worse than here.
I’ll say this for the Thames though. At least it’s not always bursting its banks—unlike some rivers I could mention, or would if I could remember their names. That one in Tewkesbury? Or Hebden?
I always love it, in films, when a submarine breaks the surface of the water and the conning-tower hatch is opened. It’s not just the relief—the whoosh of sea air flooding through the cramped, feet-and-fart reek of the sardine corridor of das boot; it’s the fact of something coming into view, breaking through the barrier—yes, the film—separating the unseen from the seen.
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