The Third Man by Graham Greene (1949)

Harry had always known the ropes… (p.103)

Graham Greene collaborated with Carol Reed, the celebrated British film director, twice. Once on an adaptation of his 1935 story The Basement Room. The film version of this was released in 1948 as The Fallen Idol.

Reed’s producer, Sir Alexander Korda, wanted the pair to follow up as quickly as possible and suggested a film set in post-war Vienna. Greene visited the city with Reed and progressed from sketches and treatments to writing a 100-page novella to act as the basis of the screenplay. In the preface to published editions he says it was ‘never intended to be more than raw material for a picture’. He explains that he wanted a surplus of material to create the mood and background for the director, for the dialogue they would be writing, and to have a reservoir of images and text to draw on in tricky script conferences. Interesting way to proceed.

The novella, much work later, became the movie The Third Man, released in 1949 and regularly described as one of the greatest films of the 20th century, maybe the best British film ever. To cash in on the popularity of both films the novella was published in 1950 in a volume along with the short story, The Basement Room.

The Third Man (novella)

There are numerous differences between novella and movie, which are listed in the Wikipedia or BFI articles, below. The most famous is the ending. In the novella Martins and the girl walk off arm in arm, promising some kind of happy ending. In the movie Reed held out for his famous shot of the girl walking the length of the wintry avenue at the cemetery and straight past Martins who lights a cigarette and, in the final dismissive gesture of the film, tosses away the match.

For me the key difference is the nationality of the two lead characters. In the novella both the protagonist, Rollo Martins, the writer of pulp Westerns, and the elusive central figure, the racketeer Harry Lime, are English. Not only English, they both went to the same private school. In the film version they are both Americans played by Joseph Cotten (Martins) and Orson Welles (Harry Lime).

English public school

It is a revelation to see how the English provenance of the lead characters in the novella and this shared public school friendship, changes the feel of the whole story: it seems posher and narrower. It means that at regular intervals Martins drops in memories of Harry at jolly public school, or just uses memories of school playing fields and school boys etc, all of which create a rather exclusive, very English vibe.

‘I met him my first term at school. I can see the place. I can see the notice board and what was on it. I can hear the bell ringing. He was a year older and knew the ropes. He put me wise to a lot of things…’
‘Was he clever at school?’
‘Not the way they wanted him to be. But what things he did think up! He was a wonderful planner. I was far better at subjects like History and English than Harry, but I was a hopeless mug when it came to carrying out  his plans.’ (1986 Penguin paperback edition p.24)

Do American thrillers worry about a character’s school days? Do Hammett or Chandler? No. This is one of the ways the novella feels smaller. And because it adverts quite frequently back to jolly schooldays, it also has a childish thread. Countless books and articles have been written about how Greene’s generation of writers was peculiarly haunted by their public school days, maybe because they were raised to conform to late-Victorian standards and then went out to take part in the mid-twentieth century which was harrowingly unlike anything they’d been led to expect.

In Auden and Isherwood and Cyril Connolly and Evelyn Waugh and Betjeman there is a constant nostalgia for childhood and the reassuring certainties of their school days. They nearly all reverted to the Christianity of their childhoods. As Calloway, the police inspector, reveals the nature of Lime’s crimes to his old schoolfriend

a world for Martins had certainly come to an end, a world of easy friendship, hero-worship, confidence that had begun twenty years before in a school corridor. Every memory – afternoons in the long grass, the illegitimate shoots on Brickworth Common, the dreams, the walks – were simultaneously tainted… (p.82)

This schoolboy theme emphasises that the characters – like so many English public schoolboys, apparently – never seem to have grown up. They still think in terms of the house master’s pep talk, the team spirit, and rebelling against silly insular rules. Was Martins Harry’s fag? Did he go and warm the toilet seat for him on winter mornings? The narrator, the policeman Calloway, notes of Martins, that he

has never really grown up and perhaps that accounts for the way he worships Lime… [After Lime’s funeral] Rollo Martins walked quickly away as though his long gangly legs wanted to break into a run, and the tears of a boy ran down his thirty-five-year old face. (First page)

Now he could tell that it was Harry, by the clothes, by the attitude like that of a boy asleep in the grass at a playing-field’s edge, on a hot summer afternoon. (p.43)

… two happy young men with the intelligent faces of sixth-formers.. (p.68)

[Harry] stood with his back to the door as the car swung upwards, and smiled back at Rollo Martins, who could remember him in just such a secluded corner of the school-quad, saying, ‘I’ve learned a way to get out at night. It’s absolutely safe. You are the only one I’m letting in on it.’ For the first time Rollo Martins looked back through the years without admiration, as he thought: He’s never grown up. (p.104)

[Harry] gave  his boyish conspiratorial smile. (p.104)

‘The school-quad’. The narrowness of this shared public school heritage in a way lays the ground for the narrowness of Greene’s imaginative vision. He is, as ever, beady-eyed and critical, zeroing in on the seedy and sordid about his characters: the ill-fitting toupée of the man Lime sends to look after Martins, the wide forehead and large mouth and small, stocky figure of Anna (Harry’s girlfriend), the super-clean Dr Winkler ‘creaking among his crucifixes.’ (p.52). Everywhere is dirty, shabby, claustrophobic, disappointing.

The literary mix-up

This is exemplified, though in a comic spirit, in a central issue of both novella and movie, the mix-up over Martins’ name. Rollo Martins writes pulp Westerns under the pen-name of Buck Dexter. It so happens that a famous literary writer named Benjamin Dexter is expected by the British Council in Vienna the same day Rollo arrives.

Martins stumbles into this misunderstanding, responding to his pen-name Dexter at the airport, and then milks it in order to be put up in a nice hotel and given pocket money by the Council, thus allowing him to pursue his investigations. But it is a very English joke, giving rise to continual little ironies and confusions, the kind of thing the tightly-wrapped English find hilarious, because it is about social embarrassments.

This mix-up results in Martins having to address a British Council literary meeting, a scene of downright farce played all out for laughs. But I also found it noticeable for the age and dowdiness of the English audience, waiting with ‘sad patience’ and who give ‘low subservient laughter’ as he autographs their books. ‘Little half-sentences of delight and compliment were dropped like curtsies.’ (pp.68-72) How stuffy. How crabbed. How English they are, and the scene is.

American open air

Contrast all this with the movie, set alight by its virile charismatic American stars, brash and confident that their country owns the world. Even the fact that both are, in their ways, defeated, can’t efface the memory of Lime’s superb arrogance and how handsome Martins is as he talks to Anna. Films are about images.

The fact that Martins and Lime were at school together is kept in the film, but it wasn’t a jolly English public school, it now has to be ‘a school’, an American school.

‘When I was 14 he taught me the three-card trick. That’s growing up fast.’ (The film)

Instead of arrested emotional development, instead of the implicit snobbery, the smallness and the stuffiness that come from the English side, Lime and Martins now sound like they have more in common with Damon Runyon or Raymond Chandler, they sound cool, and this change of tone liberates the movie to give the missing Lime his romantic, mythical quality. It may be the best British movie ever made but that’s hugely down to the power and freedom of its American stars and the glamour they bring.

Greeneland

On the up side, it’s the stuffiness of the novella, its English small-mindedness, which underpins Greene’s worldview and makes possible his characteristically acute obervations, the details and the tiny ironies which make the novella particularly enjoyable.

One light, in a heavily beaded shade, left them in semi-darkness, fumbling for door handles. (p.52)

It wasn’t a beautiful face – that was the trouble. It was a face to live with, day in, day out. A face for wear. (p.62)

A small child came up to his informant and pulled at his hand. ‘Papa, Papa.’ He wore a wool cap on his head, like a gnome; his face was pinched and blue with cold. (p.65)

Very Greene: crisp short sentences describing an acutely observed moment – poverty and misery (pinched and blue) mixed with the incongruous or grotesque (like a gnome). In fact, in the following paragraphs the small child becomes a demon as it points at Martins and describes in German the argument he saw him having with the dead man, until everybody in the crowd thinks Martins is the murderer.

The Third Man

The title, incidentally, comes from the mystery at the heart of the story. Pulp fiction author Rollo Martins arrives in Vienna to find that the friend who invited him over, Harry Lime, has been run over and killed. With the curiosity of a professional writer, Martins sets out to meet the witnesses and quickly discovers a discrepancy: three people claim to have seen Harry run over and killed – his friend Koch standing by him on one side of the street, the American Cooler on the other side of the street, and the driver of the jeep which hit him. They all claim that two of them carried Harry’s body inside.

But Martins talks to the owner of the flat next to Harry’s who heard the accident, rushed to the window, looked down and saw three men carrying the body. Both the other witnesses deny the existence of this third man. So – who is the third man? Because it is a verbal form, the novella is able to really build up this theme by repeating the phrase wholesale, much more so than in the movie, which is able to convey so much more with looks, angles, music.

It takes most of the novella, and the movie, for Martins to conclusively prove the third man was Lime himself, who has faked his own death because the authorities are getting too close to him and his illegal rackets.

Greene despair

Thankfully, Greene’s penchant for hammering the reader with editorialising about the horror of the human condition, the preachiness which is so insistent in a novel like The Heart of the Matter, is almost completely absent from the novella. His dismal views about human nature or modern society are mostly implicit in the storyline or characters, a blessèd relief. Although there are a handful of exceptions which show the preacher-man lurking behind the scriptwriter, just ready to resume his lecturing…

The third stiff whisky fumed into Martins’ brain, and he remembered the girl in Amsterdam, the girl in Paris: loneliness moved along the crowded pavement at his side. (p.60)

He was in the mood for violence, and the snowy road heaved like a lake and set his mind on a new course towards sorrow, eternal love, renunciation. (p.85)

Oooh getting close. Peeping out from behind the curtains. And then, towards the end of the text, the preacher does spring out at the reader brandishing a handful of Moral Truths.

For the first time Rollo Martins looked back through the years without admiration, as he thought: He’s never grown up. Marlowe’s devils wore squibs attached to their tails: evil was like Peter Pan – it carried with it the horrifying and horrible gift of eternal youth. (p.104)

And we nearly get away without any of the Catholic voodoo which is, of course, a feature of most of Greene’s fiction. Almost, but not quite, because right at the end Greene does make Lime a Catholic. Having realised Lime is a monster of amoral egotism, Martins accuses him:

‘You used to be a Catholic.’
‘Oh, I still believe, old man. In God and mercy and all that. I’m not hurting anyone’s soul by what I do. The dead are happier dead. They don’t miss much here, poor devils,’ he added with that odd touch of genuine pity. (p.106)

(Pity, as we know from the long lecture which is The Heart of The Matter, is one of mankind’s worst traits. Apparently.) ,

Making Harry a Catholic, in fact making any of his characters a Catholic, lets Greene give the impression his story has an added dimension, a supernatural aura not available to mere mortal novelists and most of us secular readers. It feels too much like deploying religion as a rhetorical tool to heighten the horror, to give the reader a thrilling theological frisson. A rhetorical device, which he deploys pretty relentlessly, to add ‘depth’ to what are, in the end, totally secular stories.

Summary

This is a great, quick read, alive with Greene’s strengths: creating a strong sense of place, quickly sketching in believable sympathetic characters, a consistent eye for vivid, telling detail, a dry sense of irony, with none – well, hardly any – of the tiresome lectures about human nature and the Catholic hoodoo which mar a lot of his other books.

Related links

The movie

Trailer for the movie.

PS Allan Quatermain

Of all the things in the world to compare the labyrinth of sewers under Vienna’s street with, Greene compares it with the underground river which flows to the lost city of Milosis in the Henry Rider Haggard’s novel Allan Quatermain. Which is the second time he references it in so many books, as he also mentions it in The Heart of The Matter, where Quatermain is Scobie’s childhood hero.

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.

An Outcast of The Islands by Joseph Conrad (1896)

Joseph Conrad followed his 1895 debut, Almayer’s Folly, with a prequel, An Outcast of the Islands.

This longer, more substantial novel (295 pages to Almayer’s slender 167) is also set in an isolated backwater of the Malayan archipelago, and features largely the same characters, filling in a lot of Almayer’s backstory, but from a different perspective.

What is odd about the novel is the extent to which it almost replays the narrative arc of the previous one, with the central character another feeble white man abandoned up a distant tropical river among, outwitted by crafty Malays and Arabs, and slave to a mad passion for a native girl which brings him to ruin.

It’s the first novel all over again, but on twice the scale and much more obsessively despairing and nihilistic:

On Lingard’s departure solitude and silence closed round Willems; the cruel solitude of one abandoned by men; the reproachful silence which surrounds an outcast ejected by his kind, the silence unbroken by the slightest whisper of hope; an immense and impenetrable silence that swallows up without echo the murmur of regret and the cry of revolt.

Plot 

About 15 years before the climactic events of Almayer’s Folly, another Dutchman works in Hudig’s warehouse in Macassar, Peter Willems. He thinks he is a great successful man and has earned a big house and the hand of a beautiful Portuguese woman in marriage through his own abilities. But he steals and embezzles from his employer and his jealous rivals expose him. One fine morning he is sacked, ruined, and thrown out of his house.

He goes down to the jetty, distraught, contemplating suicide, but encounters the English buccaneer Tom Lingard who shatters his illusions by telling him old Hudig only set him up with the house because the Portuguese girl he’s married is in fact old Hudig’s illegitimate daughter. Far from being the swanky demigod he thought he was, Willems is only the patsy and tool of Hudig’s wishes.

Lingard offers to take him on, to take him to the new trading post in a new river on the east coast of Borneo where a colleague of his from Hudig’s, Kaspar Almayer, is setting up a trading station and expecting great things…. Weakly, Willems accepts and finds himself in Sambir, the same raddled trading post on the Panteir river as the disillusioned Almayer. Almayer’s daughter, Nina, is still small which helps us date it to 15 or so years prior to the first novel.

And now Willems is once again out of his depth in the small communities dotted along the river and run by a local ‘rajah’ and his wily, one-eyed Malay ex-pirate and fixer, Babalatchi. These conspire to make Willems fall ‘helplessly’ in love with the fetching daughter – Aissa – of another local potentate who has been brought there dying after a bloody fight with the Dutch authorities. Willems is meant to fall so totally under her spell that he is persuaded to help a mighty Muslim trader of the area, Syed Abdulla, navigate to Sambir, to land and establish his own trading post, in direct rivalry to Almayer and against the interests of his protector, Lingard. In his foolish exuberance Willems goes so far as to tie Almayer up and taunt him, waving a gun in his face.

Captain Lingard returns and there is a sequence of set-piece scenes: Almayer updates Lingard, Lingard canoes across the river to the native campong, Lingard is tempted by the wily Babalatchi who hands him a loaded rifle at dawn as Willems is set to appear at the door of his hut, hoping the white men will kill each other. Lingard does indeed confront Willems and punches him to the ground, but resists the temptation to do more, insisting that Willems will remain here, effectively a prisoner, as his punishment.

The Arabs and Malays have left the settlement, having gone to a new one upriver. Lingard also leaves. Willems is completely abandoned apart from the Malay girl, Aissa, who is genuinely but puzzledly in love with him.

But Almayer, goaded by Lingard’s failure to take revenge against Willems, takes his own: for unexplained reasons Lingard has brought and dumped at Almayer’s station the Portuguese wife Willems had abandoned in the opening chapters. Almayer now arranges for her to be paddled over to Willems’ isolated campong hoping that she will encourage Willems to get in the canoe and be paddled downstream to find ships at the sea some 15 miles away.

However, things don’t go to plan as Aissa confronts the newly reunited husband and wife, becomes hysterical with jealousy and, after Willems has hustled his wife back to the canoe and is returning, Aissa shoots Willems through the lung and kills him.

In the final few pages Conrad does what will become a habit with him and abruptly switches the point of view to some years later as the complacent Almayer retells the last few actions of the plot (burying Willems ‘body etc) to a passing explorer who has casually stopped at the station. Having the effect of distancing the action, and also making it seem trivial, just another yarn…

(In fact this mannerism will become standard operating procedure for the other great suicidal depressive of English literature, Graham Greene.)

Good

When he is good, Conrad is brilliant. I think he is best in:

Descriptions of the jungle, particularly the changing light of dawn or dusk.

Instinctively he glanced upwards with a seaman’s impulse. Above him, under the grey motionless waste of a stormy sky, drifted low black vapours, in stretching bars, in shapeless patches, in sinuous wisps and tormented spirals. Over the courtyard and the house floated a round, sombre, and lingering cloud, dragging behind a tail of tangled and filmy streamers—like the dishevelled hair of a mourning woman.

Non-white characters In painting the characters of the non-white characters: the esteemed Muslim trader Syed Abdulla, the local rajah Lakamba, his tricksy sidekick Babalatchi – they are painted with a foreignness or otherness which seems utterly plausible – the scenes in which they meet and conspire against the stupid white men are vivid and intricate.

Style In his not-quite-English style, his uneven way with English idioms regularly leads to odd but expressive forms, the askew angle of his prose adding to the exoticism of the subject matter.

In his unnervingly precise physical details, the way a man stumbles or hesitates or is distracted mid-sentence by a cloud or a fly, the way raindrops fall from wet hair or puddles form in mud, or cutlery clatters in a bowl:

The nose bled too. The blood ran down, made one moustache look like a dark rag stuck over the lip, and went on in a wet streak down the clipped beard on one side of the chin. A drop of blood hung on the end of some hairs that were glued together; it hung for a while and took a leap down on the ground. Many more followed, leaping one after another in close file. One alighted on the breast and glided down instantly with devious vivacity, like a small insect running away; it left a narrow dark track on the white skin.

Bad

But – twice the length of the first novel turns out to be just long enough for Conrad to reveal his weaknesses and for them to begin to really grate. These are:

Obscure plotting It is sometimes hard to understand what’s going on, since the events are often told from different people’s perspectives and new chapters leap back and forward in time. And when you do finally understand, it’s often disappointing. Weak white man is duped into falling for exotic siren who leads him to ruin. Hmmm.

Style Conrad’s rhetorical habits begin to grate. There’s a lot of repetition, a lot of drama and melodrama, a lot of passages which tip over from lush into overripe, into the frankly hysterical.

Psychology 300 pages is long enough to become a bit sick with Conrad’s worldview, which is one of overwhelming negativity, depression and despair. It would be one thing is one of the characters was rather depressive, but ALL the characters experience the same overwrought levels of fear, dread, despair, terror and existentialist angst, and all the time.

And the narrating voice, Conrad, is as depressed, disillusioned and defeated as the characters he describes:

They moved, patient, upright, slow and dark, in the gleam clear or fiery of the falling drops, under the roll of unceasing thunder, like two wandering ghosts of the drowned that, condemned to haunt the water for ever, had come up from the river to look at the world under a deluge.

How dark it was! It seemed to him that the light was dying prematurely out of the world and that the air was already dead.

He laughed. His laugh seemed to be torn out from him against his will, seemed to be brought violently on the surface from under his bitterness, his self-contempt, from under his despairing wonder at his own nature.

He felt a great emptiness in his heart. It seemed to him that there was within his breast a great space without any light, where his thoughts wandered forlornly, unable to escape, unable to rest, unable to die, to vanish—and to relieve him from the fearful oppression of their existence. Speech, action, anger, forgiveness, all appeared to him alike useless and vain, appeared to him unsatisfactory, not worth the effort of hand or brain that was needed to give them effect.

The anger of his outraged pride, the anger of his outraged heart, had gone out in the blow; and there remained nothing but the sense of some immense infamy—of something vague, disgusting and terrible, which seemed to surround him on all sides, hover about him with shadowy and stealthy movements, like a band of assassins in the darkness of vast and unsafe places.

It’s too much. Eventually a healthy reader reacts badly to being so continuously hectored by what are clearly Conrad’s own personal demons. He doesn’t just intrude his angsty worldview into the story, he soaks every sentence in negativity and slaps you in the face with it.

Is Conrad the most miserable novelist in English?

As he wrote in a letter to R. B. Cunninghame Graham in January 1898:

There is no morality, no knowledge and no hope; there is only the consciousness of ourselves which drives us about a world that whether seen in a convex or a concave mirror is always but a vain and floating appearance.

The epigraph of the book is a cheery quote from the Spanish playwright Calderon: Pues el delito mayor Del hombre es haber nacito, meaning: ‘Man’s greatest crime is to have been born’. Google tells me this quote is also referenced by Samuel Beckett, patron saint of depressives.

Maybe when I read this when I was 18 or 21 it had a powerful impact on me. Now it sounds silly and immature. Now that we are born, it makes sense to try and live with as much dignity and self respect as we can. In fact, you could try enjoying yourself, from time to time. Do some exercise. Go for a swim!

The relentlessness of Conrad’s despair also overloads his next novel, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus‘. That short tale was meant to be the story into which Conrad poured all his knowledge of the sea. If so, it is deeply disappointing since the barely detectable plot is overwhelmed by thousands of passages of Conradian despair and misery at the wretched fate of forlorn men abandoned in a heartless universe etc.

On the other hand, all the above helps explains the enduring appeal of Heart of Darkness which, in contrast to Outcast:

  1. Is short – so you don’t have a chance to get sick of Conrad’s ornate style and relentless negativity.
  2. Has a subject, the Belgians’ evil management of their Congo colony, which actually justifies the most extreme and witheringly misanthropist sentiments anybody could express. The subject, for once, matches the constant near-hysteria of his style.
  3. Conrad shapes a narrative arc, helped by the frame narrative of Marlow on the director’s yacht moored in the Thames, which gives an element of detachment and control to the horror. It makes the central narrative all the more aesthetically impactful, unlike the raw, unmediated emotions of the overwrought protagonists of Almayer and Outcast.

Movie 

The book was made into a movie in 1952, directed by Carol Reed, starring Trevor Howard, Ralph Richardson and Robert Morley. Sadly, the reviews on Amazon say it’s rubbish. The posters are great, though. They appear to have dropped the interminable moralising and gone for ‘the soft beautiful body of a woman’.


Related link

Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

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