The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard (1967)

Nine Ballard short stories from the early 1960s, nearly 60 years ago.

Storm-bird, Storm-dreamer (1966)

Five years ago the giant birds attacked. They seem to have been caused by new hormone fertilisers laid down in agriculture. Dead gulls and magpies were found their beaks glutted with the sticky new substance. But later that year clouds of terrifying huge mutant birds attacked, gulls and pigeons and other species with ten or twelve feet wingspans, swooping out of the sky, wreaking havoc on flocks of sheep or cattle and even people.

Short hawk-faced Crispin was the only survivor of an attack on his farm, fighting the huge birds off with a pitchfork. He was accepted into the new volunteer force being assembled to defend Britain from the giant birds. The story opens as, stationed on a rusting picket ship in a river estuary, he opens up with the navy machine gun and blasts huge numbers of birds out of the sky with ammunition brought from below by the brain-damaged hunchback, Quimby.

Although the whole concept of the giant birds, and the industrial-agricultural-scientific experiment which has given rise to them, take some getting used to, this is only the backdrop to the story.

The story concerns Crispin’s growing obsession with a widow who lives in a remote cottage on one bank of the river, and who Crispin sees, through his binoculars, apparently plucking giant feathers from the piles of birds he’s massacred. Her name is Catherine York and her husband was torn to shreds by one of the giant birds – ironically a huge white dove they had captured and thought they could tame – which then made off with her baby son, years ago. Now she is carefully plucking big white feathers to make what Crispin discovers, when he rows across the river to introduce himself, is a kind of bower or nest.

Crispin becomes convinced Catherine is in danger. A few days later a stray bird appears out of nowhere and gets tangled up in the ship’s rigging while Crispin blasts it with his gun. Via an unlikely set of mental processes, Crispin decides to gut the bird and make a man-sized suit out of it. Clambering up to the shallow cliff above Catherine’s house, wearing the suit, he runs down the steep slope and is half surprised to find the enormous wings catching the air and lifting him off his feet.

Crispin is still trying to get the hang of it and maintain his balance when Catherine York comes out of her cottage and lets off two blasts from her shotgun, shooting Crispin through the heart. She waits beside his crashed body till quite sure he is dead, then returns to her self-imposed task, making a nice soft nest for the giant dove who she hopes, one day, will return with her baby boy.

This is a devastating psychodrama, and a weird portrait of deranged obsession, the way traumatised humans retreat into private worlds of their own making.

The Concentration City (1957)

The city has thousands of levels and extends indefinitely in all directions. It doesn’t, in fact, appear to stop, it makes up the world and the universe. Student Franz M has dreamed up the idea of a flying machine, in reality little more than a glider, but he needs space to try it out in and so makes enquiries of his teachers, tries to co-opt his friend Gregson. They find a small sports hall and the glider flies alright, but he needs somewhere larger and so goes to investigate a vast hole which has been opened up in the city by demolishing a hundreds blocks across and several down. He and other bystanders are made giddy with agoraphobia.

At another moment he and Gregson are discussing the glider in a café, when the Fire Police arrive because someone has been breaking the law by having a naked flame or cooking at heat. The point being that, in a city which stretches indefinitely in every direction, they cannot afford to have fires. Anyone cooking at real heat or doing anything else risky is called a Pyro and there are plenty of meatheads like the café owner who applaud when the Fire Police in fact demolish the building the alleged Pyros were.

But the thrust of the story is that Franz eventually decides to buy a ticket on one of the super-express trains heading West, cadges money off Gregson for the food and sets off. He keeps a diary of his journey as he passes through neighbourhoods and sections and territories and federations but – the point is – never leaving the enormous, built-up, three-dimensional city and – here’s the rub – eventually finds himself right back where he started. There is no escape. There is no ‘outside’. The city is all that there is.

Structurally this is like Chronopolis in the sense that the main story is book-cased between the present-day setting: In Chronopolis we hear about Conrad Newman’s adventures in retrospect from the situation he’s now in, which is going on trial for the murder of Stacey, the ‘present’ in which the story opens and closes.

The Subliminal Man (1963)

Dr Robert Franklin works at ‘the Clinic’. Recently he’s been bothered by the unkempt student, Hathaway, who keeps buttonholing him in the car park with various fads and obsessions. The latest one is Hathaway’s conviction that the enormous, 100-foot-high billboards which are being erected alongside all the major motorways and freeways are deploying subliminal advertising.

We witness Franklin’s scepticism, shared by his wife Judith. But then we witness them experiencing strange compulsions to shop for stuff they really don’t need, for example after driving past one of the enormous signs Franklin feels an uncontrollable urge to stop at a services and buy a new pack of cigarettes even though, when he opens his dashboard shelf it turns out he’s already got five packs in there, unopened.

Towards the end Hathaway calls Franklin to tell him he climbed to the top of one of the new hoardings and, using a stroboscope, discovered that there are:

‘hundreds of high speed shutters blasting away like machine guns straight into people’s faces!’ (p.71)

But Hathaway disappears, presumed taken away by the police, and Franklin goes shopping with his wife.

A short, snappy fictional nod to an issue very much in the news at the time, brought to prominence by Vance Packard’s sensational exposé The Hidden Persuaders (1957).

Now Wakes the Sea (1963)

Mason lives in a neat American town with white picket fences and a nice local church. His illness kept him off work for six months, sleeping on a sofa in the lounge but luckily his wife, Miriam’s, independent income kept them afloat. But recently, in just the last three weeks, he has started to have visions (p.80). He is woken at night by the sound and smell of the sea and, opening his front door, sees most of his town underwater, only the top of the church spire emerging from the tumultuous waves which diminish down to the surf roaring onto the road just beyond his lawn. Eerily he walks out across his lawn and along the road washed by the sea, sometimes for hours, returning tired to his house, and waking the next morning to be questioned by his wife who is concerned about him.

During daylight hours he fingers the fossilised conch shell which they have in the house, which has become a sort of talisman, which he weighs in his hand:

like a capsule of time, the condensation of another universe (p.79)

After trying and failing to convince her that what he sees is real, Mason realises it’ll be wiser to drop it. She insists on staying up for a few nights to try and share his visions, admitting that she almost thinks that she can hear it too

‘like something very old and blind, like something waking again after millions of years.’ (p.85)

But both times falls fast asleep and Mason tiptoes past her. On these last few occasions he sees the figure of a woman dancing on the headland overlooking the town and tries to make it towards he but she disappears before he can struggle through the rising surf and he is forced back to his house, waking next morning exhausted, with grazed hands and, eerily, smelling of salt water.

The climax of the book comes from a conjunction of circumstances more like a ghost story than sci fi. In the present a team of paleontologists led by a Professor Goodhart are excavating up on the headland, using an abandoned mineshaft as entrance to geological layers buried far down. The climax of the story comes when Mason wakes again, to find the surf lapping across his garden, and this time makes a determined effort to circle around the ‘beach’ established by the perimeter of the sea and up onto the headland, to confront or speak to the slim young woman in the diaphanous dress.

But as he approaches and she turns round, Mason realises with a shock that her head beneath her flowing white hair is that of a skull! and the arms she reaches out to him are the bones of a skeleton! He backs away from her and… stumbles against the barriers roping off the disused mineshaft and… falls falls falls down it.

Cut back to the present and the town police interviewing Professor Goodhart. Mason has been missing for two days. Meanwhile the Professor is puzzling how two proto-human (Cro-Magnon) skeletons can have ended up in geological strata laid down 200 million years ago in the Triassic Age!

Minus One (1963)

A would-be humorous story in which a patient, Hinton, goes missing from the Green Hill Asylum, and its director, Dr Mellinger, takes the unusual step of coming up with a metaphysical solution, which is to persuade the other three doctors on the staff of the possibility that Hinton never existed but was a function of their paperwork. He is shown slyly insinuating this thought into each of their minds (and handily destroying Hinton’s file) before the boom-boom punchline where all four doctors are sharing a nice glass of sherry before dinner and agreeing that Hinton was purely a bureaucratic figment when there’s a knock at the door and… Hinton’s wife is announced, come for a visit.

Mr F. is Mr F. (1961)

Freeman’s wife is pregnant but as she grows he finds himself shrinking. Really shrinking, losing weight, his moustache becoming light, his hair blonde. Weighing himself he finds he’s losing pounds each day. When he can’t reach the top shelves at work he calls in sick but continues to decline. Meanwhile his wife orders a suite of baby clothes, a cot, a playpen and so on.

Freeman continues diminishing, to the size of a 14-year-old, then a six-year-old, then his wife has to help him in and out of bed, until he’s a toddler and she puts him in his playpen. He’s hoping against hope that his friend Hanson will come round and he can explain his plight, but Hanson never shows and then Freeman is so small his wife puts him in baby clothes. He watches her pack up his shirts and suits and send them off to the charity.

And when he tries to express himself all that comes out is baby talk. Soon he can’t speak at all. He lies, an insensate bundle next to her naked body. And in a very odd passage we infer that he has, er, returned inside her!

A few days later she is walking back to the house when a car draws up and dashing Hanson gets out to pay his respects. Freeman’s wife smiles flirtatiously. Needing no encouragement, Hanson sees her to her front door, and through it and, three hours later, Freeman is negatively conceived i.e. dies, in some metaphorical sense as Hanson inseminates his wife.

Strange, eh, but a grown man reverting to childhood has been done by Hollywood a number of times, and a life described backwards done by several other authors.

Zone of Terror (1960)

Larsen works with Bayliss the psychologist at a chalet complex on the edge of the desert which is a sort of recreational centre for burned out executives. Except it’s Larsen who’s burned out, after working hard for three months on a huge brain simulator made of linked computers. Bayliss spotted he needed a rest and got him time off and orders to rest, sleeping 12 hours a day in an isolated chalet.

Trouble is Larsen’s been having hallucinations. He opened the garage door and saw a man in a suit walking towards, realising his suit seemed striped because he could see right through him. He slammed the garage door down and was holding it tight shut, sweating and trembling, when Bayliss drove up half an hour later.

So Bayliss has put him on tranquilisers but is taking an irritatingly abstract view of the ‘case’. A few days later it happens again, Larsen re-entering his living room and seeing a man in a suit sitting on the sofa, before he runs off. This time he realises the spectral figure is… himself!

When Bayliss appears a bit later he doses Larsen with whiskey and gives vent to his pet theory about ghosts, that they are sort of retinal memories we all create, information about our location in time and space recorded on a continual memory tape in our minds, but the player sometimes gets confused and replays the temporal-spatial experience but externalised.

Whatever the scientific cause Larsen is so scared he digs up an old revolver he’s got and hides it in his letterbox. And then another phantom appears. Then two! Two of them! In positions he was in only a few moments before. He runs off into the desert, then turns, turns and crawls back, determined to alert Bayliss in the nearby chalet.

But Bayliss has seen one of the phantoms and comes running, Larsen can see him and then.. sees him talking to one of the phantoms! The phantom is pointing… pointing at him! Bayliss thinks that he is one of the phantoms and the phantom talking to him is the real Larsen. He turns. He runs. Bayliss is running after him wielding the revolver.

He only hears the first of the shots…

Manhole 69 (1957)

Dr Neill is carrying out an experiment on three volunteers, Lang, Gorell and Avery. He has operated on their brains and removed the structures responsible for sleep. Neill is bullishly confident that sleep is a waste of time, given over to an eight-hour peep show when the unconscious is set free in the form of unedifying dreams, All stuff and nonsense, his pioneering work will ‘reclaim some of the marshland’, push back the domain of the unconscious, and produce a new race of 24/7 humans, who will enjoy a third more life experiences.

His assistant, John Morley, is sceptical. It’s not so much the classical reasons for sleep – to allow the brain to recuperate and process the day’s information – that worry him. He puts it in a novel way: what if we need a rest from ourselves? How much of yourself can you actually stand, without a break?

Shrewd point.

Halfway through the story begins to see the world from the patients’ point of view. They are playing chess or ping-pong or listening to music in the observation room of the clinic as they have been doing for over two weeks non-stop, under constant observation from Neill or Morley or other clinic staff when… when the room suddenly starts shrinking… slowly the walls, and the ceiling, begin closing in on the three men… slowly they suspect the room is bugged and begin looking for microphones… wonder what happened to the doors… find themselves walking round the small coffee table as the walls cram in closer and closer and then…

Morley only stepped away from monitoring them for ten minutes, into the administrative office. When he returns, he finds all three of them in an irreparable catatonic state.

The Impossible Man

Conrad is a 17-year-old orphan, parents dead in a plane crash. He’s on a trip to the beach with his uncle when he’s hit by a sports car, is seriously injured and has one leg amputated. In the weeks that follow we learn that the world he’s living in has become old. Due to medical advances most people are elderly, so the birthrate has fallen. Except… Dr Knight who is treating Conrad explains that the hospital they’re in is a specialist unit specialising in restorative surgery. In the past fifty years [so is the story set fifty years in the future?] replacement surgery has moved beyond organ replacements to replacing and fixing just about anything. And so Dr Knight proposes to replace Conrad’s amputated leg with the leg of the driver of the car which crashed into him and was killed when the car ploughed on into the beach wall.

Except that… Dr Knight shares the fact that the desire for restorative surgery has dropped right off. The hospital used to be packed and turn away patients so desperate they paid big bribes. Now it functions at barely 1% of its capacity. The old have seen the kind of world they’ve created, a civilisation of oldsters, and they don’t like it. A counter-movement is in train, a movement away from extending life as long as possible.

Conrad’s Uncle Theodor (who was also injured in the car accident, losing two fingers) takes Conrad to see a friend of his long-dead mother’s, another doctor, Dr Matthews, who is in an advanced state of decay, but makes the case to a reluctant Conrad that he and many others like him, refuse the restorative medicine.

We value our lives so much that we refuse to diminish them. (p.189)

Six months later Conrad has had a new leg grafted onto his stump and is walking down along the beach, near the road where the accident happened. He and his stump have never gelled. He resents it. At night they lie in bed silently like a married couple who aren’t getting on. Now he hears the scream of the gulls just like on the day of the accident. He sees a truck thundering down the sandy road, trailing a storm of dust behind it, just like on the day of the accident. And drawn by a compulsion he can’t explain Conrad runs out into the road and towards the oncoming traffic.

Thoughts

1. Lots of doctors. This is doctor-heavy fiction, stories

  • the police surgeon who interviews Franz M
  • Dr Robert Franklin
  • Professor Goodhart
  • Dr Mellinger, Dr Normand, Dr Redpath and Dr Booth
  • Bayliss the psychologist
  • Dr Neill
  • Dr Nathan, Dr Knight and Dr Matthews

2. Wives

  • Judith
  • Miriam
  • Catherine York
  • Mrs Hinton
  • scarey Mrs Freeman

Related links

Other Ballard reviews

Novels

Short story collections

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is the year 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’, until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a breathless novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents.
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds, an the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shapeshifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages

1980s
1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and three later short stories
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actua life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to repress the population

The Eastern Front 1914-18: The Suicide of Empires by Alan Clark (1971)

The title is typically melodramatic and grabby, for Clark was a very headline-grabbing historian, junior politician, drinker, adulterer and diarist of genius.

Alan Clark

Alan Clark (1928-99) was the son of Sir Kenneth Clark, the immensely influential art historian and administrator. Alan went to prep school, Eton and served in a training regiment of the Household Cavalry. He went to Oxford and studied history, then studied for the bar, but decided not to practice and try to earn a living as a historian. His career took off with the publication in 1961 of The Donkeys: A History of the British Expeditionary Force in 1915, a scathing indictment of the incompetence of the British generals, which was popular and influential. Many professional historians have subsequently criticised the book for its inaccuracy and sensationalism but it remains a powerful work.

In the 1970s Alan became a Conservative MP, and in the 1980s served as a junior minister in Margaret Thatcher’s governments. He left Parliament in 1992 after Mrs Thatcher’s fall from power. The following year he published the first of three volumes of diaries and these turned out to be his most popular works, covering, between them, the years 1972 to 1999 and shedding much light on the behind-the-scenes machinations of the politics of the period.

Suicide of the empires

The Eastern Front 1914-18 is part of the ‘Great Battles’ series published by Windrush Press. These all follow a similar format – very short, very focused, lots and lots of contemporary photos or paintings or posters, brisk chronology at the end.

The illustrations take up a lot of space, so that I counted only about 56 pages of actual text in the entire book. Most of the other volumes in the series concentrate on just one battle e.g. Hastings, Agincourt, Edgehill, so it seems a bit bonkers to devote such a tiny space to an entire war, let alone one of the largest wars in world history.

What’s more, although it has half a dozen maps of specific campaigns, and although the key events are all lined up in the right order, Clark’s account is distinctly, and disarmingly, gossipy much, one imagines, like his diaries.

When he contrasts the two men at the top of the Russian army – Grand Duke Nicholas, tall, handsome, blue-eyed commander-in-chief of the army and uncle of the Tsar, and plump, feline, insinuating General Sukhomlikov – it is in terms of their character and ability to schmooze at the Imperial court.

The entire German campaign is presented as a clash of personalities, first between the Chief of the German General Staff Moltke and the commander of VIII Army, General von Prittwitz, who Clark takes pleasure in telling us was nicknamed der Dicke or ‘fatso’ — subsequently between the two Generals brought out of semi-retirement, General Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff, and the man who replaced Moltke as chief of General Staff, General Erich von Falkenhayn. Falkenhayn was, Clark tells us, tall, suave and cynical: he thought Germany could not win the war, and he was right.

General Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff

We get a similar profile of Feldmarschall Franz Xaver Josef Graf Conrad von Hötzendorf, Field Marshal and Chief of the General Staff of the military of the Austro-Hungarian Army and Navy from 1906 to 1917, whose timidity, Clark claims, caused catastrophic losses in the early months of the war.

Or, as Wikipedia puts it:

For decades he was celebrated as a great strategist, albeit one who was defeated in all his major campaigns. Historians now rate him as a failure whose grandiose plans were unrealistic. During his tenure, repeated military catastrophe brought the Austrian army to its near destruction.

Clark is amusing satirical about the army leaders lower down the food chain, as well:

Gradually, like some prehistoric monster responding to pain in a remote part of its body, [General Ivanov, Russian commander of the South-West front] made his adjustments. (p.46)

Back in Russia, Clark treats us to several excerpts from the diary of the French Ambassador to the Imperial Court, Maurice Paléologue, including over a page in which he describes taking tea with the Tsar in December 1914, which I think is included to show how naively optimistic Nicholas was.

All this meant that I had a good impression of the key military leaders and their developing enmities and infighting but, paradoxically for a series titled ‘Great Battles’, found Clark’s accounts of the actual campaigns and the vast battles fought on the Eastern Front often confusing and difficult to understand.

Key facts

Germany had a 400-mile eastern border with Russia.

The southern part of the border was protected by her ally Austro-Hungary. If Austro-Hungary collapsed, at least part of its eastern section, the Slavic nationalities, would come under Russia’s influence, thus extending Germany’s exposure to Russia even more. Thus the Austro-Hungarian Empire had to be defended at any cost.

Russia’s population was 170 million. Of these some 160 million were peasants living close to the land in often abject poverty. Above them sat some 10 million middle-class and petit-bourgeois lawyers, doctors, traders and shopkeepers, who got by. Above them were some 30,000 great landowners, some of whom owned vast estates, and above them the aristocracy leading up to the Imperial Court.

THE key decision of the war was taken by Moltke, the Chief of the German General Staff, when faced with the initial fast-moving advance of the Russian army into East Prussia in August 1914, to transfer three corps and a cavalry division from the right flank of the advance into Belgium, all the way back across the north of Germany, to face the Russians. This decision arguably decided the outcome of the war, because it weakened the German advance through Belgium just enough for the French and British to hold them at the Battle of the Marne, for a stalemate to emerge, and the attack to fail, condemning Europe to four years of armed stalemate.

At the three-day-long Battle of Tannenberg the cream of the Russian army officer corps, her best NCOs, her newest equipment, were slaughtered, shattered and lost. More importantly, the industrial productivity of Russia was weakest of all the combatants, and her rail and distribution network the most primitive.

In August and September 1914 Conrad sent the Austro-Hungary army north-eastwards into Russia where it was split up and cut to ribbons, forcing a general retreat, and the Germans to send troops to stiffen their ‘ally’.

The summer of 1915 saw the Germans and Austrians attack along the whole front, pushing the Russians out of the bulge they’d created and back, back towards their own frontier. Ammunition of all sorts ran low, there were scandals about corruption in supply, and for the first time the Russian army and people felt they might lose. Maurice Paléologue reports astonishing amounts of defeatism at all levels of Russian society, and a contact tells him about the Marxist firebrand Lenin, who actively wants Russia to lose, so as to overthrow the entire existing social system.

The tragedy of the failure of the Brusilov offensive of 1916, where Brusilov’s Russian army attack in the south into Austria was not backed up by Evert’s army coming in from the North to prevent German reinforcement, led it to grind to a halt with some 750,000 casualties. It was the last throw of the dice. If Evert had come in, decoyed the Germans in the north and allowed Brusilov to penetrate deep into Austria-Hungary, chances are the Hapsburgs would have been forced to sue for peace, and the Hohenzollerns soon afterwards.

The thing to realise about the February Revolution of 1917 was that it was the consequence of the failure of the Brusilov offensive, exacerbated by food shortages in the cities, strikes, marches, and then the troops firing on the crowd. It was two army generals who persuaded the Tsar to abdicate. Kerensky came to power at the head of a ‘liberal’ post-imperial government but made the terrible mistake of, in May, launching a new offensive under a new General. The army had by now exhausted all its resources and materiel, as well as leadership at officer and NCO level and after initial gains, gave up and marched home. Widespread rioting and political breakdown in Petersburg led to the vacuum into which the Bolsheviks stepped in October 1917.

Clark is revisionist about the end of the war, too. The conventional view is the Germans last offensive overstretched their lines and then the tide turned and the Brits counter-attacked. Clark with impish subversion, claim the British offensive was itself running into trouble when the end came from a completely unexpected direction: a small Anglo-French force broke out of its encirclement in Salonika and out into Bulgaria forcing the Bulgarian government to sue for peace on 29 September – and this was the straw that broke Ludendorf’s confidence,

Overworked, exhausted and having suffered a minor stroke, he advised the new Chancellor that the army could fight no more. Within a week, on 4 October, the Germans sued for peace, the Chancellor abdicated and civil war broke out all across the Reich. It was over. Although another generation of uncertainty, repression, and then inconceivable terror, was only just beginning.


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Books

Queen Emma and the Vikings by Harriet O’Brien (2005)

Interestingly, this book seems to have two different sub-titles depending on which edition you buy. The edition I have is sub-titled ‘A history of Power, Love and Greed in Eleventh-Century England’, a bit generic. But the latest edition on Amazon is sub-titled ‘The Woman Who Shaped the Events of 1066’, which is stronger and more specific.

Emma of Normandy was the daughter of Duke Richard I of Normandy (993-996) and sister to his successor, Duke Richard II (963-1026). In 1002 she was married off to King Aethelred II of England, the ill-fated king who ruled from 978 to 1016 and by whom she had three children, including Edward, later to become King Edward the Confessor (who ruled 1042 to 1066).

After Aethelred died in 1016, and England was conquered by the Danish King Cnut, Emma found herself being recalled from the Norman court – where she had gone for safety – and, in 1017, quickly married off to the new Danish king. She bore Cnut two more children, a daughter and Harthacnut, who was to succeed Cnut as King of Norway and ruled briefly as king of England from 1040 to 1042.

Thus Emma occupies the unique position in history of having been married to two kings of England and being mother to two further kings of England – by different fathers.

Unlike other books I’ve recently read about this period – Cnut: England’s Viking King by M.K. Lawson or The Norman Conquest 1066 by Marc Morris – which have a lot of factual information to sift and a lot of events to get through, O’Brien’s book is much slower paced and goes out of its way to present a thorough sense of the world in which Emma lived. Almost every chapter opens with a vivid description of a key scene or moment, allowing you to really think through the emotional and cultural effects of the events which other historians sometimes race through rather hastily.

We learn how squalid and unhygienic Saxon England was, what the Saxon king and queen and nobles wore, how feasts were arranged, the role of jewellery and metal weapons, and so on. Some of her vivid scenes depict Emma’s departure from Normandy, her arrival in Canterbury, her wedding ceremony to Aethelred – as well as speculation about her feelings and emotions: What must it have been like to be sold off in marriage to a man probably twice her age (Aethelred), who already had at least one common-law wife by whom he had had no fewer than ten children, the oldest of whom were Emma’s age?

What a bear pit she was sold into – and how strong and clever she must have been to not only survive the murderous rivalries of the English court but then to live on into – and thrive in – the completely different ambience of the Danish king she was forced to marry. Both men had common law wives or mistresses – both, eerily, named Aelfgifu – against whom she had to compete, for affection (maybe) and power (certainly).

The story covers three nationalities – Norman, English and Danish – as well as a host of competing warlords and nobles so it’s no surprise that the book comes well-equipped with family trees of the three countries’ royal families, and a Dramatis personae featuring no fewer than 57 personages – all of whom you really have to know about in order to grasp the full complexity of the situation.

Some commenters on Amazon complain that we learn a lot about the doings of the various men and warlords of her time and less about Emma but a) I think O’Brien has done a heroic job in teasing out every possible incident, experience and emotion which Emma must have experienced and b) what any reading of this period conveys is that everyone’s lives, even the strongest kings, were immersed in the dense and complex matrix of royal and aristocratic marriages, power alliances and conflicts.

Cnut may have conquered England – but only as a result of the twin good fortunes of King Aethelred dying a natural death, and then his son Edmund Ironside unexpectedly dying soon after he and Cnut had made a pact to divide the country (O’Brien recounts the possible causes of that sudden death, injury, illness or assassination).

Cnut still had to travel back to Denmark to try and assert his authority there against his own brother, and went to war to conquer Norway in which he was miserably defeated. Meanwhile, back in the English court, Emma had to protect her newborn infants by Cnut from the jealousy of her own children by Aethelred, let alone the football team size brood of Aethelstan’s children by his earlier, Saxon, wife.

And seeing as every one of these children, male or female, was married off to the siblings of the rulers of Denmark, Norway, Scotland, France, Flanders, Normandy and Brittany, and themselves had numerous progeny, it is quickly mind-bendingly complicated to work out who thinks they’re entitled to inherit the crown of which nation or duchy, and who they’re likely to ally with, or be thrown into conflict against, while new allies or opponents are being born or unexpectedly popping off.

This web of conflicting forces comes into play when Cnut dies in 1035 and there is a period of uncertainty bordering on anarchy while the following contenders vie for the crown:

  • Cnut’s son by Aelfgifu – Harold Harefoot
  • Cnut’s son by Emma – Harthacnut
  • Aethelred’s sons by Emma – Alfred and Edward

To help understand it all, you need the family trees of the Duchy of Normandy, and of Saxon England and of Denmark to follow the dense weave of marriages and kin.

Chapter eleven opens with a particularly bravura recreation of the fate of poor Alfred, Aethelred’s son, who was persuaded to lead a force of Norman sympathisers to claim the throne. He landed with plenty of men and ships on the south coast, was courteously met and persuaded by Earl Godwine to go with him to Guildford, where in the middle of the night his men are disarmed and then brutally massacred – except for the ones kept to be sold into slavery. Alfred himself was tied up and taken on a three-day journey into the heart of Fen country where he was brutally blinded and left to die in the mud.

The narrative is as immediate and bloodthirsty as any contemporary thriller.

O’Brien guides us through this maze of conflicting sources and accounts, consistently seeing it from the point of view of her tough and Machiavellian heroine. Her emphasis on the day-to-day realities of early 11th century England, and on the emotional life of the key players, is a welcome relief from the sometimes crushing litany of battles, taxes and legal charters which tend to fill the accounts of other historians.

This is a very enjoyable and rewarding work not only of history but of historical imagination.

Emma of Normandy (c. 985 – 1052)

Emma of Normandy (c. 985 – 1052)

Timeline of Emma’s life

978 Aethelred II crowned King of England
985? Emma of Normandy born
1002 Emma marries Aethelred. In the same year he orders the infamous Massacre of Danes throughout England.
1005? Birth of Emma’s son Edward (to be the future Edward II the Confessor)
1006-13 A daughter Godgifu and son, Alfred, are born.
1013 Invasion of Swein Forkbeard prompts Aethelred and Emma to flee to her family in Normandy. Her two young sons, Alfred and Edward, are to be left in the Norman court for most of their boyhood and teens.
1014 Swein dies. Aethelred returns but quickly falls out with his son by his pre-Emma mistress, Edmund ‘Ironsides’.
1016 Swein’s son, Cnut invades with a Danish fleet. Aethelred dies of natural causes and, after he’s made a peace treaty with Cnut, Edmund dies in suspicious circumstances, leaving Cnut king of all England.
1017 Cnut marries Emma.
1020s Emma has a son Harthacnut and daughter, Gunnhild.
1027 Cnut goes on pilgrimage to Rome.
1028 Cnut is in Norway furthering his claims to the throne.
1030 Cnut appoints his son by his ‘consort’ Aelfgifu, Swein, earl of Norway to rule in  his absence.
1033 Rebellion in Norway against the unpopular rule of Swein and Aelfgifu.
1035 Cnut was planning a military campaign in Norway and also managing the marriage of his daughter by Emma, Godgifu, to the son of the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad, the future Henry III, when he dies without naming an heir and with at least three possible contenders to the throne – Harold Harefoot, Harthacnut and Edward.
1036 The nobility call a witan at Oxford where it is agreed Harold Harefoot will rule England north of the Thames, Harthacnut England south of the Thames – in his absence run by Earl Godwine in alliance with Emma. Alfred lands from Normandy to press his claim but is kidnapped, blinded and dies. Meanwhile Emma’s best hope, Harthacnut, refuses to come to England, facing his own problems in Norway, and so the path is open for Aelfgifu of Northampton’s son, Harold Harefoot, to be acclaimed king, and Emma to be placed in a very dicey position, as mother of two direct threats to the new king.
1037 Emma flees, but not to Normandy a) because she has been implicated in the murder of her own son, Alfred, who had spent most of his life in exile in the Norman court and whose murder scandalised her relatives b) and because her nephew, the Duke Robert, had died young in 1035, leaving as his only male heir his eight-year-old son by his mistress – William ‘the bastard’ or has he would come to be known, William the Conqueror, so that the court was a snakepit of conspiracies. She goes to Bruges.
1040 Harold Harefoot dies unexpectedly young, aged about 23. Harthacnut, who had finally got round to assembling a fleet to take him to England, is now able to land and claim the throne unopposed. Emma returns with him as the official Queen Mother.
1041 Harthcnut swiftly makes himself unpopular by imposing harsh taxation. He commits a notorious atrocity when two of his tax collectors are killed by a mob in Worcester, and he leads an army west which lays the entire county to waste. O’Brien suggests it is Emma’s idea to invite her surviving son by Aethelred – Edward – back from the Norman court to come and be co-ruler with Harthacnut.
1042 But the arrangement has barely got under way before Harthacnut dies of a drunken fit at a wedding party. Edward II is crowned king.
Around this time a book she had commissioned about her life and times is published, the Encomium Emmae Reginae, a primary source for her life story.
1052 Emma dies, very nearly 70.
1066 Emma’s great-nephew, William of Normandy, seizes the throne of England.


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Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899)

Heart of Darkness was published in three monthly instalments in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in February, March and April of 1899. (The Victorian Web has an essay describing the other articles which Heart of Darkness appeared among.) The final text was still divided into three equal sections when it was published in book form in 1902.

Heart of Darkness is a masterpiece and as such can be approached from scores of different angles, interpreted in countless ways.

In line with my earlier comments about Conrad, I think its success is partly because, in the horrific facts of the Belgian Congo which he experienced on his 1890 trip up the river, Conrad found external realities which, for once, justified the extremity of his nihilistic worldview and the exorbitance of his style.

The Congo really was a vast immensity of suffering and pain. When he uses his almost hysterical language about Almayer’s daughter abandoning him, or Willems’s native mistress seeing through him, or Hervey’s wife leaving him, Conrad’s lexicon and syntax seem overwrought, hyperbolic. In King Leopold’s Congo there really was a subject which justified the obsessive use of words like ‘horror’, ‘suffering’, ‘immense anguish’ and so on.

Frame device

In Youth Conrad invents the frame device of the group of five mature men of the world sitting around smoking after-dinner cigars while one of them, Marlow, sets off to tell a long yarn.

Having come across this device in Youth Conrad immediately reused it for House of Darkness. Precisely the same five good fellows who we met in Youth are aboard the yacht Nellie, moored in the Thames at dusk, as Marlow recounts the story of his trip up the  Congo.

So the book has two narrators: the anonymous one who describes the ‘we’, the five chaps; and then, via his narrative, we hear Marlow’s story – a story within a story.

Matching the tale to the teller, and creating subtle ironies between the actual events and the way they are told, are devices as old as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Boccaccio’s Decameron, older. Thus, once Marlow finishes his story, the narrator returns for the concluding paragraphs, to describe the haunting final vision of the darkness of the Thames after sunset, when the full repercussions of Marlow’s story sink in.

The frame device:

  • guarantees a happy ending – we know that Marlow returned alive
  • guarantees a kind of sanity – periodically, when Marlow’s story rises to heights of absurdity or psychological stress, the narrator reminds us of the calm, bourgeois, urban setting the tale is being told in:

There was a pause of profound stillness, then a match flared, and Marlow’s lean face appeared, worn, hollow, with downward folds and dropped eyelids, with an aspect of concentrated attention; and as he took vigorous draws at his pipe, it seemed to retreat and advance out of the night in the regular flicker of the tiny flame.

  • above all, it replaces suspense – what happened? – with reflection – what does it mean? It legitimises the way Marlow frequently stops the tale to ponder the meaning of his experiences, or stops to tell his audience how he’s struggling to convey the feelings he experienced – something that would be harder for an omniscient narrator to do.

Plot

Marlow takes a commission from a Belgian company to captain a steamboat up the Congo to find one Mr Kurtz, a prize ivory trader. Before he’s even set foot in Africa he sees signs of the greed and folly of the European imperial mission to Africa – ta lone warship pointlessly firing cannon randomly into the jungle – and as soon as he arrives at the first station up-river he finds the building of the so-called railway a shambles where Africans are chained like slaves and worked to death.

When Marlow reaches the legendary Kurtz he finds he has sunk into horrific barbarity, savagely marauding through neighbouring country, killing natives and stealing their ivory, his campong lined by stakes on which are impaled human heads.

The young idealist Kurtz had written an eloquent pamphlet on how to bring ‘civilisation’ to the natives. Across the bottom the older, degraded Kurtz has scrawled, ‘Exterminate all the brutes.’

Kurtz is a symbol of the hypocritical cruelty and absurd folly of imperial enterprises. Marlow gets his native bearers to carry the sick and dying Kurtz onto his steamer, turns around and heads for the coast. Kurtz dies onboard and his last words – ‘The horror, the horror’ – have become classic, referenced by T.S. Eliot, the climax of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 movie adaptation, ‘Apocalypse Now‘, I’ve seen them on t-shirts.

Not British

Although Conrad doesn’t name the colonial power, he gives broad enough hints that it was Belgium. The Congo was the personal possession of King Leopold of Belgium, who modern historians nowadays place alongside Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot as one of the great modern mass murderers of all time, with an estimated 8-10 million Africans dying in the Congo as a direct result of the slavery he instituted during his reign (1885-1908).

But the point is – it isn’t British. This genocidal regime wasn’t British. Conrad was anxious about how his blistering critique of Imperialism would be received in his new home, the greatest empire the world had ever seen.

Later the same year Heart of Darkness was published, in October 1899, the Boer War broke out and whipped the country into a furore of Imperialist jingoism. Conrad knew it was impossible to criticise the British Empire, and he certainly goes out of his way in the opening pages to emphasise that he is NOT talking about the British Empire, and that the British Empire is qualitatively different from the imperial folly he attributes to Belgium.

‘On one end a large shining map, marked with all the colors of a rainbow. There was a vast amount of red – good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there…’

What’s more, the opening pages contain a great and deliberate hymn to the history and integrity of the British Empire.

I wonder what obligation Conrad felt under to clarify that, although he appeared to be saying that all empires are hypocritical, rapacious follies… he in fact meant, all empires except your empire of course, chaps.

‘The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. It had known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled and untitled—the great knights-errant of the sea. It had borne all the ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time, from the Golden Hind returning with her round flanks full of treasure, to be visited by the Queen’s Highness and thus pass out of the gigantic tale, to the Erebus and Terror, bound on other conquests—and that never returned. It had known the ships and the men. They had sailed from Deptford, from Greenwich, from Erith—the adventurers and the settlers; kings’ ships and the ships of men on ‘Change; captains, admirals, the dark “interlopers” of the Eastern trade, and the commissioned “generals” of East India fleets. Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! . . . The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.’

Furthermore, at a few key moments in the story, the English auditors interrupt the story to object to Marlow’s tone and implications.

These interruptions mark the boundaries, indicating not so much to the fictional audience but to us, the readers, that even Marlow’s overflowing style and withering irony has limits, is safely contained. That Conrad knows where the borders of taste are and is policing them:

‘I felt often its mysterious stillness watching me at my monkey tricks, just as it watches you fellows performing on your respective tight-ropes for –  what is it? half-a-crown a tumble – ‘
‘”Try to be civil, Marlow,” growled a voice, and I knew there was at least one listener awake besides myself.
‘”I beg your pardon,” [said Marlow]

Style

Because the bulk of the narration is meant to be spoken by Marlow, an Englishman telling his story to other Englishmen, Conrad is forced to rein in his style.

Much more of the narrative deals with facts, factually conveyed, than in his earlier texts such as the lyrical Youth, the first Marlow text.

Coming fresh from reading Almayer’s Folly, An Outcast of the Islands and Karain, the style of Darkness seems mercifully sober and controlled.

But coming from outside Conradworld, to most ordinary readers the style will still seem extraordinarily florid, with long descriptive passages larded with lush adjectives, and Marlow’s comments on his experiences forever tending to the same nihilism and fatalism which drenched the narratives of Almayer, Outcast, Karain, Lagoon and The Return.

There include the liberal use of triplets –

‘all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men.’

The long sentences which use multiple sub-clauses to repeat and amplify the message of despair.

Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.

And the endlessly creative ways he finds to express the same underlying mood of despair:

…my isolation amongst all these men with whom I had no point of contact, the oily and languid sea, the uniform somberness of the coast, seemed to keep me away from the truth of things, within the toil of a mournful and senseless delusion.

…in and out of rivers, streams of death in life, whose banks were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened into slime, invaded the contorted mangroves, that seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair.

A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse.

The great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence.

…a gesture that took in the forest, the creek, the mud, the river, – seemed to beckon with a dishonouring flourish before the sunlit face of the land a treacherous appeal to the lurking death, to the hidden evil, to the profound darkness of its heart.

The pattern itself

There are insights to be had about the role of women – about the contrast between the savage woman of the jungle and the white purity of Kurtz’s Intended who Marlow visits back in Brussels and whose innocent, naive love for Kurtz he is compelled to preserve.

There’s also a lot to write about the concept of the Voice – Marlow experiences Kurtz as predominantly a fluent, deep, authoritative voice – but then Marlow himself becomes nothing but a voice on the deck of the unlit yawl – the two are ironically yoked together.

Books can and have been written about Conrad’s racism, his fundamentally insulting opinion of Africans or ‘savages’ etc.

In all three ‘issues’ or themes or motifs (and in a host of others) Conrad deliberately creates multiple ironies, multiple systems of comparison and contrast. But however easily these patterns can be reduced to feminist or post-colonial or post-structuralist formulas, rewritten to support early 21st century political correctness, I also regard the patterning of the text as almost abstract, as an end in itself which can be enjoyed for itself.

The repetition of key words and phrases – the repetition of leading motifs – the multiple ironies i.e. the ubiquitous techniques of doubling and comparison – because they are expressed in words are susceptible of logical interpretation. But I suggest they can also be seen as abstract designs, comparable to the Japanese designs so appreciated by contemporary Aesthetes – or to the new languid style of Art Nouveau, the delicate intertwining of tracery meant to be enjoyed for its own sake and nothing more.

I think of the turn to patterning of a painter like Edward Burne-Jones who, in his final years, acquired a symbolist depth. His later paintings are full of grey-eyed women in increasingly abstract patterns or designs.

Symbolist poetry and painting was the new thing in the 1890s, paintings and poetry full of shimmering surfaces to be appreciated for their own beauty, without any straining after meaning. Like the intricate line drawings of Aubrey Beardsley where the style is much more important than the ‘subject matter’; or the ‘impressionist’ music of Claude Debussy.

Conrad hints as much in an oft-quoted passage right at the start, where the anonymous narrator is setting the scene and introducing Marlow:

The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.

In 1917 Conrad wrote prefaces to a new edition of his works, and wrote the following about Heart of Darkness, explicitly comparing it not to a tract, a fiction, even to a painting, but to music:

Heart of Darkness is experience, too; but it is experience pushed a little (and only a little) beyond the actual facts of the case for the perfectly legitimate, I believe, purpose of bringing it home to the minds and bosoms of the readers. There it was no longer a matter of sincere colouring. It was like another art altogether. That sombre tone had to be given a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration that, I hoped, would hang in the air and dwell on the ear after the last note had been struck.

In my opinion, you can write whole books about Conrad and Women, Conrad and Empire, Conrad and Race, and these will be interesting investigations, but all these approaches can (should?) be subsumed by a sensitive, receptive appreciation of the multiply-layered phrasing, of the styling and patterning of motifs and rhythms, tones and colours, words and clauses, sentences and paragraphs, of his grandiloquent and haunted prose style.

To appreciate it like a work of art or the intricate patterning of an exquisite piece of music. To penetrate to a deeper appreciation of the sheer sensual pleasure of this extraordinary text.


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

Youth by Joseph Conrad (1898)

Youth, the shortish short story (30 pages) Conrad completed in June 1898, sees the debut of Charles Marlow, Conrad’s alter-ego, the fictional narrator of this and his two most famous stories, Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. Marlow’s arrival marks a step change in the quality of Conrad’s work.

Marlow enforces discipline

Because the story is narrated by a character, not by the omniscient narrator he’d used in all his previous works, Conrad has to make a big effort to rein in the stylistic excesses I have described in previous posts. For example, Conrad’s short story The Return strikes me as being almost unbearable to read for its sustained note of manic hysteria. Conrad uses free indirect style to take us inside the mind of Alvan Hervey as his wife’s infidelity triggers what feels, trapped inside his head, like a nervous breakdown. In fact, this is just another outing for the hysterical, panic-stricken, horror-obsessed nihilism which characterises all of Conrad’s fiction up to this point.

It is with immense relief that one turns to Youth because this hysteria is reined right in and Conrad’s stylistic excesses, though still noticeable at moments, are in general held in abeyance in order to foreground the practical, no-nonsense voice of Charles Marlow.

Plot

The plot is simple. The 20-year-old Marlow is second mate on the Judea, contracted to take coal from Newcastle to Bangkok. The boat encounters a number of problems which repeatedly delay its departure from England, then it hits storms off Africa, and then the coal in the hold begins to spontaneously burn as they enter the Indian Ocean.

Eventually the crew are forced to abandon ship, and Marlow docks in the East having commanded a 14-foot ship’s boat and crew of two for the last week of the ill-fated journey.

Style

The style is blessedly restrained. Both the character of Marlow and the nature of the ‘story’ i.e. a detailed account of the maritime problems encountered by the ship – dictate a much more factual style than anything Conrad had previously written.

We had been pulling this finishing spell for eleven hours. Two pulled, and he whose turn it was to rest sat at the tiller. We had made out the red light in that bay and steered for it, guessing it must mark some small coasting port. We passed two vessels, outlandish and high-sterned, sleeping at anchor, and, approaching the light, now very dim, ran the boat’s nose against the end of a jutting wharf.

Shorter sentences. Fewer subordinate clauses. Much more factual content. A lot less tautology or redundancy. A blessed relief, though the old Conrad is still there, straining at the leash:

O youth! The strength of it, the faith of it, the imagination of it! To me she was not an old rattle-trap carting about the world a lot of coal for a freight—to me she was the endeavour, the test, the trial of life. I think of her with pleasure, with affection, with regret.

There was not a light, not a stir, not a sound. The mysterious East faced me, perfumed like a flower, silent like death, dark like a grave.

This was the East of the ancient navigators, so old, so mysterious, resplendent and somber, living and unchanged, full of danger and promise.

But the familiar lyricism, the repetition and apposition, is justified by the fundamental idea – that this is the character Marlow’s paean to the vividness and optimism of naive and romantic youth. Well, just about justified.

Framing device

Youth starts with the identical setting made famous by Heart of Darkness, i.e. after dinner in London five mature and successful men of the world who have all experienced the sea sit and smoke cigars, chatting. The anonymous narrator is one of them; he sets this scene, describes the audience a little, and then lets Marlow begin his tale.

The frame device, the tale-within-a-tale, does several things:

  • It distances the tale. No matter what happens we know that Marlow survived and is telling it to us now. Though we are caught up in the events he narrates, we are not actually lost in a moment-by-moment helter-skelter of hysteria with a totally unpredictable outcome, as we are in the key scenes of Almayer or An Outpost
  • Marlow is telling his tale to a suave and knowing audience. This has an important effect in toning down the hysterical style of the earlier novels and stories. Although Marlow is still given lines of improbable lyricism, Conrad is conscious of them, limits them, and excuses them – Marlow himself justifies them as he speaks them – because this is a tale of high spirits and boyish optimism.
  • Marlow is English. Unlike the protagonists of Almayer and Outcast and Outpost and Karain. It is as if hysteria is characteristic of the lesser Europeans, the Dutch and Belgians. Conrad emphasises Marlow’s Englishness by making him use the upper-class slang of the day – ‘Pon my soul’, ‘The deuce of a time’. And the Englishness of narrator and audience guarantees a sang-froid, the famous stiff upper-lip, which limits and disciplines Conrad. Enforces restraint. And his prose is all the more effective for it.

For those who like patterns, it is pretty that Conrad published Youth, Heart of Darkness and The End of The Tether in one volume in 1902 (Youth, A Narrative, and other tales) – one representing youth, one representing maturity, one representing old age.


Related links

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

Tales of Unrest by Joseph Conrad (1898)

After his first two novels Conrad turned to shorter forms, to novellas and short stories. He followed 1897’s novella, The Nigger of the Narcissus, with five short stories collected in 1898’s Tales of Unrest, being:

The Idiots

His first short story, written March 1896.

The Lagoon

What Conrad considered his first authentic short story, written in July 1896. A white man stops at a gloomy lagoon where a solitary Malay has his hut along with his woman. The woman is dying of fever. Through the night the Malay tells the story of their doomed love, how they ran away from the king and queen who owned her as a servant girl, how they were pursued, how his brother gave his life to save them. At dawn she dies and the man is left utterly bereft.

Quintessential Conrad – a tale of utter bleakness, told in lush, decadent, tropical prose.

An Outpost of Progress

Published in two parts in Cosmopolis magazine in June and July 1897, Conrad considered this his best short story.

It is set in the Congo, drawing on his experiences there seven years earlier, and strongly linked with Heart of Darkness i.e. pretty much the same plot. Two white men are left high up the river, deep in the Dark Continent, to run a trading station. They fall to pieces physically and mentally and the end comes when a group of African slavers steal away their native staff, leaving ivory tusks in payment.

Having lost their self-respect they go quickly downhill, bicker about nothing until, after a trivial argument, one shoots the other then hangs himself.

Conrad all over. The tropical setting; the complete degradation of the protagonists; the vision of futility; the lush prose.

It is a bit mind-boggling that ‘An Outpost’ appeared just at the moment of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, June and July 1897. On 22 June there was a vast procession of colourfully-dressed colonial subjects through London to an open air service outside St Paul’s cathedral. On 23 June the Queen met some young Indian princes. On 2 July the Queen surveyed her colonial troops at Windsor. Both the June and July editions of Cosmopolis included length celebrations of the greatness and benefits of Empire (some quoted in this article). The Times published Kipling’s great poem, Recessional, on 17 July.

And over exactly this same period, Conrad was publishing this bleak nihilistic tale. You wonder how he avoided being lynched!

The Return

Completed in early 1897. In his preface Conrad says he hated writing this story. Arrogant, successful middle-aged businessman Alvan Hervey returns on the Tube to his smart West London house to find a message from his wife saying she has left him for a magazine editor. He is devastated, his world collapses, everything he has valued is torn away from under him etc.

He is just starting to feel like all the turmoil which Conrad heroes usually luxuriate in, when his wife, embarrassingly, returns. She’s changed her mind!

How does Conrad make such a slight incident (man comes home, reads note, is unhappy, wife walks back in) last 60 pages?

With great torrents of prose describing Hervey’s anguish, mental collapse, fury, despair. Despite its untypical setting (London) it is classic overripe, hysterical Conrad, redolent of Strindberg or of a strung-out existentialist play like Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, Huis Clos.

Karain: A Memory

Published in Blackwoods Magazine in November 1897.

From the safety of Blighty the narrator remembers the days when he was a gun smuggler around the Malay archipelago. The striking figure of the native chief, Karain. Fine figure of a man. Everyone loved him. Yet he seemed somehow nervous. One stormy night (lol), he swims aboard the white trader’s schooner and tells them his story, viz:

A Dutch trader steals away a woman from his tribe. He and his best friend vow to track them down and erase the shame. For years they are on the trail together, travelling all over the archipelago in pursuit. But slowly the beautiful girl’s voice and then figure come to him in dreams and visions, talking, defending herself. Finally they find the Dutchman and the girl and his friend gives Karain a rifle and tells him to shoot the white man while he slays the girl with his dagger.

But, as his dearest, oldest friend leaps from the bushes to carry out this plan, Karain is overcome by the secret memory of the voice of the girl and her secret presence. Before he knows what he has done, he has shot his friend. He has spared the vile white man’s life. He gets away. But that night the girl’s voice doesn’t come to him. His friend’s voice and shape come to him. And from that night onwards he is pursued, followed, haunted…!

Conrad excelsis: a frame narrative around a tale of betrayal, despair and haunting.


Related links

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

Conrad’s style (3) the Nihilist worldview

In the previous post on Conrad’s style I looked at his use of repetition, trying to analyse or list out the different ways Conrad uses repetition to amplify and embellish his prose. In this post, I look at his bigger, structural use of repetition – and something of what that tells us about his overall purpose.

The repetitiveness of Conrad’s plots

Seems to me that the obsessive repetition we observe in Conrad’s fiction at the level of the sentence and paragraph is repeated in bigger structures ie in the plots or narratives of entire stories and novels. Again and again men are abandoned.

  • Almayer, abandoned, dies of despair in the heartless jungle.
  • Willems, abandoned, dies a bloody death in the heartless jungle.
  • The nigger of the Narcissus dies a lonely death at sea.
  • Arsat’s woman dies leaving him abandoned by tribe and family.
  • Karain is a haunted outcast, abandoned by his tribe, betrayer of his best friend.
  • Kurtz has left behind every vestige of civilisation and dies, abandoned, in the heart of darkness; and so on and on.

The plots’ sole purpose is to place the wretched protagonists in situations of abandonment and despair, conveyed in a prose which is obsessively compelled to repeat descriptions of the same desolations again and again. Not once but a hundred, a thousand times, Conrad is compelled to tell us just how meaningless life is, how hollow the conventions of ‘civilisation’ are, and how indifferent the heartless universe is to our wretched fates.

The repetition of Conrad’s Existentialist worldview

Because to read Conrad is to enter not only the richness of his exotic settings and lush descriptions, but to become quickly aware of a compelling and coercing worldview. The same ominous, existentialist, stricken nihilistic message is rammed home in almost every one of the longer, descriptive paragraphs. There is, in fact, a fair bit of tautologia in Conrad – being ‘The repetition of the same idea in different words, but (often) in a way that is wearisome or unnecessary’.

The white man came out of the hut in time to see the enormous conflagration of sunset put out by the swift and stealthy shadows that, rising like a black and impalpable vapor above the tree-tops, spread over the heaven, extinguishing the crimson glow of floating clouds and the red brilliance of departing daylight. In a few moments all the stars came out above the intense blackness of the earth, and the great lagoon gleaming suddenly with reflected lights resembled an oval patch of night-sky flung down into the hopeless and abysmal night of the wilderness. (Lagoon)

Over the lagoon a mist drifting and low had crept, erasing slowly the glittering images of the stars. And now a great expanse of white vapour covered the land: flowed cold and gray in the darkness, eddied in noiseless whirls round the tree-trunks and about the platform of the house, which seemed to float upon a restless and impalpable illusion of a sea; seemed the only thing surviving the destruction of the world by that undulating and voiceless phantom of a flood. Only far away the tops of the trees stood outlined on the twinkle of heaven, like a sombre and forbidding shore – a coast deceptive, pitiless and black. (Lagoon)

Arsat had not moved. In the searching clearness of crude sunshine he was still standing before the house, he was still looking through the great light of a cloudless day into the hopeless darkness of the world…” [Last words of The Lagoon]

He had plumbed in one short afternoon the depths of horror and despair, and now found repose in the conviction that life had no more secrets for him: neither had death! (Outpost)

It was the very essence of anguish stripped of words that can be smiled at, argued away, shouted down, disdained. It was anguish naked and unashamed, the bare pain of existence let loose upon the world in the fleeting unreserve of a look that had in it an immensity of fatigue, the scornful sincerity, the black impudence of an extorted confession. (Return)

With a short thrill he saw himself an exiled forlorn figure in a realm of ungovernable, of unrestrained folly. Nothing could be foreseen, foretold—guarded against. And the sensation was intolerable, had something of the withering horror that may be conceived as following upon the utter extinction of all hope. (Return)

He remembered all the streets—the well-to-do streets he had passed on his way home; all the innumerable houses with closed doors and curtained windows. Each seemed now an abode of anguish and folly. (Return)

To-morrow had come; the mysterious and lying to-morrow that lures men, disdainful of love and faith, on and on through the poignant futilities of life to the fitting reward of a grave. (Return)

The revelation was terrible. He saw at once that nothing of what he knew mattered in the least. The acts of men and women, success, humiliation, dignity, failure—nothing mattered. (Return)

Never, never before, did this land, this river, this jungle, the very arch of this blazing sky, appear to me so hopeless and so dark, so impenetrable to human thought, so pitiless to human weakness. (Heart)

Droll thing life is—that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. (Heart)

Conrad’s Repetition Compulsion: a Freudian interpretation 

It’s a basic idea of Freud’s that a range of symptoms of human behaviour, speech and thought are determined by early childhood traumas which our conscious minds repress but which have such overwhelming power that they seek to rise again into the conscious mind; and that the struggle of the conscious mind to control and suppress these feelings leads to peculiar and repeated types of behaviour or speech; in some people these expressions go beyond the bounds of ‘normality’ to become  neuroses, obsessions, hysterias. Thus, according to Freud, the suppressed content returns, disguised, in dreams, in jokes, in obsessive patterns of behaviour, in verbal (Freudian) slips, in the taboos of primitive societies and the religious rituals of more ‘advanced’ cultures.

When you learn (from Wikipedia) that Conrad’s father was condemned to exile by the Russian authorities for his Polish patriotic views, that he grew up in a gloomy exiled household dominated by the failure of his father’s Romantic hopes, and that first his mother died (when Conrad was 7) and then his father (when the boy was 11) – then you don’t have to be Dr Freud understand why so much of Conrad’s fiction is drenched in obsessive, compulsive repetitions of this primal childhood abandoning, an abandonment so complete as to dominate almost every sentence he wrote, and to set the deeply pessimistic tone and dictate the forlorn plots of almost all his fictions.

Conrad and Freud

  • Conrad was born in 1857. Freud in 1856.
  • Freud had the conceptual breakthrough which led to his theories in 1895, the same year Conrad published his first novel.
  • Both were uber-civilised, central European gentlemen driven to find prose outlets for their devastatingly nihilistic and pessimistic views of human nature.
  • Were they twins, secretly separated at birth?

The Europeanness of Conrad’s temperament stands out even more when you compare him with two Englishmen born in 1857 – Edward Elgar and Robert Baden-Powell. For subtlety, intelligence and culture, Conrad has vastly more in common with the Austrian doctor than with the composer of the Pomp & Circumstance marches or the founder of the Boy Scouts.


Related links

Conrad’s style (2) Repetition

The fear and fascination, the inspiration and the wonder of death—of death near, unavoidable, and unseen, soothed the unrest of his race and stirred the most indistinct, the most intimate of his thoughts. The ever-ready suspicion of evil, the gnawing suspicion that lurks in our hearts, flowed out into the stillness round him—into the stillness profound and dumb, and made it appear untrustworthy and infamous, like the placid and impenetrable mask of an unjustifiable violence. In that fleeting and powerful disturbance of his being the earth enfolded in the starlight peace became a shadowy country of inhuman strife, a battle-field of phantoms terrible and charming, august or ignoble, struggling ardently for the possession of our helpless hearts. An unquiet and mysterious country of inextinguishable desires and fears. (The Lagoon)

Repetition is an absolutely essential element of Conrad’s style. Why use one word when you can use two? ‘Black and dull’, ‘writhing and motionless’, ‘thick and sombre’, ‘fear and fascination’, ‘profound and dumb’, ‘untrustworthy and infamous’… And why use one pair of words when you can double up and use two phrases of paired words? ‘The fear and fascination, the inspiration and the wonder…’

Rhetoricians down the ages have categorised many different types of repetition (they are usefully summarised on this webpage from Brigham Young University) and it is quite entertaining to try and identify the types of repetition Conrad uses:

Apposition is the rhetorical term for when one noun or phrase is placed next to another to explain or amplify it. It’s a key aspect of the Conrad style – the extra clause, qualifying and expanding the original word or clause, adding to the length and musicality of the sentence, helping to create the sense of depth and lushness of description; or to expand his nihilistic phrases into long sequences which emphasise the sense of all-encompassing doominess and entrapment.

…the earth enfolded in the starlight peace became a shadowy country of inhuman strife, a battle-field of phantoms terrible and charming… (Lagoon)

Darkness oozed out from between the trees, through the tangled maze of the creepers, from behind the great fantastic and unstirring leaves… (Lagoon)

…stirred the most indistinct, the most intimate of his thoughts… (Lagoon)

The ever-ready suspicion of evil, the gnawing suspicion… (Lagoon)

The earth … became a shadowy country of inhuman strife, a battle-field of phantoms… (Lagoon)

Synonymia ‘The use of several synonyms together to amplify or explain a given subject or term. A kind of repetition that adds emotional force or intellectual clarity.’

…the contact with pure unmitigated savagery, with primitive nature and primitive man… (Outpost)

The fear and fascination, the inspiration and the wonder [of death]… (Lagoon)

Outside the big doorway of the street they scattered in all directions, walking away fast from one another… (Return)

They were both unable to look at a fact, a sentiment, a principle, or a belief otherwise than in the light of their own dignity, of their own glorification, of their own advantage. (Return)

Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of every clause:

…and as it was utterly faithless, as it contained no new thought, as it never by any chance had a flash of wit, satire, or indignation in its pages, he judged it respectable. (Return)

…the darkness, mysterious and invincible; the darkness scented and poisonous… (Lagoon)

Therefore I shall speak to you of love. Speak in the night. Speak before both night and love are gone – and the eye of day looks upon my sorrow and my shame; upon my blackened face; upon my burnt-up heart. (Lagoon)

A rumour powerful and gentle, a rumour vast and faint; the rumour of trembling leaves, of stirring boughs ran through the tangled depths of the forests, ran over the starry smoothness of the lagoon…

A plaintive murmur rose in the night; a murmur saddening and startling… (Lagoon)

High above his head, high above the silent sea of mist… (Lagoon)

… stirred the most indistinct, the most intimate of his thoughts… (Lagoon)

… he was still standing before the house, he was still looking…

…the fear, subtle, indestructible, and terrible, that pervades his being; that tinges his thoughts; that lurks in his heart; that watches on his lips the struggle of his last breath. (Outpost)

He thought it must be a horrible illusion; he thought he was dreaming; he thought he was going mad! (Outpost)

The day had come, and a heavy mist had descended upon the land: the mist penetrating, enveloping, and silent; the morning mist of tropical lands; the mist that clings and kills; the mist white and deadly, immaculate and poisonous. (Outpost)

…and their eyes, quick or slow; their eyes gazing up the dusty steps; their eyes brown, black, gray, blue, had all the same stare… (Return)

… with the hurried air of men fleeing from something compromising; from familiarity or confidences; from something suspected and concealed… (Return)

His face was set, was hard, was woodenly exulting… (Return)

He had made up his mind to eat, to talk, to be natural. (Return)

The years would pass, and . . . The years would pass . . . And then… The years would pass in the anguish of doubt . . . The years would pass and he would always mistrust her smile . . . The years would pass… (Return)

The years would pass—and he would have to live with that unfathomable candour where flit shadows of suspicions and hate . . . The years would pass—and he would never know—never trust . . . The years would pass without faith and love. . . . (Return)

She had a mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering. (Heart)

Anadiplosis is repetition of the last word of a preceding clause at the beginning of the next one:

…the inspiration and the wonder of death – of death near, unavoidable and unseen…

…they felt themselves very much alone, when suddenly left unassisted to face the wilderness; a wilderness rendered more strange, more incomprehensible by the mysterious glimpses of the vigorous life it contained.

The courage, the composure, the confidence; the emotions and principles; every great and every insignificant thought belongs not to the individual but to the crowdto the crowd that believes blindly in the irresistible force of its institutions and of its morals…

A man may destroy everything within himself, love and hate and belief, and even doubt; but as long as he clings to life he cannot destroy fear: the fear, subtle, indestructible, and terrible…

… into the stillness round him – into the stillness profound and dumb… (Lagoon)

He sat by the corpse thinking; thinking very actively, thinking very new thoughts.

This intense desire of secrecy; of secrecy dark, destroying, profound… (Return)

I tried to break the spell—the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness… (Heart)

Scesis onomaton – A series of successive, synonymous expressions. Conrad employs this category of repetition liberally.

…out of the great silence of the surrounding wilderness, its very hopelessness and savagery seemed to approach them nearer, to draw them gently, to look upon them, to envelop them with a solicitude irresistible, familiar, and disgusting. (Outpost)

…he will begin this horror again to-morrow—and the day after—every day—raise other pretensions, trample on me, torture me, make me his slave. (Outpost)

His old thoughts, convictions, likes and dislikes, things he respected and things he abhorred, appeared in their true light at last! (Outpost)

…that one death could not possibly make any difference; couldn’t have any importance… (Outpost)

Society was calling to its accomplished child to come, to be taken care of, to be instructed, to be judged, to be condemned… (Outpost)

She had her desire—the desire to get away from under the paternal roof, to assert her individuality, to move in her own set… (Return)

…a distinct failure, on his part, to see, to guard, to understand. (Return)

Nothing could be foreseen, foretold—guarded against. (Return)

…and then came the idea, the persuasion, the certitude, that the evil must be forgotten—must be resolutely ignored… (Return)

There was an utter unreserve in her aspect, an abandonment of safeguards, that ugliness of truth… (Return)

The glamour of youth enveloped his particolored rags, his destitution, his loneliness, the essential desolation of his futile wanderings. (Heart)

… the crowd … flowed out of the woods, filled the clearing, covered the slope … (Heart)

…the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams. (Heart)

Triplets Sets of three, specifically three adjectives, giving a rolling, grand affect to your rhetoric. Mostly the adjectives are consonant, developing the same thought – but sometimes a set of three can be used to create a dissonant affect when one or more are unexpected.

…a solicitude irresistible, familiar, and disgusting. (Outpost)

…death near, unavoidable, and unseen…

…a coast deceptive, pitiless and black. (Lagoon)

…as if in the presence of something undreamt-of, dangerous, and final.  (Outpost)

…the mist penetrating, enveloping, and silent… (Outpost)

A shriek inhuman, vibrating and sudden… (Outpost)

He felt the destructive breath, the mysterious breath, the breath of passion, stir the profound peace of the house. (Return)

Their air of wooden unconcern struck him as unnatural, suspicious, irremediably hostile (Return)

… thoughts disintegrating, tormenting, sapping… (Return)

His very existence was improbable, inexplicable, and altogether bewildering. (Heart)

I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear… (Heart)

I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror… (Heart)

In the third post on Conrad’s style I look at his use of repetition in the structure of his stories and how this can be psychologically interpreted.


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Conrad’s style (1) Decadence and foreignness

The narrow creek was like a ditch: tortuous, fabulously deep; filled with gloom under the thin strip of pure and shining blue of the heaven. Immense trees soared up, invisible behind the festooned draperies of creepers. Here and there, near the glistening blackness of the water, a twisted root of some tall tree showed amongst the tracery of small ferns, black and dull, writhing and motionless, like an arrested snake. The short words of the paddlers reverberated loudly between the thick and sombre walls of vegetation. Darkness oozed out from between the trees, through the tangled maze of the creepers, from behind the great fantastic and unstirring leaves; the darkness, mysterious and invincible; the darkness scented and poisonous of impenetrable forests.

This passage from Conrad’s first short story, The Lagoon (1896), demonstrates some key elements of his prose style:

Lush descriptions

Conrad is addicted to adjectives – tortuous, immense, festooned, glistening, writhing, sombre, arrested etc. The insistent use of adjectives at every opportunity creates a richness and sumptuousness of texture which reminds you that this is the 1890s, the yellow decade, the period when Oscar Wilde wore jackets made of green velvet and even Conan Doyle characters live in plush luxury.

it is noticeable that many of the adjectives or adverbs are vivid or extreme: fabulously, immense, pure, writhing, fantastic, poisonous, impenetrable. There’s a definite fin-de-siecle decadence, an aromatic heaviness of description, about Conrad’s lexicon.

Over and above the influence of the period, the lushness seems appropriate to the subject matter ie the steaming, hot, tropical jungle which is the setting for almost all Conrad’s early stories.

In the famous preface to the The Nigger of the “Narcissus” Conrad says his overwhelming task is to make the reader see.

My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see.

This has been taken as a manifesto of literary impressionism. I’ve never understood how this is particularly different from any other novelist who writes descriptive passages. What does single Conrad out is the length and repetitiveness of his descriptions. Over a long distance this creates a heavy, clotted atmosphere, and contributes to his Author’s Message of Doom and Abandonment. The claustrophobia of imagery and the hysteria of psychology makes me think much more of north European Expressionism than sunny southern Impressionism. More Munch Scream than Monet Waterlilies.

Similes

As his qualifiers tend to be extreme, so Conrad’s similes tend to make comparisons with grand, colourful and rich objects. It is part of the process of expansion or amplification. To be honest, he doesn’t use similes that often, but when he does they’re rich.

…a signal fire gleams like a jewel on the high brow of a sombre cliff. (Karain)

green islets scattered through the calm of noonday lie upon the level of a polished sea, like a handful of emeralds on a buckler of steel. (Karain)

The gold head flashed like a falling star… (Karain)

Dried palm-leaf roofs shone afar, like roofs of gold. (Karain)

His sentences complicated like arabesques… (Karain)

gaslights stretched far away in long lines, like strung-up beads of fire. (Return)

The very mist on the Essex marshes was like a gauzy and radiant fabric… (Heart)

The ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time… (Heart)

The fact dazzling, like the foam on the depths of the sea, like a ripple on an unfathomable enigma… (Heart)

Long sentences

Though he can write short sentences where necessary, and for unexpected punchiness, the typical Conrad sentence is long, sometimes a paragraph long. They are built up from multiple clauses, often placed in apposition ie describing the same noun or noun phrase, approaching the same subject from different angles. Eg ‘tortuous, fabulously deep’ and ‘filled with gloom’ in the passage above both describe the ditch; ‘black and dull’ and ‘writhing and motionless’ both describe ‘a twisted root’. More about apposition in my post about Conrad and repetition.

Un-English phraseology

‘Under the thin strip of pure and shining blue of the heaven’ is not how a native English-speaker would phrase this. Conrad admits somewhere that he didn’t write in French because he knew it too well; he knew the rules and wouldn’t be able to break them. Whereas English is much more flexible and idiomatic than French and so allowed him to stretch rules, creating new phrases, denting existing ones. For example:

  • The house which seemed to float upon a restless and impalpable illusion of a sea. (Lagoon)
  • Each had a bedstead and a mosquito net for all furniture. (Outpost)
  • He had been, at home, an unsuccessful painter who, weary of pursuing fame on an empty stomach, had gone out there through high protections. (Outpost)
  • On his passage voices died out as though he had walked guarded by silence. Surely we’d say, As he passed… (Karain)
  • A puff of breeze made a flash of darkness on the smooth water. (Karain)
  • …one could not imagine what depth of horrible void such an elaborate front could be worthy to hide. (Karain)
  • This fit of hot anger was succeeded by a sudden sadness, by the darkening passage of a thought that ran over the scorched surface of his heart, like upon a barren plain, and after a fiercer assault of sunrays, the melancholy and cooling shadow of a cloud. (Return)
  • Often far away there I thought of these two.. (Heart)
  • ‘A simple formality,’ assured me the secretary… (Heart)
  • In exterior he resembled a butcher in a poor neighborhood… (Heart)
  • Ah! but it was something to have at least a choice of nightmares. (Heart)
  • …as if to devour all the earth with all its mankind. (Heart)

On every page of Conrad there are one or two phrases which aren’t quite correct, giving the sensitive reader a continual, slight feeling of disconnect and foreignness.

Backplacing adjectives

Adjectives in English generally come before the noun they describe. Only a handful specifically don’t. But a big aspect of Conrad’s unEnglish phraseology is the way he routinely puts adjectives after the noun. Why? it gives him the freedom to pile up two or three adjectives after a given noun or noun phrase, thus adding to the sumptuous repetitiveness which is key to his style.

…faces dark, truculent, and smiling… (Karain)

…men barefooted, well armed and noiseless… (Karain)

…a coast deceptive, pitiless and black… (Karain)

…the water slept invisible, unstirring and mute… (Lagoon)

…the glitter of stars streaming, ceaseless and vain… (Lagoon)

This tripling of adjectives placed after the noun is just one type of repetition, a technique I address more fully in the next post.


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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’.


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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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