The Journey To The East by Hermann Hesse (1932)

A slender novella, 88 pages in the Picador paperback version, The Journey To The East is a first-person narrative told by a former member of the secretive ‘League’ of poets, writers and seekers who, in their different ways, all undertook journeys to the East in ‘the troubled, confused, yet so fruitful period following the Great War’ (p.5).

What sets it apart, at least to begin with, is that it is nothing like a sensible factual account of a straightforward ‘journey’ such as you might read by traditional travel writers like Robert Byron or Peter Fleming.

Instead it is more like a fairy story, in which the ‘travellers’ encounter legendary figures and mythical beasts, pass through fictional lands from fables and fairy tales, and travel not only in space, but in time – back into the past, penetrating ‘into the heroic and the magical’ (p.7).

One day, when I was still quite a new member, someone suddenly mentioned that the giant Agramant was a guest in our leaders’ tent, and was trying to persuade them to make their way across Africa in order to liberate some League members from Moorish captivity. Another time we saw the Goblin, the pitch-maker, the comforter, and we presumed that we should make our way towards the Blue Pot.

The giant Agramant, the Goblin. It is fairy land.

Despite these imaginative frills, though, the League feels like a Christian monastic order – casual phrases continually remind the reader that Hesse had an intensely pious Christian upbringing, against which he rebelled but whose stern moral seriousness he kept for the rest of his life.

Thus newcomers to the League are ‘novitiates’, must take an ‘oath’ to renounce the world and its temptations, must wear a ring proclaiming their membership of the order. The journey is referred to as a ‘pilgrimage’ and the travellers as ‘pilgrims’. The leader of the narrator’s group talks freely about ‘grace’ and ‘repentance’, both utterly Christian concepts.

But at the same time it is a phantasmagoria of all the cultural greats through the ages:

Our League was in no way an off-shoot of the post-war years, but that it had extended throughout the whole of world history, sometimes, to be sure, under the surface, but in an unbroken line, that even certain phases of the World War were nothing else but stages in the history of our League; further, that Zoroaster, Lao Tse, Plato, Xenophon, Pythagoras, Albertus Magnus, Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, Novalis and Baudelaire were co-founders and brothers of our League.

This is a kind of greatest hits of world culture. And the way the ‘pilgrims’ travel is both a physical path or itinerary, very much in the style of medieval pilgrims –

And as we moved on, so had once pilgrims, emperors and crusaders moved on to liberate the Saviour’s grave, or to study Arabian magic; Spanish knights had traveled this way, as well as German scholars, Irish monks and French poets.

But also an imaginative one, as they travel through realms of magic and myth, experiencing not only all times, but the real and the imaginary on the same terms.

The core of the experience, the thing which, looking back, the narrator realises brought him the greatest happiness, was:

The freedom to experience everything imaginable simultaneously, to exchange outward and inward easily, to move Time and Space about like scenes in a theatre.

When you reflect on this, it sounds increasingly like the adventures of someone in their library – with the leisure time to roam freely over time and space, and between factual and imaginative literature.

The plot

The first-person narrator is ‘a violinist and story-teller’ who joined the League with the aim of travelling to the East to meet the princess Fatima and, if possible, to win her love (we learn that all League members have quirky or idiosyncratic goals, one wants to see the coffin of Mohammed, another to learn the Tao).

But the oddest thing about the story is that… they don’t travel to the East. About a third of the way through the text, the narrator tells us that at an early point of the journey, while they were still in Europe, at a place called Morbio Inferiore, a municipality in Switzerland, one of his team’s most loyal servants, Leo, goes missing, so the entire squad sets out to find him, searching up hill and dale.

Not only do they never find him, but his group begins to squabble amongst itself, loses focus. Somehow the journey was abandoned and he never made it to the East. Now, we learn, the narrator is struggling to set it all down in a written account, in a bid to revive the heady joy of those young days.

Now the narrative cuts to ‘the present’, some ten years after the journey. The narrator tells us it is a long time since he was active in the League, he doesn’t know whether it exists any more, he’s not sure it ever existed and these things ever happened to him.

And now the narrator tells us that the episode of missing Leo has given him writer’s block, he doesn’t know how to tell the episode correctly, and can’t manage to get the story past it.

And in an abrupt and surprising switch, the narrative stops being about any journey to the East whatsoever.

Now, surprisingly, the scene cuts back to the narrator’s home town and becomes spectacularly more realistic and mundane. To address his problem of writer’s block, the narrator goes to meet a friend of his who’s a newspaper editor, named Lukas, and who wrote a successful book of war memoirs.

Discussion of the war memoirs gives rise to a consideration of how difficult it is to describe any human experience, at how you need to create eras or characters or plots to even begin to get it down.

Even further than this, how some experiences are so intense or evanescent, that you can’t even be sure you had them. In which case, how do you describe them? Lukas replies that he wrote his book about the war because he simply had to, whether it was any good or not was secondary, the writing itself was vital therapy, which helped him control ‘the nothingness, chaos and suicide’ which would otherwise have overwhelmed him (p.46)

So. This is less a book about a journey anywhere, and a lot more a book about the difficulty of writing a book. Ah.

When the narrator tells Lukas how, in writing his account of the journey to the East, he’s got blocked on this episode of the missing servant, Leo, Lukas promptly looks Leo up in the telephone directory and finds there is a Andreas Leo living at 69a Seilergraben. Maybe it’s the same guy, he says – as if we’re in a 1930s detective novel and not the imaginative phantasmagoria we started out in. ‘Go and see him,’ the editor suggests.

So the narrator does, and finds 69a Seilergraben to be an apartment in an anonymous building in a quiet street. The narrator knocks on the door, questions the neighbours, hangs around, and goes back on successive days. Finally he sees this Leo exit his apartment block and walk quietly to the park where he sits on a bench and eats dried fruit from a tin.

This is not at all the mystical imaginative phantasmagoria I was promised on the back of the book, is it? This is staggeringly mundane.

The narrator approaches Leo, and tries to remind him of their time back in the League and on the great journey East which, the text confirms, happened some 10 years earlier. But Leo is calmly dismissive and walks off, leaving the narrator standing alone in the park as dusk falls, in the rain.

Now he is rejected like this, we learn the narrator is prone to depression, in fact to despair and thoughts of suicide.

I had experienced similar hours in the past. During such periods of despair it seemed to me as if I, a lost pilgrim, had reached the extreme edge of the world, and there was nothing left for me to do but to satisfy my last desire: to let myself fall from the edge of the world into the void — to death. In the course of time this despair returned many times; the compelling suicidal impulse…

In other words, he shows the same bouncing from one to extreme to the other that characterised the Steppenwolf and his moods of suicidal despair. And very like the author himself, a glance at whose biography reveals attempts at suicide, prolonged psychotherapy, and a spell in a mental sanatorium.

The narrator gets home and sits down, still damp from the rain and writes a long letter to Leo, then falls asleep. When he wakes up Leo, is sitting in his living room. Leo reveals he is still a member of the League and says he will take the narrator to see the current President. Leo leads him through the streets of the quiet town by a circuitous route, stopping at various inconsequential locations including a church, to an anonymous building, which is large and labyrinthine on the inside (reminding me of the labyrinthine buildings Franz Kafka’s protagonists stumble through).

The narrator is led into an enormous room full of shelves lined with books which turn out to be the archive the League. Leo suddenly starts singing and, as in movie special effects, the archive recedes into the distance and in the foreground appears a large judgement chamber.

A jury assembles and a ‘Speaker’, who acts like a judge. It has turned into a sort of court-room, which makes the comparison with Kafka feel overwhelming – a confused little man dragged to judgement before a huge, imposing court which he doesn’t understand. The essence of the Kafkaesque.

For the first time the narrator is named as ‘H.H.’. H.H.? So a barely veiled reference to the author himself which, yet again, could barely be more like the Kafka who named his two most famous protagonists K. and Joseph K. with his own initial.

The ‘Speaker’ refers to H.H. as ‘the self-accused’ and asks him:

‘Is your name H.H.? Did you join in the march through Upper Swabia, and in the festival at Bremgarten? Did you desert your colours shortly after Morbio Inferiore? Did you confess that you wanted to write a story of the Journey to the East? Did you consider yourself hampered by your vow of silence about the League’s secrets?’
I answered question after question with ‘Yes’…

So I was expecting H.H. to get hammered, but, surprisingly, he is now given permission to go right ahead and write a full account of the League and all its laws.

He is handed a copy of the manuscript of the Journey he had been working on and which had got bogged down at that moment when Leo left the group. But now, when he rereads it, he feels it is bodged, clumsy, inaccurate and – further – as he tries to amend it, he watches the letters change shape, become patterns and pictures, illegible, the entire manuscript changes form in front of his eyes.

Rather improbably, the Speaker gives him free run of the immense archive to research his book, which leads to a passage where H.H. rummages through the archives to find records about his friends and then himself, but finds the records written in strange languages and arcane scripts. Slowly he realises there isn’t enough time in the world to go through this immense and probably infinite library.

From all sides the unending spaciousness of the archive chamber confronted me eerily. A new thought, a new pain shot threw me like a flash of lightning. I, in my simplicity, wanted to write the story of the League, I, who could not decipher or understand one-thousandth part of those millions of scripts, books, pictures and references in the archives! Humbled, unspeakably foolish, unspeakably ridiculous, not understanding myself, feeling extremely small, I saw myself standing in the midst of this thing with which I had been allowed to play a little in order to make me realize what the League was and what I was myself.

the court magically re-assembles, with the Speaker presiding. Now we learn that this little episode was a further step in H.H.’s trial, to show him how vain and presumptuous his aim of writing a history of the league was. The Speaker asks if he is ready for the verdict on him, and whether he wants it delivered by the Speaker or the President himself.

In a surreal development, the grand figure who emerges from the bloom of the archive hall turns out to be none other than… Leo! The Leo he had followed into the party, who is himself the Leo who was his group’s servant on the Journey and now he comes to think about it, was the same President who initiated him into the League and gave him his ring.

H.H. is covered in shame and confusion. To think that he could write a history of the League. To think that he had imagined the League had ended or had never existed. Now Leo recounts H.H.s sins against the League. Forgetting about its existence. Losing his League ring. Even their long walk through the town had been a test because H.H. should have gone into the church and worshipped, as is fitting, instead of standing outside locked in his impatient egotism. It is his egotism which made him deny the League and sink into a world plagued with depression and despair.

Again, as in so many of Hesse’s books, which you imagine will be about Eastern philosophy, the most eloquent passages are about misery and despair. Leo tells the jury how H.H.s loss of faith in the League led him down into the pit, and delivers some puzzling lines:

‘The defendant did not know until this hour, or could not really believe, that his apostasy and aberration were a test. For a long time he did not give in. He endured it for many years, knowing nothing about the League, remaining alone, and seeing everything in which he believed in ruins. Finally, he could no longer hide and contain himself. His suffering became too great, and you know that as soon as suffering becomes acute enough, one goes forward. Brother H. was led to despair in his test, and despair is the result of each earnest attempt to understand and vindicate human life. Despair is the result of each earnest attempt to go through life with virtue, justice and understanding and to fulfill their requirements. Children live on one side of despair, the awakened on the other side. Defendant H. is no longer a child and is not yet fully awakened. He is still in the midst of despair.’

So: Despair is what you enter when you are no longer a child, when you become a questing adult, and before you are initiated or awakened.

Now President Leo initiates H.H. for a second time, giving him a replacement ring and welcoming him back into the ranks of the League.

This really is nothing at all about any literal Journey To The East, is it? It is about adventures of the spirit, or maybe psychological experiences, in a quiet Swiss town.

Now the President leads H.H. to the final test. He is shown the League archives about himself. Specifically, he is shown several other accounts written by members of his group or party on his Journey of ten years ago. Here he is horrified to read that it is he, H.H. that the other members of the group blamed for Leo’s disappearance, for accusing Leo of having taken key documents with him, it was he, H.H. who was blamed by the rest of the group for spreading dissension.

He learns something about trying to write ‘the truth’ (something which is, to be blunt, fairly obvious), which is that everyone has a different account of what happened, and no ‘truth’ can ever be arrived at.

If the memory of this historian was so very confused and inaccurate, although he apparently made the report in all good faith and with the conviction of its complete veracity – what was the value of my own notes? If ten other accounts by other authors were found about Morbio, Leo and myself, they would presumably all contradict and censure each other.

No, our historical efforts were of no use; there was no point in continuing with them and reading them; one could quietly let them be covered with dust in this section of the archives. ..

How awry, altered and distorted everything and everyone was in these mirrors, how mockingly and unattainably did the face of truth hide itself behind all these reports, counter-reports and legends! What was still truth? What was still credible ?

The final few pages end on an enigmatic moment and symbol. Tucked away in the shelf where his records are stored, he finds a grotesque little statuette, like a pagan idol. Only slowly does he realise it is two-sided, shows two human figures joined at the back. And then slowly makes out that one is a depiction of himself, with blurred features, weak and dying. And as he lights another candle he sees something stirring in the heart of the glass statuette, and realises that some kind of life force is moving from his half of the statuette over into Leo’s

And in the last few sentences of the book he remembers a conversation he had with the servant Leo on the Journey, ten years earlier, amid a wonderful festival early in the journey, where Leo had explained that a pet or writer drains himself in order to give eternal life to his work, just as a mother suckles a baby and gives the babe life, at her own expense. So the poet.

And on this slightly ominous, pregnant image the book ends. The narrator feels very sleepy. He turns to find somewhere to sleep. Maybe enacting exactly the gesture whereby the poet, writer or maker, gives all their spirit and life force to their creation and then expires.

Thoughts

Well, it turns out not to be a literal Journey To The East in the slightest. Anyone expecting a straightforward narrative of a pilgrimage to India will be disappointed and puzzled.

However, anyone familiar with Hesse will be less surprised by its combination of the strangely mundane and the wildly phantasmagorical. This is the same combination as in Steppenwolf, which evolved from being a dull account of a middle-aged boarder in a provincial boarding house into the giddy surrealism of the Magic Theatre.

And Steppenwolf also covered a similar range of emotional or psychological states – to be more precise, it displayed a similar, almost schizophrenic, tendency to jump between extremes of Despair and the giddy heights of ecstatic imaginative delirium.

I had this impression of Hesse as being a lofty propounder of high-minded Eastern philosophy. I wasn’t prepared to encounter so many characters who were so full of despair, self-loathing and so many discussions of suicide.

And I’m still reeling from the way the book is not about a Journey To The East at all; it’s much more about the psychological adventures or journey of a middle-aged man living in a Swiss town. All the key events happen in the narrator’s mind. It is a psychological odyssey.

Building a universe

It’s a small detail, but it’s interesting that Hesse includes among fellow members of the League, not only some of his real-life friends, but characters from his other books.

Thus the character ‘Goldmund’, one of the two leads in Narziss and Goldmund, crops up in his initial memories of the Journey, as does the painter Klingsor, who is the fictional lead of Hesse’s earlier novel Klingsor’s Last Summer.

And when I started reading Hesse’s final novel, The Glass Bead Game, early in the introduction the narrator mentions the League of Journeyers To The East as forerunners of the game. Hesse was quite obviously creating a kind of larger imaginative canon, an imaginarium, in which characters not only from history, not only actual writers and composers, along with mythical and legendary figures, but figures from his own earlier fictions, could meet and mingle on equal terms.


Images of war in The Journey To The East

I am always interested in the social history revealed by older texts. It is striking that Hesse doesn’t just launch straight into his fairy-tale journey, but feels the need to define the times, the era, the period against which his pilgrim is reacting, and that he defines these times by repeated references to the social, economic, cultural and spiritual chaos following Germany’s defeat in the Great War.

Ours have been remarkable times, this period since the World War, troubled and confused, yet, despite this, fertile…

It was shortly after the World War, and the beliefs of the conquered nations were in an extraordinary state of unreality. There was a readiness to believe in things beyond reality…

Have we not just had the experience that a long, horrible, monstrous war has been forgotten, gainsaid, distorted and dismissed by all nations? And now that they have had a short respite, are not the same nations trying to recall by means of exciting war novels what they themselves caused and endured a few years ago?…

At the time that I had the good fortune to join the League – that is, immediately after the end of the World War – our country was full of saviors, prophets, and disciples, of presentiments about the end of the world, or hopes for the dawn of a Third Reich. Shattered by the war, in despair as a result of deprivation and hunger, greatly disillusioned by the seeming futility of all the sacrifices in blood and goods, our people at that time were lured by many phantoms, but there were also many real spiritual advances. There were Bacchanalian dance societies and Anabaptist groups, there was one thing after another that seemed to point to what was wonderful and beyond the veil. There was also at that time a widespread leaning towards Indian, ancient Persian and other Eastern mysteries and religions…

His name is Lukas. He had taken part in the World War and had published a book about it which had a large circulation…

And indeed, from a structural point of view, this editor, Lukas, is included mainly for the discussion he promotes about the struggle he had to write his memoirs of the war, and his eventual conclusion that it was better to write something rather than nothing – even if untrue or less than perfect – if only because the act of writing was so therapeutic and saved him from terrible feelings of despair and suicide.

I’m doing no more than suggest that Hesse, who is generally thought of as a kind of high-minded explorer of timeless values was, in fact, very much a man of his times, and that his thinking was marked and shaped by the great cataclysm which he and his nation lived through just as much as all the other authors of the Weimar period.

Credit

Die Morgenlandfahrt by Hermann Hesse was published in German in 1932. The English translation by Hilda Rosner was published by Peter Owen Ltd in 1956. All references are to the 1995 Picador paperback edition.


Related links

20th century German literature

The Weimar Republic

German history

An Outcast of The Islands by Joseph Conrad (1896)

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

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

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

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

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

Plot 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Conrad the most miserable novelist in English?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie 

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


Related link

Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ by Joseph Conrad (1897)

In August 1897, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee year, a few months after Captains Courageous was published in book form,  Joseph Conrad’s novella ‘The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’‘ began to appear in The New Review. (This was a literary journal edited by WE Henley, major editor and minor poet, remembered for his poem Invictus, quoted by Nelson Mandela upon his release from prison and so used as the title of a recent movie about South Africa. Henley was an important player in 1890s literature. As editor of the Scots Observer he’d brought Robert Louis Stevenson to national attention. After Stevenson surprised the literary world by decamping to the South Seas, Henley was the first in London to recognise The Next Big Thing – Kipling – and helped him establish his reputation by publishing the Barrack Room Ballads in 1892.)

The Nigger is a novella, only 140 pages in the Penguin edition, a study of men isolated on a merchant ship on a long sea voyage who live through a terrifying storm which pitches the ship right onto its side and nearly drowns them all. It is directly comparable in length, publication date and subject matter to Kipling’s Captains Courageous.

Both books are, frankly, hard to read, but for different reasons. Kipling is concerned to show you he has mastered the terminology of sea fishing, so his text is stuffed with technical terms. When he’s not showing off his expertise, his characters are talking in a phonetically rendered version of New England fisherman slang which is almost unreadable:

“‘Ver’ good. Ver’ good don,’ said Manuel ‘After supper I show you a little schooner I make, with all her ropes. So we shall learn.’ ‘Fust-class fer a passenger,’ said Dan, ‘Dad he’s jest allowed you be wuth your salt maybe fore you’re kaownded. Thet’s a heap fer Dad. I learn you more our next watch together.” (Chapter 3)

In terms of meaning or purpose, Kipling’s book is a ‘coming of age’ tale in which a spoilt American brat is transformed into a Man by learning discipline and duty and comradeship from the fishermen he’s fallen among. Though all the characters are American, the message is British public school: Become a Man through Responsibility, Hard Work, through doing your Duty.

Conrad’s vision and style are far removed from this. His vision is one of European existentialism, of despair at the meaninglessness of human existence. His pages are overwhelmed with mournful asides about the immensity of the sea and the pettiness of human concerns.

A heavy atmosphere of oppressive quietude pervaded the ship. In the afternoon men went about washing clothes and hanging them out to dry in the unprosperous breeze with the meditative language of disenchanted philosophers. Very little was said. The problem of life seemed too voluminous for the narrow limits of human speech, and by common consent it was abandoned to the great sea that had from the beginning enfolded it in its immense grip; to the sea that knew all, and would in time infallibly unveil to each the wisdom hidden in all the errors, the certitude that lurks in doubts, the realm of safety and peace beyond the frontiers of sorrow and fear. (Chapter 5)

And as you can see, this vision is conveyed in a baroque style of exceeding wordiness – a seemingly limitless litany of boom words and big phrases, all circling hopelessly round his one big perception – the horror of existence. The word ‘horror’ is repeated a number of times.

Kipling’s bright, shallow British optimism. Or Conrad’s doom-laden European pessimism. Posterity – and literature courses everywhere – have favoured Conrad. But is that right?

As to the ‘nigger’ of the title, the novella centres on a black sailor – James Wait – who ships with the Narcissus knowing he is dying (presumably of TB, though this is never made explicit).

Various crew members – Old Singleton, the sneak Donkin, the youth Charley, sturdy Captain Allisoun, the first mate Baker – are described at length and become fairly ‘real’, but Wait is an allegorical figure, the man doomed to Death who melodramatises his plight, and becomes the psychological centre of the ship, mesmerising the crew.

I think the book is a failure. I didn’t understand from the text or from Conrad’s preface the point of Wait. Conrad keeps calling him a fake, an imposter, but Wait does, truly, die of illness, exactly as he’d been worrying.

I think Conrad is wrestling in a confused manner with the issues which obsess him: his sincere love of the sea and his sailor comrades is brought up against his just-as-powerful personal vision of the heartless universe, and the failure of the story is Conrad’s failure to make them coalesce in any coherent manner.

To my mind Conrad sorted these confused feelings out in his next book, also a novella, Heart of Darkness, published in 1899 – whose key quote, ‘The horror, the horror’, has become part of the culture thanks to the movie adaptation, ‘Apocalypse Now’, and whose critique of the mindless brutality of western Imperialism has never been surpassed. Here the horror of Conrad’s vision finds its ‘objective correlative’ – the publicly understandable image or symbol of Conrad’s private feelings – in the story of Kurtz, the exemplary imperialist servant gone grotesquely rotten in the depths of the jungle.

In the same year as Heart of Darkness, Kipling published his volume of stories about jolly public schoolboys, Stalky and Co., learning through their wily japes the ways of Brotherhood and Service which will stand them in good stead when they go out to run the British Empire.

The contrast couldn’t be starker.

All Hands to the Pumps by Henry Scott Tuke (1889) © Tate

All Hands to the Pumps by Henry Scott Tuke (1889) © Tate


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

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