King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild (1999)

Can’t remember the last time a book made me physically sick. About half way through another description of the murders, rapes, dismemberments, garrotings, hangings, torture and shootings carried out by Belgian rubber companies in the forced labour system set up by king Leopold II in his colony in the Congo (1885-1909), I thought I might spew.

Leopold II, king of the Belgians, and his genocide

If you like historical horror stories, you’ll love this book. It intertwines a biography of lonely unloved Leopold, aloof, shy king of the Belgians who conceived a great ambition to own one of the chunks of the developing world being claimed as colonies by all the other European nations – with detail of how, once he’d settled on the Congo, he commissioned the greatest explorer of the age, Henry Morton Stanley, to open it up; and then created a system of concessions to commercial companies which more or less guaranteed that at every level and in every way, the native peoples of the vast Congo basin would be worked to death, exploited, punished and murdered every bit as cruelly and needlessly as the genocides carried out by Hitler or Stalin.

Villages were razed to the ground, women and children were casually shot, or taken as hostages to force the menfolk to drain rubber from the vines which grew high up into the rainforest canopy. If enough rubber wasn’t collected, the women or children were murdered. Or their hands were cut off. Or their brains were dashed out with rifle butts. Or they were raped or tortured to death, or beaten, or tied in sacks and thrown into the river, or flogged to death, or left chained to trees till they died of thirst. And much more.

Leopold’s loot

This happened for 20 years or more over an area the size of western Europe. The profits to the Belgian, French and British companies who extorted raw rubber were big, but nothing compared to Leopold’s take. The book details the countless cunning ways the king screwed the maximum revenue out of every aspect of the operation. Hochschild quotes the scholar Jules Marchal who estimates Leopold’s total haul at around $1.1 billion in today’s money.

Leopold’s follies

This loot Leopold spent on turning his palace on the outskirts of Brussels into a new Versailles, building grandiose public monuments in cities around Belgium, on collecting a suite of villas on Cap Ferrat in the south of France, and on an impressive series of prostitutes and mistresses, until he fell in love with a 16 year old, Caroline Delacroix when he himself was an ageing 65.

The genocide

Modern scholars estimate the population of the Congo region was halved, from about 20 million to around 10 million, during the decades of Leopold’s homicidal rule. Hochschild quotes Alexandre Delcommune, ‘a ruthless robber baron’, saying that, if Leopold had ruled the Congo for another ten years, there probably wouldn’t have been a single rubber vine left, or, quite possibly, a single native. The genocide would have been complete.

It goes without saying the all this was done in the name of ‘civilisation’ and ‘justice’, of ‘law’ and ‘morality’. It is particularly disgusting that the Catholic church, right up until the end and beyond, supported Leopold, a crime just as egregious as its over-analysed relation with the Nazis.

The resistance

Speaking of Christians brings us to the resistance to Leopold’s bloody rule and among these were many Protestant missionaries, especially the non-conformists. It is reasonably well-known that what eventually became a worldwide campaign against Leopold’s rule was run by two passionate advocates, the doughty English businessman-turned-crusader-for-justice ED Morel, and the febrile but effective Irishman, Roger Casement. Through a brilliant series of books, pamphlets, newspapers, speeches, through fundraising and lobbying, they managed to discredit Leopold’s rule and make the scandal one of the great issues of the Edwardian world.

And Hochschild says their campaign was the most important and sustained crusade of its type between the mid-Victorian abolitionist movement and the worldwide boycott of South African apartheid in the 1970s and 80s.

Black heroes who campaigned against the horror

But above and beyond Morel and Casement, Hochschild goes out of his way to bring attention to the work of several remarkable black missionaries and campaigners, namely George Washington Williams, William Henry Sheppard and Herzekiah Andrew Shanu who, often at great risk, travelled far, took testimony, and publicised the horrors of what Model called ‘that infamous System’.

Review

I read Hochschild’s book immediately after Thomas Pakenham’s wonderful Scramble for Africa, which covers the same period and a lot of the same subject. Pakenham’s book has the breadth and scale and depth of War and Peace. It is an epic which also includes detailed portraits of key individuals, ranging across the whole continent throughout the scramble, 1880-1914.

Pakenham’s tone is judicious and, for the most part, detached; only occasionally does he pass judgement on the men he’s describing, and his biting criticism is all the more powerful for being rare. By contrast, Hochschild’s book is much shorter, much lighter, and he is ready with sarcasm and criticism from the start. He is sarcastic about Britain’s claims to abolish slavery after the 1830s, he is sarcastic about the so-called civilising mission of the explorer and colonisers, he is quicker to dismiss all high-falutin rhetoric and, in doing so, he misses the complexity to which these rhetorics, these discourses, were put. Many people believed what they said about bringing civilisation to the savages. A number of native tribes did practice cannibalism. The slave trade was rampant in east Africa and British authorities did do their best to stamp it out.

Pakenham’s book, maybe four times longer than Hochschild’s, has the space and depth to explore the highly complicated ways scores and scores of contemporaries struggled to make sense of their world and of the made scramble for African colonies. As such it is a much deeper and more satisfying read.

But what it lacks in scale and depth, King Leopold’s Ghost makes up for in intensity and horror. After you’ve read a certain amount, it’s hard not to share his sense of indignation, his anger, that human beings from so-called civilised, so-called Christian, Europe were allowed to get away with such barbarity and depravity for so long.

The end?

Leopold died of cancer in 1909. Despite the worldwide success of the campaign against him, in the end he was only forced to sell the Congo to the Belgian state a year or so before his death (he had planned to leave it to the Belgian people in his will). And in a depressing final chapter Hochschild makes clear that, although the scale of wanton murder was reined in, forced labour of some sort continued in Congo, and in neighbouring European colonies, well into the 1930s, and was even intensified during the Second World War with the Allies’ bottomless need for tyres for all types of war machinery.

One of the most powerful lessons for me was the link Hochschild draws between the occasional tribes who managed to rebel against the system, who stole arms and killed their white torturers and escaped into the jungle to wage prolonged guerrilla campaigns against their oppressors – and the similar tactics adopted by anti-colonial nationalists fighting the British and French following the Second World War, the Mau-Mau et al. If, as Hochschild book makes you, you powerfully and emotionally root for the first group of freedom fighters – then surely you must, at the very least, sympathise with their descendants.

European civilisation

Leopold II, king of the Belgians. Note the smart uniform, the shiny medals, the impeccable manners. What a Christian gentleman!

Leopold II, king of the Belgians

Leopold II, king of the Belgians

And now some of the hundreds of thousands of Africans whipped, chained, mutilated, raped and murdered by Leopold’s officers to incentivise them or their parents to gather more rubber for the wise and good king.

Children in the Belgian Congo whose hands have been cut off to encourage their parents to gather more rubber for King Leopold

Children in the Belgian Congo whose hands have been cut off to encourage their parents to gather more rubber for King Leopold

Related links

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.


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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’.


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

Almayer’s Folly: A Story of an Eastern River by Joseph Conrad (1895)

Reading Joseph Conrad after Edgar Rice Burroughs is like leaving a cheap disco and walking into a quiet church. Or maybe an ornate eastern temple… You can feel the civilisation, the depth and human dignity, pouring through every cell in your body…

Almayer’s Folly was Conrad’s first novel. Born in 1857 to Polish parents in a part of the Ukraine administered by the Russian Empire, Józef Teodor Conrad Korzeniowski left home to join the French merchant marine in 1874, aged 17. In 1886 he earned his Master’s certificate in the British Merchant Service, becoming a British Citizen, and anglicising his name to Joseph Conrad. His next few years of service took him to the Malay Archipelago, the Gulf of Siam and the Belgian Congo. It was for the Societe Anonyme pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo in 1890 that Conrad first visited the ‘dark continent’ and wrote the ‘Congo Diary’ that would later become The Heart of Darkness.

The harsh conditions of travelling to the Congo Free State and working on a paddle-steamer aggravated Conrad’s already fragile health. He suffered from gout and depression and returned to England weakened and suffering from fever and was hospitalised. In 1894, aged 37, he signed off from his last ship and devoted himself to completing the novel he’d been working at since 1889.

Plot The Dutchman Kaspar Almayer settles on the bank of the river Pantei on the Borneo coast. Trade fails. The pirate Lingard promises him money if he will marry a young girl, only survivor of a pirate massacre Lingard was involved in. Almayer marries her on the understanding that Lingard will share some of the gold and treasure he plans to accumulate. but Lingard’s plans come to nothing and Almayer sinks into a depression, continually outwitted at trade and strategy by the neighbouring Arab and Muslim traders. His wife gives him a daughter, Nina, then settles into sullen antagonism. Nina is sent to convent school in Singapore and returns a beautiful young woman, who is immediately wooed both by the nephew of the Rajah of the river, and by a dashing Brahmin, Dain Maroola, who arrives out of nowhere and, once again, promises the gullible Almayer riches and wealth.

This wooing is the climax of the novel, all the rest having been scene-setting, for it turns out Dain is smuggling gunpowder, but he is betrayed, attacked and pursued by a Dutch warship, back to Almayer’s compound, where all concerned must make some life-changing choices!

The story is slender but spooled out in a long lazy meandering fashion which moves backwards and forwards in time. Is this clumsy, or a crafty emulation of the forward and backward rhythm of the great river upon which the novel is set?

Characters Deceptively slight (167 pages) and simple, the story follows the same characters over quite a long period, well over 20 years, and Conrad depicts them at different moments of their lives, giving detailed descriptions of their characters and psychological motivations:

  • Kaspar Almeyer, the (Dutch) middle-aged white failed trader gone to seed and living off pathetic dreams
  • Lingard the English pirate who persuades him to marry the Malay girl survivor of a pirate battle in exchange for riches which never materialise
  • the Malay girl who bears him a daughter and then sinks into contemptuous sloth
  • Abdulla the pious and successful old Arab who dominates trade along the river
  • Lakamba, the Malay ‘rajah’ of the river, who conspires with Abdulla to monopolise the trade and keep Almayer down
  • Dain Maroola, the handsome young Malay prince who falls deeply in love with Nina
  • Nina, the young woman whose passionate love for Dain stands at the heart of the novel and who is forced to choose between “savage” love and “civilised” hypocrisy.

The river Almayer’s folly is built at the confluence of two branches of the mighty Pantei river, enormous muddy brown, swollen by monsoon floods, which dominates the imagery of the book and whose slow, impassive, endless rolling symbolises the heedless unfolding of Time, careless of all human activity. (The centrality of the river again anticipating ‘Heart of Darkness’).

Style Two points:

  • Conrad doesn’t quite write standard English. His sentences are long, lush with unnecessary adjectives and disconcerting with askew phraseology. The first publisher’s readers worried about his frequent infelicities and errors of grammar or phraseology; but Unwin decided, correctly, that they actively helped make Conrad a unique and poetic stylist.
  • Conrad brings to his writing an unashamedly European sensibility, especially when it comes to describing big negative emotions, despair, futility, collapse. Completely unlike the stiff upper lip style of, say, Haggard or Kipling, when a firm handshake says all that needs saying.

The following excerpt from chapter 5 shows Conrad’s long sentences, his lush description of tropical scenery, his un-English phraseology, and his un-English nihilism:

He stood up attentive, and the boat drifted slowly in shore, Nina guiding it by a gentle and skilful movement of her paddle.  When near enough Dain laid hold of the big branch, and leaning back shot the canoe under a low green archway of thickly matted creepers giving access to a miniature bay formed by the caving in of the bank during the last great flood.  His own boat was there anchored by a stone, and he stepped into it, keeping his hand on the gunwale of Nina’s canoe.  In a moment the two little nutshells with their occupants floated quietly side by side, reflected by the black water in the dim light struggling through a high canopy of dense foliage; while above, away up in the broad day, flamed immense red blossoms sending down on their heads a shower of great dew-sparkling petals that descended rotating slowly in a continuous and perfumed stream; and over them, under them, in the sleeping water; all around them in a ring of luxuriant vegetation bathed in the warm air charged with strong and harsh perfumes, the intense work of tropical nature went on: plants shooting upward, entwined, interlaced in inextricable confusion, climbing madly and brutally over each other in the terrible silence of a desperate struggle towards the life-giving sunshine above—as if struck with sudden horror at the seething mass of corruption below, at the death and decay from which they sprang.

Civilisation and savagery The word ‘savage’ is used 35 times in the text, harshly to describe Almayer’s Malay wife and half-caste daughter, Nina. It would be easy to object to the racism implicit in its use, except that the entire novel highlights the dichotomy between civilisation and barbarism – solely to question and undermine it.

Here, in his first novel, Conrad raises the issue he will pursue for years, and which is crystallised in his most famous work, Heart of Darkness (1899). The Western world of his day made a shibboleth of the distinction between the superior, white, advanced races, and the rest – the various forms of ‘savage’ or ‘semi-savage’ dark-skinned peoples; and yet Conrad thought he had seen through it; realised that beneath the veneer of ‘civilisation’ the white man was the same godless animal as the brown, driven by the same primal fears and greeds, and capable – as in Heart of Darkness – of far worse atrocities. It is the ‘savage’ Dain who behaves nobly, it is the ‘savage’ Nina whose love is depicted as pure and constant as Juliet or any Victorian heroine.

Conrad, unprotected by the insulating imbecilities of the English public school system, brings to the unsettling realities of the colonisation of the remote parts of the earth a palette of Slavic pessimism and European existentialist philosophy. Result: Conrad the man tried to commit suicide in his 20s, and then used his writing as therapy to exorcise his vision of decay and despair in book after book after book, bringing order to his chaotic feelings by rehearsing them again and again in long French sentences.

Compare and contrast with Kipling, thoroughly innoculated and imbued with the pukkah certainties of the English public school system (see Stalky and Co.), who sometimes writes about white men going bad, and the strange horrors encountered in colonial life – and with, admittedly, a genuinely eerie impact – but always, ultimately, from the outside, uncontaminated by Doubt, as the laureate of Empire and white racial superiority.

Steady on, old chap Conrad was careful not to write about the Empire of the British, his adopted nation, among whom he wanted to be accepted and a success; his first stories all concern Dutch colonisers and traders who experience alienation, failure and despair, thus neatly leaving us Brits off the hook. Good chap!


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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