First published as a three-part serial story for ‘Blackwood’s Magazine’ back in 1899, Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart Of Darkness’ was later reprinted as a novella alongside his stories ‘Youth’ and ‘The End Of The Tether’ in 1902.

Since then, the novella has become a classic piece of literature and seen countless reprints over the following century. In fact, it was ranked as the 67th best novel of the 20th century by the Modern Library and has remained a Penguin Popular Classic.

The novella is perhaps best known for providing the principal inspiration for Francis Coppola’s award-winning film ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979).

DLS Synopsis:
Ever since he was young, Charles Marlow had been drawn to the unknown. Areas on maps untouched by modern societies investigations stirred his imagination. Having recently returned from a lengthy excursion around the Far East, and finding the slow, quiet pace of life back in England not of his liking, Marlow decides to embark upon a new venture.

The image of a vast winding river in the heart of Africa reminds him of a great snake. This is somewhere where a seasoned seaman of his experience could find adventure. A place which might just sate his appetite for exploration.

And so, Marlow reaches out to an ivory trading company, to offer assistance with their trading along the stretch of this magnificent serpentine river. On behalf of his new employers, he will captain a river steamboat and oversee a threadbare crew of seamen.

The first stop on this journey is at the company’s Outer Station. Although, upon arriving at the remote location, Marlow finds it’s a mass of broken and dying Africans, used and abused to build the company’s railway, to the point of utter exhaustion.

It is also here that Marlow first hears about the Chief of the Inner Station, Mr Kurtz. Awash with praise for this man, the company’s accountant paints a picture of an ambitious and highly regarded individual, who is solely responsible for bringing the ivory down the river.

However, as Marlow’s journey takes him closer to Mr Kurtz, he begins to learn more and more about the man. A man who is admired by many, feared by others, and despised by a few. A man who Marlow feels unexplainably drawn to. A figure who holds power and command like none other.

A man who will change Marlow’s life forever. For the closer Marlow comes to finally meeting with Kurtz, the further he ventures into the heart of darkness…

DLS Review:
As mentioned earlier, the novella is possibly best known as being the inspiration for ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979). When I say inspiration, the film is actually incredibly close to Conrad’s story, only really with a change of setting from late 19th-century Congo to that of the Vietnam War and a few changes with the characters etc.

Essentially Conrad’s story is one of exploitation and colonial corruption, embodied through a lone man’s descent into the terrible abyss of all-consuming darkness. A darkness which corrupts the soul and sends this influential man insane.

For the majority of the tale, we’re on this journey up the vast river, witnessing the constant flow of difficulties Marlow and his crew are faced with. It’s during this troublesome journey where we start to pull together the first pieces of Mr Kurtz. This gradual drip-feeding of facts and impressions of the man work incredibly effectively with creating a powerful sense of mystique, of lure, and in some ways, of a daunting sense of dreadful foreboding.

This journey up the river is essentially covered over the first two chapters (originally the serial parts). In its original manuscript draft, Conrad penned an additional stop off (which would have been the first stop off for Marlow along the journey). However, this brief stop off never made it into the final version of the text. 

At the beginning of 2021, Sangrail Press published this missing passage within a limited-edition chapbook titled ‘At The Door Of Darkness’ (2021). The missing passage itself isn’t very long, and to be honest, doesn’t really add all that much to the original story. Indeed, you can see why Conrad decided to cut the section out, to keep pacing and momentum within the overall story building instead. It does, however, provide a short breather, for the briefest of evenings Marlow petering at the threshold of his descent into the yawning abyss.

Anyway, the main story itself is written in a purposefully evocative manner. Almost everything is described to a detail, with an emphasis always put on Marlow’s perspective of everything. Indeed, the tale is very much geared to Marlow’s internal ponderings, his thoughts and self-reflection. This can often lead to a cascading avalanche of thoughts which often go around in circles without ever reaching a conclusion.

The writing style is also very much of its time. Almost every sentence is exceptionally wordy and protracted to the nth degree. This was often the case for pay-per-word magazine stories from that era, where the author would be paid on the story’s wordcount. The inevitable end result being flowery, verbose sentences that were invariably designed to maximise the wordcount.

Furthermore, at times it can feel like you’re faced with a veritable wall of text, solely due to the novella’s minimal amount of paragraph breaks. There can quite literally be entire pages going by before a new paragraph starts. Ultimately, this doesn’t assist with the readers’ ease of reading, or indeed their overall enjoyment of reading the piece. Instead, at times making it feel like you’re wading through a veritable quagmire of words.

Another point I feel should be mentioned, which is again a sign of its time, is the sheer unadulterated racism that’s exhibited within the story. You have a lot of the ‘N-word’ used repeatedly in a very off-handed, but obviously derogatory way. But more still you have the constant references and depictions of anyone of colour being a savage, or outright incapable of understanding much beyond basic caveman-like grunts. In fact, Conrad purposefully paints the savage setting of the Congo and its inhabitants in complete juxtaposition with modern-day London, where there is such culture, science and refinement.

Nevertheless, if you’re willing to forgive or step around these aspects, again seeing it very much a sign of those times rather than anything else, then you’ll be rewarded with a rich and powerfully evocative story that’ll seep under your skin and linger in your mind for days to come.

You see, Marlow’s thought process and careful examination of Kurtz’s descent into madness, is one which draws upon the notion of ‘us’ and our primordial, instinctual drives. The word choice used by Conrad throughout this, is always incredibly poetic, but also full of such unrelenting bleakness. At times it can feel nihilistic in nature, at others the extreme opposite. And this extremity is very much what the novella is about. The extremities of corruption, which pollute even the very soul of a man.

The story is outrageously quotable from start to end. Almost as if every line was purposefully sculpted to be randomly plucked out and offered up as an exhibit of Conrad’s literary worth. As you’re reading, you can almost roll the individual words around in your mouth and take pleasure from their evocative construction.

The novella is certainly an important piece of literary fiction. A carefully conceived and artistically written offering, heavy with thought, symbolism and Conrad’s raw feelings about imperialism. It’s a dark and callous read that doesn’t pander to a gentle audience. Instead, despite its flowery, poetic and beautifully crafted wordsmanship, the novella feels raw, unrestrained and in itself savage. And with that it maybe becomes a reflection of itself – the beauty and poetic refinement from plundering the depths of primal savagery.

“The horror! The horror!”

The novella runs for a total of 111 pages.

© DLS Reviews


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