“You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appals me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies – which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world – what I want to forget.”
Ah, yes. Heart of Darkness. The book that I’ve heard so much about and have finally got around to reading (because it was on my reading list). This edition has a terrible cover, but to be honest so do most classics. Still, this is worse than most, although if you’re reading a Norton Critical Edition you’re probably not going to be put off by the cover.
On to the actual novel. Or novella, actually, because it only takes up 78 pages in this edition. (The rest of the book – 400 pages in total – is critical essays, letters, biographical material, etc., most of it very dull.) The brevity of it makes for a nice change from such monoliths as Middlemarch, and it’s the perfect format for this story, about a voyage up the river Congo in the 1890s.
The other contrast with Middlemarch is that I actually enjoyed Heart of Darkness, which is always a bonus. Conrad evokes the atmosphere of the vast, mysterious jungle, with its “heart of darkness”, wonderfully, in lyrical, accessible prose:
On we went again into the silence, along empty reaches, round the still bends, between the high walls of our winding way, reverberating in hollow claps the ponderous beat of the stern-wheel. Trees, trees, millions of trees, massive, immense, running up high, and at their foot, hugging the bank against the stream, crept the little begrimed steamboat like a sluggish beetle crawling on the floor of a lofty portico. It made you feel very small, very lost, and yet it was not altogether depressing, that feeling.
And the fact that the novella is short means that its questions and musings hit harder – there’s no repetition of messages or analysis of events. It is a beautifully written story about a dangerous madman who wants to be a god; it is an allegorical tale about humanity’s capacity for monstrosity; it is a journey into the European psyche. Heart of Darkness: not just a travelogue.