All Posts By Michael Kahn

Lesser Is Better . . . and Wonderful: Why to Read Why I Read

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9780374289201[1]If you love to read books, you will love Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books by Wendy Lesser, founder and editor of The Threepenny Review. As the New York Times reviewer wrote, “Wendy Lesser is a serious reader — a quality reader — and this book is a serious pleasure.”

Having just finished the book, I can report that it is like your fantasy book club come to life. Indeed, the author Francine Prose describes the experience as follows:

“Reading Why I Read delivers all the pleasure of discussing one’s favorite books with a marvelously articulate, intelligent, opinionated friend. It’s like joining the book club of your dreams, one in which you don’t have to do any of the work or think up intelligent things to say, but can simply enjoy reading about books you’ve read or want to read.”

Here is but one small example that resonated for this writer, whose love of James Joyce’s story “The Dead” (in Dubliners) is matched only by his exasperation with the pretentiousness of long passages of Ulysses:UlyssesCover[1]

For a very different approach to literary innovation, consider James Joyce’s Ulysses. This is a novel that has always gotten on my nerves. I admit that part of what is annoying is how much other people love it and praise it, when it leaves me completely cold. I vastly prefer the youthful author of Dubliners, and even the slightly pushier fellow behind Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, to the highly self-conscious innovator who wrote Ulysses. By the time he reached that point, Joyce had begun to congeal into the artist who would eventually produce the nearly unreadable Finnegans Wake, and the obvious source of the rot was his overweening desire for a great literary reputation. This trumped all other literary desires on his part, so that things which had mattered to him earlier—the creation of believable human figures, the portrayal of a particular moment in Dublin’s and Ireland’s history, the use of language as an element in our common experience, the reliance on real as opposed to fabricated emotions—all gave way to this one enormous wish: to be the greatest, most impressive writer of his generation. This is not a literary impulse but a self-promotional one, and you can sense it in every chapter, almost every line, of Ulysses. We are meant to admire each tour de force for its cleverness and its brilliance. We are meant to recognize and applaud the skillful scene-by-scene parallels between the heroic Homeric tale and its reduced Dublin version, the chortlingly amusing imitations of other literary forms, the archetypal renderings of Jew and Catholic and man and woman. Woman! Don’t get me started. If I hate anything more than the rest of the book, it’s that ridiculously orgasmic Molly Bloom soliloquy with which Joyce concludes—a ventriloquist’s dummy masquerading as a character. Reading her breathy Yeses, I can hear her all-too-evident author congratulating himself on his literary genius.

To which, to quote Molly Bloom, “Yes I said yes Yes. Yes, I say.”

You can read more and sample a chapter at Ms. Lesser’s blog.

Let Us Now Praise (In)famous Baz

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Gatsby_1925_jacket[1]Great literature is the third rail of the motion picture industry. The director who attempts to adapt a beloved novel to the big screen invites the slings and arrows of outraged fans. One obvious reason is that the standard length of a motion picture is 100 minutes (or 100 script pages), which means that big chunks of the novel, including perhaps your favorites scene, must be deleted. Another reason is that each reader creates her own version of the movie inside her head, and there is simply no way the big screen version will match hers.

Which brings me to the novel near the top of every list of beloved works of American literature: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Since its publication in 1925, that novel has spawned six movie adaptions, beginning with a silent film version in 1926 and culminating in last years’ Baz Luhrmann extravaganza, complete with a 21st century hip-hop soundtrack. This is hardly the first outrageously creative adaptation by Luhrmann. My favorite is his updated take on Romeo + Juliet, set in the modern California suburb of Verona with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in the title roles and featuring the Montagues and Capulets as warring business empires.

Luhrmann brought that same creative–or, in many eyes, disrespectful–exuberance to his adaptation of The Great Gatsby. The critics were not pleased. David Thomson of The New Republic wrote: “It’s stupefying, it’s vulgar, it’s demeaning, it’s dull.” Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal labeled it “a dreadful film [that] derogates the artistry of Fitzgerald.” “As disastrous and pointless an adaptation as one can easily recall,” wrote David Nusair at Reel Film Reviews. Over at CNN.com, the film critic’s verdict: “misconceived and misjudged, a crude burlesque on what’s probably American literature’s most precious jewel.”115276[1]

And thus, I had to see it. My first reaction was . . .

. . . that Luhrmann had gone too far, that too much of the movie was over the top, that Gatsby’s incessant use of the phrase “Old Sport” was needlessly exaggerated, that the wild parties at his house played, in the words of the Chicago Reader critic J.R. Jones, like “a ghastly Roaring 20s blowout at a sorority house.”

But my initial reaction was based on my memory of a novel that I’d last read more than a decade ago. As a trial lawyer by day, I’ve had ample experience with the fallibility of memory. So I decided to withhold my verdict until I re-read the novel, which I just finished. And guess what? Luhrmann’s adaptation is far truer to the book than I had supposed–even down to some of the smaller vignettes.

For example, one brief scene in the movie that seemed particularly jarring occurs as Gatsby drives Nick into New York City. With the rap soundtrack blaring as they cross over the Queensboro Bridge in Gatsby’s splendid yellow convertible, they are passed by a limousine convertible driven by a white chauffeur. In the back of the limo, laughing and partying, are two black men and a black woman, all elegantly dressed. As they pass, they give Nick an amused but somewhat snooty look. Okay, I had said to myself, so this is Luhrmann’s sly homage to Jay Z and Beyoncé on the soundtrack

But then I reached page 64 of the novel, where Gatsby is driving Nick into the city over the Queensboro bridge in his splendid yellow convertible: “[A] limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty revelry.”

As for the incessant “Old Sport,” in the novel Gatsby uses it so often that it drives Nick (and the reader) crazy.

As for those wild parties in the movie? Here’s just one paragraph from a description of just one Gatsby party (page 45):

There was dancing now on the canvas in the garden; old men pushing young girls backward in eternal graceless circles, superior couples holding each other tortuously, fashionable, and keeping in the corners–and a great number of single girls dancing individualistically or relieving the orchestra for a moment of the burden of the banjo or the traps. By midnight the hilarity had increased. A celebrated tenor had sung in Italian, and a notorious contralto had sung jazz, and between the numbers people were doing “stunts” all over the garden, while happy, vacuous bursts of laughter rose toward the summer sky. A pair of stage twins, who turned out to be the girls in yellow, did a baby act in costume, and champagne was served in glasses bigger than finger-bowls. The moon had risen higher, and floating in the sound was a triangle of silver scales, trembling a little to the stiff, tinny drip of the banjos on the lawn.

tumblr_m09nloGhpA1qbkbwmo1_500[1]Even the framing device Luhrmann invented–having the story told, or actually typed, in flashback by a damaged Nick Carraway from a sanatorium after returning to the Midwest–is not inconsistent with the novel. As we learn in the opening paragraphs, Nick is telling us his story in retrospect, having returned to the Midwest a changed person, and not necessarily for the better. He is, he explains, still suffering from the “foul dust” that floated up in the wake of Gatsby’s death and “temporarily closed out” his interest “in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.”

In short, as we writers know, all art is derivative–and the best art is also challenging  and transformative. Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is challenging and transformative. If you haven’t seen it, give it a try. And if you have, then give Fitzgerald’s another try. You’ll be surprised.

The Joy of Porn Parodies: A Holiday Challenge

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forrest_965892_1950343[1]When you think porn, I bet the first thing that pops up isn’t the Federal Antidilution Act. It is, however, if your day job is the practice of intellectual property law. Indeed, the intersection of porn, parody, and the First Amendment has inspired a holiday party challenge, described below. But first, a little legal background from your attorney-scribe, who has sacrificed billable hours to bring you this Yuletide cheer:

We I.P. lawyers have our favorite quirky cases–the racy ones you’d hesitate to bring home to Mom, the goofy ones that tap into that special brand of humor most commonly associated with junior high school boys. (As many women will attest, there is a 7th-grade boy lurking within most adult males. We’re talking about the ones who can’t resist using the phrase “pops up” in the first sentence of this post.)

If copyright is your field, may I offer for your consideration the 7th Circuit Court of Appeal’s opinion in JCW Investments v. Novelty, Inc., 482 F.3d 910 (7th Cir. 2007), which memorably opens:

Meet Pull My Finger® Fred. He is a white, middle-aged, overweight man with black hair and a receding hairline, sitting in an armchair wearing a white tank top and blue pants. Fred is a plush doll and when one squeezes Fred’s extended finger on his right hand, he farts. He also makes somewhat crude, somewhat funny statements about the bodily noises he emits, such as ‘Did somebody step on a duck?’ or ‘Silent but deadly.’

If, instead, your realm is trademark registrations, you’ll say Kaddish  for the late  STEALTH CONDOM, the all-black model marketed with the tag-line: “They’ll Never See You Coming.” Alas, Northrop–of Stealth Bomber renown–was not pleased, and the registration eventually died.Nailin-Paylin[1]

But trademark dilution is where where humor and free speech meet, mainly at the intersection of famous brands and parody. And let’s face it, nothing taps into that 7th-grade humor more effectively than parody titles for porn movies. While occasionally those titles (and content) purport to spoof current events–such as Tiger’s Wood and Who’s Nailin Paylin?–the usual target is a real movie.

(Ah, glad you returned from those links. Re-read the last couple sentences so that you can remember where you were.)

As I have advised authors, you cannot copyright a title, and the only book titles eligible for trademark registration are ones that have been used in enough separate publications to become genuine brands. For example, the Penguin Group owns the trademarks for various iterations of COMPLETE IDIOT’S GUIDE TO and Wiley Publishing owns the trademarks in the FOR DUMMIES series.

ugo-pulpfictionporn_480x640[1]And thus the porn parody title. For those of you unfamiliar with this sacred realm of the 1st Amendment, the porn industry has grown of fond of coming up with risque take-offs of famous movie titles for their X-rated productions. That list includes “Shaving Ryan’s Privates,” “Pulp Friction,” “The Loin King,” and, of course, “Riding Miss Daisy.” Not to be overlooked are such X-rated cinematic classics as “American Booty,” “On Golden Blonde,” “Breast Side Story,” “A Beautiful Behind,” and (especially for us lawyers) “Legally Boned.” The Top 20? Here’s one list.

All of which got me thinking. Because the porn industry in San Fernando Valley is usually about a year behind the film industry just 14 miles to the west in L.A., most of the 2013 Hollywood releases have not yet garnered a porno with a knock-off title. So here is an idea for your next holiday party:

When things get a little dull, toss out this challenge: Invite all true believers in the First Amendment to create their own parody porn titles for one or more of the 2013 films that might soon be nominated for one of this year’s Academy Awards. Out of fairness, we must remove from consideration the Coen brothers’ latest release, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which certainly qualifies here as, well, low hanging fruit.

To get your party rolling, here are some of the 2013 releases: “Man of Steel,” “Iron Man 3,” “This Is the End,” “Fast and Furious,” “Now You See Me,” “The Place Beyond the Pines,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Saving Mr. Banks.”

Have fun, and let me know the winning title.

An Author’s Fantasy Comes to Life: Barbara Fass Leavy’s Essay

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Every author dreams of being taken seriously.Flinch Factor, The Front Cover

Seriously.

And by serious, I mean having one of your works turned into the subject of a scholarly essay.

Barbara-Leavy-web-207x276[1]
Barbara Fass Leavy
Although my other fantasy–playing third base for the St. Louis Cardinals–has long since been relegated to the Walter Mitty realm, author and retired English professor Barbara Fass Leavy has made this fantasy come true. Specifically, she he has just published on her blog a genuine scholarly essay on my latest novel. Entitled “Reading Michael Kahn’s THE FLINCH FACTOR,” Barbara explores the novel, the characters, and the other elements of the novel.

In addition–and this is where the true author’s fantasy kicks in–she finds literary allusions, symbols, and motifs that I was, at best, only vaguely aware of during the writing process. Here is just one of many examples of Barbara’s skills as a literary detective:

“At one very low point in her life, Rachel, in search of consolation or hope, wonders if her roots in Judaism and adhering to its traditions make any sense.  In effect, she is addressing the problem of evil–why it exists.  Rather cynically, she decides, at least for the moment, that the only religion that made any sense was that of the ancient Greeks: “In a world ruled by a mob of unruly, hot-tempered, meddlesome deities, it isn’t surprising that good things happened to bad people and bad things happened to good people.  Up on Mount Olympus, shit happens because the gods say so.” Did Kahn expect or even hope that some of his readers would recall the famous lines in King  Lear  in which Gloucester cries out, “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, / They kill us for their sport”?  Or perhaps the ending of Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, in which the hapless and helpless Tess, whose unfortunate life ends with her being hanged for murder, draws this narrative commentary, “’Justice’ was done, and the President of the Immortals (in Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess”? Despite Hardy’s attempt to shift responsibility for Tess’s fate from the Judeo-Christian God to the pagan gods, his readers thought he was being blasphemous.  Was Kahn suggesting  that Rachel, secure Jonathan’s love even when she visits his grave, has allowed herself an opportunity to be blasphemous as well. For her visit allows her the freedom of venting her despair about an unjust world, and as “always after visiting his grave, [she] felt a little better—and almost serene.”

So thank you, Barbara, for fulfilling this author’s fantasy.41KsT0u-YNL[1]

And those of you not familiar with her works, Barbara’s blog is an excellent place to start. In addition to her fascinating and diverse collection of blog posts, you will find links to her books, which range from her analysis of the fairy-mistress theme in Romantic literature to a scholarly look at The Fiction of Ruth Rendell.

 

Open With A Bang

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homer-simpson-doh[1]Somewhere toward the end of my recent blog posts exploring great opening lines and favorite narrators, I had one of those Homer Simpson epiphanies: to lure in your reader you will need more than just a snappy opener or a distinctive voice. Sure, both of those help. But the key is that opening paragraph. You need the magic occur by the end of the paragraph, preferably with an exit line designed to lure the reader into the next paragraph.

One of my favorite examples is from Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest. That novel opens not only with a distinctive voice (the unnamed Continental Op) and a terrific first sentence but with one of the most enticing opening paragraphs in American literature, including a perfect final line:

“I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey RedHarvest[1]Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he had done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.”

It’s that exit line that seals the deal. You just have to read on.

Or take this opening paragraph from one of my favorite stories, Norman  Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It”:

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the juncture of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.”

Nice, eh? Great opener, great voice, great closer.

Or this one from John Grisham’s latest novel, Sycamore Row–an opening that may offer insights as to why he sells more books in a week than I have in a lifetime:

“They found Seth Hubbard in the general area where he had promised to be, though not exactly in the condition expected. He was at the end of a rope, six feet off the ground and twisting slightly in the wind. A front was moving through and Seth was soaked when they found him, not that it mattered. Someone would point out that there was no mud on his shoes and no tracks below him, so therefore he was probably hanging and dead when the rain began. Why was that important? Ultimately, it was not. “

Pull down from your bookshelf two or three of your favorite novels and I’m willing to bet at least one, if not all, will feature a seductive opening paragraph.

th_0451179617[1]They don’t teach you this in school–or at least not in any school I attended. I suppose we writers absorb that lesson by osmosis. And the lesson? To invert the final line from T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”: This is the way the novel opens: not which a whimper but a bang.

I took down several of my own novels from the bookshelf and, lo and behold, saw that I, too, had absorbed the Big Bang theory–literally, in fact, in my favorite opener, which starts Firm Ambitions:

“Despite the allegations in the petition, fellatio is no longer included on Missouri’s list of infamous crimes against nature. Ir remains, however, ‘deviate sexual intercourse,’ which the criminal code defines as ‘any sexual act involving the genitals of one person and the mouth or tongue of another.’ The code calls it a class A misdemeanor. Vicki MacDonald calls it a Big Mac with Special Sauce.”

 What’s your favorite opening bang?

My Favorite Narrators (Part 5 of 5)

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draft_lens11263351module103354801photo_1275165730JaneAusten_EmmaBook[1]So here I am, finally, down to the last of my 5 favorite narrators. Back when I started this list with Huck Finn, I had no idea who the other four would be. And now that I’ve reached my last one, I’ve been sifting wildly through the remaining possibilities.

The prior four have all been first-person narrators, each with a distinctive voice. There are, of course, plenty of other first-person narrators with distinctive voices. My list includes Claudius of I, Claudius, Quentin Compson of Absalom, Absalom!, the man who tells us to call him Ishmael in Moby Dick, and Humbert Humbert from Lolita. And, of course, any number of vivid detective voices from American mystery novels.

But to focus on first-person narrators is to overlook the majority of great works of literature, all narrated in that third-person omniscient voice. While David Copperfield is a helluva narrator for the novel of that name, Charles Dickens outshines him in Bleak House. So, too, while Nick Carraway does a fine job narrating The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald does an even finer one as the narrator of large portions of Tender Is the Night.

jane-austen[1]Which brings me to my favorite third-person narrator, who is also in my Top 5 favorite novelists of all time:

Jane Austen

I am, of course, hardly alone. While her novels sparkle with dialogue from an unforgettable cast of characters, it is those sly and witty asides from our narrator that have cast their charms over generations of readers, including many of our most celebrated authors.

This is what Virginia Woolf had to say in comparing Jane Austen to two other celebrated authors of that century:

“Charlotte Brontë, with all her splendid gift for prose, stumbled and fell with that clumsy weapon in her hands. George Eliot committed atrocities with it that beggar description. Jane Austen looked at it and laughed at it and devised a perfectly natural, shapely sentence proper for her own use and never departed from it. Thus, with less genius for writing than Charlotte Brontë, she got infinitely more said.” (A Room of One’s Own, Chapter 4)

So, too, here is W.H. Auden’s take on Jane, at lines 113-119 of Letter to Lord Byron (1936):

You could not shock her more than she shocks me;

Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.

It makes me most uncomfortable to see

An English spinster of the middle class

Describe the amorous effects of “brass,”

Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety

The economic basis of society.

prideandprejudice[1]

Indeed, while the witty banter between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice  has entranced so many of us (including the motion picture and television industries, who cut-and-paste those exchanges into the scripts for their big screen and little screen adaptations), it is Jane (in the role of third-person narrator) who so famously opens that novel: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Here are a few of my favorite asides from that wonderful narrator:

  • “Marianne was silent; it was impossible for her to say what she did not feel, however trivial the occasion; and upon Elinor therefore the whole task of telling lies when politeness required it, always fell.” (Sense and Sensibility)
  • “To look almost pretty is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain for the first fifteen years of her life than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive.” (Northanger Abbey)
  • “A woman, especially if she has the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.” (Northanger Abbey)

And every novelist’s favorite Austen quote (which, alas, she puts into the mouth of one of her characters): “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel must be intolerably stupid.” (Northanger Abbey)

My Five Favorite Narrators (Part 4)

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So far, I’ve shared my thoughts on 3 of my 5 favorite narrators: Huck Finn, Philip Marlowe, and Marlow. For #4, I turned to my list of favorite semi-reliable nice-guy narrators. One possibility was Nick Carraway, the charming narrator of The Great Gatsby. who sets the tone of his narration in the opening paragraphs:

     In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

     “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember the all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

But while The Great Gatsby may be a contender for the Great American Novel, Nick is not a contender for the Great American Narrator. So instead I looked across the proverbial pond to one of the most likable and vulnerable of 20th Century narrators, created, ironically, by one of the creepiest of 20th Century authors. I refer to the narrator in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited:

CHARLES RYDER

evelyn-waugh-brideshead-revisitedjpg[1]His tale begins, as most nostalgic ones do, at the end: “I have been here before,” Ryder says at the start of Chapter 1. As we learned in the prologue, his World War II regiment has moved after darkness to an encampment on the grounds of a large estate on the English countryside. When he first sees the place in daylight the following morning, he realizes he is at Brideshead, the former home to the Flyte family—a group of men and women he loved and despised and envied during that charmed period between the world wars.

“I had been there before,” he continues in that opening paragraph. “first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were creamy with meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of peculiar splendor, and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart on this, my latest.”

The Sebastian he mentions is Sebastian Flyte, the hard-drinking, wild-partying, idiosyncratic, teddy-bear-hugging and totally unforgettable fellow he met his first year at Oxford.

For those more familiar with Evelyn Waugh’s cyncial and satiric earlier novels, such as A Handful of Dust and Vile Bodies, the sentimental tone of Charles Ryder will be a surprise. The novel and its narrator are a clear break from Waugh’s prior works. As Publisher Weekly states, “In this classic tale of British life between the World Wars, Waugh parts company with the satire of his earlier works to examine affairs of the heart.”

I confess that my love of Charles Ryder is the result, at least in part, of the skills of the actor Jeremy Irons, who played Ryder in the television mini-series version and who narrates the audiobook version. When I now reread the novel, the voice I hear is that of Jeremy Irons.charlesryder[1]

Ah, but what a voice. Here is Ryder reflecting back on his years with the Flyte family: “If you asked me now who I am, the only answer I could give with any certainty would be my name. For the rest: my loves, my hates, down even to my deepest desires, I can no longer say whether these emotions are my own, or stolen from those I once so desperately wished to be.”

Or this lovely riff on memory: “These memories, which are my life—for we possess nothing certainly except the past—were always with me. Like the pigeons of St. Mark’s, they were everywhere, under my feet, singly, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder or pecking a broken biscuit from between my lips . . .”

Enjoy!

My 5 Favorite Narrators (Part 3)

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In my last post, I discussed the 2nd of my 5 favorite narrators, Raymond Chandler’s private eye, Philip Marlowe.

As I now turn to #3, it’s worth noting his surprising overlap with #2. In several important ways, Chandler’s The Big Sleep, set in the Los Angeles of the 1930s, is similar to Joseph Conrad’s brilliant novella, The Heart of Darkness, set in the Africa of the 1890s. Both are mysteries. In both, the protagonist sets out to find a missing person. In The Big Sleep, the missing person is the notorious ex-bootlegger RustyRegan. In The Heart of Darkness, the 252533-vic2header[1]missing person is the near mythical Mr. Kurtz, who runs an ivory trading company’s Central Station hundreds of miles up the Congo River. And in both works, our protagonist-narrator’s name is pronounced the same. In The Big Sleep, his name is Marlowe; in The Heart of Darkness his name is . . .

MARLOW

Technically, the narrator of Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness is the unnamed fifth man on the luxury sailboat Nellie, which is anchored on the Thames several miles east of London as the men wait for the turn of the tide. His is the voice that opens and closes the novella and occasionally provides a transition paragraph during the story. And his is also the voice of the polite gentlemen, which comes through as he introduces us to the others on board. He identifies three only by their professions: the Lawyer (“the best of old fellows”), the Accountant, and the Director of Companies (“our captain and our host”).

But our unnamed narrator is most intrigued by the fifth man. As he tells us,

“Marlow sat cross-legged right aft, leaning against the mizzen-mast. He had sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect, and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands outwards, resembled an idol.”

The men aboard are quiet as “the sun set; the dusk fell on the stream, and lights began to appear along the shore.” They gaze out at the348_1[1] traffic on the river: “Lights of ships moved in the fairway—a great stir of lights going up and going down.” In the far distance, the lights of London were “marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars.”

And then our real narrator speaks:

“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”

Soon, like the gentlemen aboard the Nellie, we are entranced by Marlow’s vivid narration of his journey up the Congo River in search of the mysterious Mr. Kurtz. The language is beautiful, the scenes are powerful, and Marlow is the perfect guide into that heart of darkness.

Whether this is your first or your fifth time reading the work, from the moment Marlow first speaks you, too, will be entranced. The prose is remarkable, and all the more so in that English was not Joseph Conrad’s first language. Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in the Russian part of what had once been Poland, he came to England as a young man.

Although Conrad apparently spoke with a Polish accent the rest of his life, his English prose still sparkles after more then a century. There are quotable sentences–and occasionally entire paragraphs–on every single page of the novella. Here is one of my favorite passages: Marlow’s description of traveling up the Congo River:

“Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sandbanks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off forever from everything you had known once -somewhere- far away in another existence perhaps. There were moments when one’s past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare to yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect.”