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 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 . . .
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 the 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.”