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NA309412 - CONRAD, J.: Youth and Heart of Darkness (Abridged)
Youth and Heart of Darkness
In 1902, Joseph Conrad’s Youth: A Narrative; and Two Other Stories was published. The second story in the collection was Heart of Darkness, destined to become the best known of the three and to be widely regarded as a seminal work of modernist literature. The first two stories are narrated by Marlow, an experienced seaman, to a group of old friends, between all of whom ‘there was the strong bond of the sea.’
Youth, as its title suggests, is concerned with Marlow’s rite of passage from youth to manhood, and is filled with the glamour, optimism and strength of purpose of a young man who believes in himself, and that anything is possible. The actual journey is from London to Bangkok with a cargo of coal, and nothing — not the terrifying Atlantic gales which besets them on their first attempt, not the burning cargo which threatens their lives in the Indian Ocean — can defeat the young Marlow’s determination to see the East. His romanticism is resolute, but it is given meaning by the incredible exertions and dangers which the voyage imposes on him, and in which he is not found wanting. The forty-two year old Marlow, who looks back on his younger self, does so with a touching affection and nostalgia: ‘Ah! The good old time - the good old time. Youth and the sea. Glamour and the sea! The good, strong sea, the salt, bitter sea, that could whisper to you and roar at you and knock your breath out of you…’
Heart of Darkness is an altogether more disturbing work. Marlow is an older and wiser man in this second tale: at a loose end, and seeking to fulfill a childhood ambition to explore the ‘mighty big river…on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled’, he takes a post as captain of a river-steamer owned by a Belgian trading company working in the Congo. This begins the most dreadful ‘adventure’ of his life. The narrative works continuously on two levels: there is the physical journey itself, penetrating deeper and deeper into the heart of Africa, and then there is the spiritual or metaphysical journey which Marlow must make into the essential heart of man, which turns out to be a place of darkness and terror — a place of utterly corrupted and betrayed ideals. In the second half of the novella, all this is mediated through the enigmatic character of Kurtz. Marlow gradually realizes that he is being used to ‘rescue’ Kurtz who, ill and near death, lies at the Inner Station. Here he has established a reign of grossly corrupt terror over the native population who worship him as a kind of god and by whom ‘monstrous passions’ are gratified. Kurtz, it is clear, had set out for Africa as a genuine idealist, aiming to bring light into the dark places of the earth, but the wilderness had ‘beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations’. He has become, in other words, a modern Faust. Yet his significance goes deeper than this: what is most disturbing for Marlow is the sense that Kurtz has discovered in himself, and at least confronted with a kind of honesty, what is ultimately true for all of us: as he lies dying, ‘he cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision - he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath - “The horror! The horror!”’ The outworking of this truth are evident throughout the story — nowhere more vividly than when Marlow stumbles across a scene of hideous exploitation where discarded black workers are left to die in ‘the grave of death’, while above them the representatives of ‘civilization’ work on their ledgers, irritated by the groans of the dying…
Joseph Conrad was born in 1857 to Polish parents, both of whom died while he was still a child. In 1874 he embarked on a seafaring career, first based in France and then in England. He became a British subject in 1886 and in 1894 he began his second career — as a writer. English was in fact his third language, but such novels as Lord Jim (1900) quickly established his mastery of it. Nostromo (1904), The Secret Agent (1907) and Under Western Eyes (1911) are the novels of his middle period, but it was not until the publication of Chance (1913) that he began to enjoy any popular success. Critical success was also hard to come by, although by the time of his death in 1924 perceptive critics —including, for instance, philosopher Bertrand Russell — had begun to see him as the modern master he is now universally acknowledged to be.
Notes by Perry Keenlyside
Brian Cox is one of Britain’s leading actors and directors,
having won two Olivier Awards for his roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal National Theatre. His
television and film work is equally varied, among them being Rob Roy, Braveheart, Manhunter and Hidden Agenda. He is now increasingly active as a director (Richard III and The Master Builder).
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