Before the Internet, there was TV. Before TV, movies, and radio. Before that, books and maps. Like many young boys growing up in the heart of Europe, maps of the world still suggested vast mysterious blank territory. While photography was prevalent in Conrad’s time, imagine what it must have been like to form all your knowledge of the Indian Ocean, or far away cities like Bangkok through words, maps, and perhaps an illustration or two. It’s inevitable that romanticized notions of sailing adventures are going to fill your spirit. In these two stories, Conrad takes that naive, youthful hunger for adventure (albeit from different points of view) and clubs it over the head.
I first read “Youth: A Narrative” in my Modern Library Giant Edition of Famous English Short Stories. For me, I could go to the table of Contents, star “Youth” numerous times and write “All-Star among all-stars”, but I don’t write in books.
I read that collection front to back and will likely be going back to that edition in the future. I later purchased a thin Penguin Classic by Joseph Conrad, Youth and The End of the Tether unaware that the “Youth” story was the one I had already read. I would take this little paperback to the beach. I work at home for my insurance job, and during the heat of the summer (without a/c) I would barely be able to make it until 4:15pm when I would grab my backpack already pre-filled with my towel and gun it down to the beach. 4:15pm may seem late to go to a beach, but really it’s the sweet spot to me. Still warm, but not so hot you’d get fried, and when the Pacific is warm it doesn’t matter if the air temp drops. The beach begins to clear, but there is still plenty of people watching to do along the boardwalk, and there’s nothing better than to unwind with a book after a cooling dip in the ocean, or a session of body surfing if the waves were right.
Past “beach reads” for me included Proust, Hemingway, Dostoevsky, David Foster Wallace… not typically light fare. But a thin copy of Conrad was just right last summer, and as I began to read (soon realizing it was a re-read) “Youth: A Narrative”, I began to salivate. It was like eating lobster (or anything else you love) for the second time. Both are good, but the second go around benefits from the anticipation of it. “Youth” in short is about a young 20 year old English sailor with dreams of seeing Bangkok on a leaky ship with a cargo of coal. “To Bangkok! Magic name. Blessed Name.” There are problems with the ship from the get go, forcing that excitement into an endless waiting room. The ship has to be towed back into port multiple times for repair before even starting. “It seemed as though we had been forgotten by the world, belonged to nobody, would get nowhere.”
When they finally do get on their way, a smell soon begins to waft up from below. “One would have thought hundreds of parrafin-lamps had been flaring and smoking in that hole for days.” The cargo had caught fire, but due to lack of oxygen perhaps, it’s a slow, menacing situation dragged on by days. As the days of the voyage wear on in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the crew tries to figure out how to extinguish the slow burning mess. Days pass, it gets worse. They pass another ship but the ship’s captain refuses assistance. The fire grows beyond control and the crew has to seek safety of longboats away from the ship, which eventually becomes a flaming torch.
Once the ship is gone they row for days toward “The East” finally reaching land. “And this is how I see the East…a high outline of mountains, blue and afar in the morning… strange odors of blossoms, of aromatic wood, comes out of the still night–the first sign of the East on my face.”
“Ah! The good old time – the good old time. Youth and the sea.”
“…our weary eyes looking still, looking always, looking anxiously for something out of life, that while it is expected is already gone – has passed unseen.”
This is one of those incredible stories so rich in language and specter, I could re-read again and again. It is a universal story of youth– of seeking something in life with an expected outcome, and having that outcome be something completely unforeseen. Such is life.
It’s only now that I realize that I read this story of youth and the sea at the same beach that I had been coming to since the youth of my 20’s, repeating each year some reclamation of a youth long past. 20 years in the future this too will be a youth spent “anxiously looking for something.” Maybe that’s the magic of this story–it’s just so painfully universal that try as we might, we cannot fully appreciate the current moment, whether they be joyous or times when all hope seems to be lost.
Just a note on the book cover. I believe in book covers. A book’s cover will forever be burned in the memory if it is a good book. You see the cover’s image each time you pick up the book, and as you progress through the story, if the work captures you, so too should the book cover. It should add something vital, as if you couldn’t imaging anything else. That’s why the cover of this edition is such a mystery–in an unfulfilling way. It is a detail from “Moonlight View From Istana, Sarawak, Borneo” by Marianne North. Not to knock the work itself, but in which way exactly it relates to these stories, I’m unsure.
At 30 pages, “Youth: A Narrative” is just and excellent, classic English short story about sailing the seas with dreams of the exotic East, and one I am sure to re-read again.
If “Youth” is an adventure story concerning the broad expanse of the sea and an open vision of life, Heart of Darkness is a horrific spectacle about the fecund interior, literally and metaphorically. The word “Congo”, especially if spoken in 1890, suggests to the mind an uncharted place one enters with no guarantee of exiting. For me to expound on the mastery of one of the all-time great works in the English language, or add in some meaningful way an insight that hasn’t already been said… forget it. I’ll be brief.
Heart of Darkness is a brooding tale beginning with men aboard a yacht, quietly taking in the setting of the sun at the mouth of the river Thames, waiting to embark on some journey. One of the men, Marlow, contemplating the river Thames hundreds of years prior, when the first Roman naval commanders captaining a trireme up the river into the heart of “savage England”, begins his tale of a journey into the the heart of the Belgian Congo, in search of a rogue company agent, Kurtz. This takes place during the indefensible height of European colonization, when the loot of resources at any cost far outpaced any ethical consideration of the colonized. Up river we go into the canopied, deep interior in search of the legendary Kurtz, the mysterious man who “sends in as much ivory as all the others put together.”
Conrad was a major figure in his time, and this is the novella he will be best known by. It wasn’t until my second and third readings where I began to appreciate the language, the journey into the interior or man, the devastating truth it speaks of men. It is frankly the ending that makes the story so crushing for me, where Marlow is visiting the wife of the late Kurtz. There as the sun sets in the room, he deceives her of Kurtz’s true last words, ‘The Horror! The horror!” allowing her to believe in love, that his last uttered words were her name.
If you were to pair a beer with Heart of Darkness it would have to be the dankest beer your could get your hands on, an Old Ale inoculated with Brettanomyces and left for a few summers to condition in a Mississippi swamp. It would have to be a joyless ale, of wet cardboard and suggesting of the reclamation of life that goes on at the jungle floor. But, as we are alive, a Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter will do to hearken back to turn of the century English Porter, and, if nothing else, as a tip of the hat to Progress and the modern world, flawed as it may be.
I have not read Conrad’s novels. Even Paul O’Prey, who writes an excellent introduction for this Penguin Classics edition writes, “Conrad was a much better short-story and novella writer than novelist.” That may be the case, but it didn’t stop Modern Library from coming up with multiple Conrad novel titles. As far as I’m concerned, on my deathbed I need only these two stories.