Monday, December 3, 2012

A little Kurtz-y to Death

Novelist Joseph Conrad was born on this day in 1857.

Born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzenioski, in Poland, Conrad went to sea at 16 and spent 20 years there, first on French merchant ships in the West Indies, then on English ships, where he learned the language and traveled to Latin America and Africa. He drew on these experiences for much of his fiction; in 1890 he was the commander of a ship that traveled up the Congo River, the inspiration for Heart of Darkness.

He began writing in 1892, on a voyage from England to Australia, and in 1895 he left the British merchant service to become a full-time writer. He settled in London and married an Englishwoman.

Although English was not his native language, he is renowned for the subtlety and descriptiveness of his prose--despite the fact that he spoke the language all his life with a heavy accent.

In Heart of Darkness, the narrator, Marlow, recounts to his friends a trip into Africa, where he becomes curious about a man called Kurtz. He travels up the Congo River to reach Kurtz, an agent whom Marlow expects by his reputation to be a "universal genius," an "emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and devil knows what else."

As they near Kurtz's camp, they are attacked, and Marlow's helmsman is killed. They learn that Kurtz has made himself the natives' god and has decorated the posts of his hut with human skulls.

Marlow tries to get the seriously ill Kurtz away down the river, but Kurtz dies, his last words being, "The horror! The horror!"

Back in Europe Marlow tells Kurtz's fiancée that "the last word he pronounced was-your name."

Joseph Conrad died of a heart attack at age 67. His epitaph, taken from Spenser's The Faerie Queene, reads: "Sleepe after toyle, port after stormie seas, /Ease after warre, death after life, does greatly please."

In Heart of Darkness, Kurtz says:

"I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable grayness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamor, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat."