“Droll thing life is – that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself – that comes too late – a crop of unextinguishable regrets. I have wrestled with death. It’s the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire for victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid scepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it to be.”
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Good ol’ “Say It Ain’t So” Joe published Heart of Darkness in 1899, the same year Ernest Hemingway was born (the two authors would share very similar experiences in their youth, similarly influencing their respective literary content, if through different styles). The Scramble for Africa by European imperialists was at its zenith, the world was on the brink of a new century, and mankind was on a dangerous precipice, about to plunge itself into what was soon to be – up until then – the most barbaric war in human history.
Cue the background for a novel that would gain a huge resurgence in popularity after the release of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now in 1979. Conrad had been deeply scarred by his experiences in Africa and harnessed these feelings in Marlow’s legendary trip along the Congo River to meet a mysterious man named Mr. Kurtz, the same theme of which would be mirrored in Coppola’s epic Vietnam War film through Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) when he sails upriver towards Cambodia to “terminate with extreme prejudice” Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), whom the U.S. Army has deemed insane.
What I find most impressive about Joseph Conrad is not the canon of literature he bequeathed to posterity, but the fact that he wrote his most notable fiction in neither his first, second or third languages (Polish, Russian and French, respectively) nor in his fourth or fifth (written) languages (Latin and German) and not even in his frigging sixth or seventh (passable but not perfectly fluent) languages (Spanish and Italian).
No, no, no. If you guessed anywhere from languages one through seven you are clearly a literary hayseed and should therefore burn with shame, languish, and be gone!
In fact, Conrad wrote his most enduring stories and prose in his freaking eighth (one after 7 and one before 9, which as it turned out was Malay) language! Perhaps more incredibly, if that’s possible, is that he he only started learning English in his 20s – and not formally in school or by living in a country like England, but on the high seas while hanging out with fellow shipmates. Hey Zeus!
And people think Leonardo da Vinci was special? That dude ain’t got nuttin’ on Joey C.