Guide: an A to Z ramble through the peaks of great literature (abridged)

C is for Conrad


by Joseph Conrad

From the window of the ‘Nellie’, a small riverside public house, the Thames twisted and turned into the distance... the beginning of one of my interminable novels. Marlowe, the skipper of a sailing-ship moored outside, had just bought a round of drinks for his crew and they watched apprehensively as he stood, looking out on the darkening landscape. A ground fog, rising from the open fields across the river was threatening to close in and make everything as incomprehensible to the mind as the plot of Lord Jim.

Between sailors there is, as you will know, the brotherhood of the sea. This means that they like to sit around in pubs alot and tell each other tall tales. But Marlowe’s stories were different. Unlike the rest, who would begin their yarns at the beginning, proceed at a fair pace, negotiate all the hazard, and navigate safely to their destinations, Marlowe’s tales would weave in and out of the shipping lanes, spring innumerable leaks, run aground now and then on sand-banks and generally lose their way. In other words, nobody ever understood what he was talking about. But when someone buys you a pint, you were more or less obliged to listen. Marlowe stared at the boats moving up and down the river in the twilight.

“And this too,” he said suddenly, “was once one of the darkest places on earth.”

The crew winced at each other, realising that he was about to launch into one of his tales.

“But that was in the old days,” he added, “before we had street lamps. Civilization you see; it changes everything. The Romans were a civilized people and look what they did for us when they came here. Built fine roads everywhere – and they never even had tarmac! But they could only lay them down in straight lines. That’s what makes us more civilized than the Romans. We can build roads with curves in.”

He broke off, no doubt pondering on the profundity of his statement, while the rest of the men began to hope against hope that he had finished.
But it was when he said, “I suppose you fellers know I did a stint as a river-boat captain in the Congo once?” that they knew they were about to hear the river-boat story again.

“When I arrived at the company station at the mouth of that great river,” he began, “I was given my mission; to sail the steam-boat up stream and collect a company employee by the name of Kurtz from the interior. I set off at once. Almost immediately I began to realize what an indescribably horrible place the interior was. And it got more indescribably horribler the further I went. ‘This is impossible,’ I thought, ‘How can I describe something that’s indescribably horrible?’ Just then, as luck would have it, I discovered an old discarded copy of Roget’s Thesaurus under my bunk. My mission was saved!”

“I poured through the pages and armed myself with enough obscure words to ward off a whole regiment of curious critics who might be searching for meaning in my text. Then I continued up-stream, contemplating the aimless futility of brooding over impenetrable thoughts that lay with inscrutable designs on the indefatigable mind of the irreconcilably assiduous thinker who would ruminate on the enigmatic  nature of meditation.”

Suddenly an irresistible thought struck me with implacable force. Suppose I should exhaust my formidable supply of imperspicuous words before I’d reached Kurtz.
I was overcome with despair; desolate; lost in a wilderness of barren, anguished dejection; my hopes laid waste; despondency filling my heart with darkness. But then i thought, ‘Oh bugger it, I can always repeat – repeat I say – yes repeat myself, continually, constantly, endlessly, incessantly, interminably – persistently reapeating myself for all eternity – ad infinitum. Just then I reached the end of the river.” “’Where’s Kurtz?’ I said to the first person I met after leaping ashore.

‘Over there,’ replied the first person, pointing to a bald-headed man, lying on the ground. I approached him confidently.

‘Mr Kurtz, I presume,” I said and awaited his epigrammatic reply.

‘The horror! The horror!’ he screamed.

‘Well that was quite succinct,’ I said, ‘though lacking the wit I was expecting from my dictionary definition of epigram’.

‘The horror! The horror!’ he persisted.

‘Do you mean to say that I’ve travelled thousands of miles across ocean, up river and through jungle in order to find you and all you can say is ‘the horror, the horror!’ Here!’ I said and threw the Thesaurus at him, ‘You need it more than i do!’

Marlowe fell silent at last, his head bowed down, his hand clasping an empty glass. The rest of the crew had already sloped away to the other end of the bar for a game of darts.