Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (20 down, 80 to go)

Destiny. My destiny! 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. ~ Charles Marlow

This is the first time I’ve read Heart of Darkness or Joseph Conrad. The story is a novella by most standards, written in the realism style, and is the first-person narrative of Charles Marlow of his expedition up the Congo River sometime in the late nineteenth century, British imperial Africa. 

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Heart of Darkness is an interesting story and well told, but I'm a bit perplexed as to why it is considered great? I have a theory. The epic film Apocalypse Now, based on Heart of Darkness, is certainly considered a masterpiece, nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe Award for Best Picture. I believe most of the top novel lists that include Heart of Darkness were compiled well after Apocalypse Now was released. I suspect the novel may enjoy some acclaim due to the film. Just a theory, and don't misunderstand me; It's a fine piece of literature, I'm just not convinced it deserves such high honors.

Charles Marlow, is the steamboat captain leading an expedition up the Congo River. The expedition, a commercial enterprise of an ivory trading company, was to extract an important agent of the company, Mr. Kurtz, who was reportedly very ill, and becoming something of a rogue. Marlow, experiences bureaucratic and logistical delays before getting underway, and hazards on the trip as one would expect in late 19th Century Africa.

Marlow becomes obsessed with Kurtz, even before he meets him. This is partially explained as Marlow learns of Kurtz from others in the company. Some speak directly to Marlow about Kurtz, and at other times he overhears conversations not intended for him. Kurtz is the most successful of the company's agents, nearly a legend for producing more ivory than all the others combined. Like most successful people, he inspires jealousy in those desirous to supplant him, and praise from those seeking his favor, knowing he is destined for greater influence in the company. As a steamship captain Marlow is aloof to the political workings of other employees, but what he learns of Kurtz causes him to be fascinated by the enigmatic persona.

I found this a bit implausible. I can understand why others revered, feared, or despised Kurtz, but I found it unbelievable that Marlow was so easily impressed as he was otherwise rather pragmatic and stoic. When he finally meets Kurtz, Marlow is further impressed, as he realizes that Kurtz is something of a deity to the natives, and ruler of a small domain. He also perceives that Kurtz has gone mad. Marlow seems to vacillate between awe and contempt from this point. There's more, as you can imagine, regarding the journey back, but I will spare the spoiler.

There are underlying themes of civilization vs savagery, racism, and imperialism, but mostly issues we've moved well past by now. At any rate, I read for the story, not for the author's social commentary. So, excuse me if I don't delve further.

Marlow on reading a bit of Kurtz' writing regarding his life with the savages:
The peroration was magnificent, though difficult to remember, you know. It gave me the notion of an exotic immensity ruled by an august Benevolence.

Film Renditions: As I stated earlier Apocalypse Now, starring Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando is a modern adaptation of Heart of Darkness. The time and setting is changed to Vietnam and Cambodia, late 20th Century. I watched it again after reading the book, and I found the movie was indeed more powerful than the book. There is also a film based more closely on the book. I hope to watch that soon as well.


Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (19 down, 81 to go)

"They will sell liberty for a quieter life"

This is the first time I’ve read A Clockwork Orange or Anthony Burgess. The book is a dystopian novel, set at an imprecise date in the future, London, England.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a difficult novel to read due to the slang, or more precisely argot (secret language), spoken by the main characters. They speak in Nasdat, the fictional Anglo-Russian argot of teens in future England. When I first started, the text was so unintelligible, I thought my e-reader had badly garbled the text. For example:
This evening in the Korova there was a fair number of vecks and ptitsas and devotchkas and malchicks smecking and peeting away... 

Translation: In the bar, there were a lot of men and women and girls and boys laughing and drinking...

Once I realized this was an intentional device of the author, I printed out a Nasdat lexicon and I was able to comprehend much better. It was slow going at first, but I eventually learned most of the words and could read without checking the lexicon every paragraph.

I'm ambivalent about A Clockwork Orange. At times it is fascinating, and a fairly astute commentary on humanity, but it is also disturbing. Some might even say obscene.

The story is the first-person account of Alex and his three droogs (friends), Pete, Dim, and Georgie. They are hooligans, (a far too generous term), that roam the city streets at night stealing what they want, brutalizing the weak for fun, and molesting women. Alex is by far the most intelligent and therefore the leader. His droogs fear him, and grow resentful of his preeminence.

Like all hooliganism, it’s all fun and games until someone accidentally kills someone and leaves enough evidence to be caught and convicted. That is to say, hardly surprising, Alex ends up in prison.

I suppose the next section is Burgess' indictment of the criminal justice system. Alex, a violent sociopath is imprisoned in close quarters with other criminals, and lo and behold it does nothing to reform him. However, he is eventually chosen for a new reform program the government is experimenting with that promises to return Alex to society, "cured" of criminal tendencies. The method is an extreme aversion therapy, where Alex is forced to watch graphically violent films. He is strapped in, with eyelids clipped open, unable to look away. At the same time, he is given injections that cause nausea, and eventually he becomes ill at the very thought of violence.

He is cured and released to be a model member of society, except, of course, you guessed it, things don’t work out so swimmingly. 

But how things work out depends upon which version of A Clockwork Orange you read. 

Spoiler Alert x 2

The original American publication ends with Alex returning to his old, violent, anti-social ways. The End. But if you read a post 1986 version, it will probably include Burgess’ preferred additional chapter and alternate ending, where Alex forms a new gang of toughs that again terrorize citizens in the night. However, with no real external stimulus or explanation, Alex eventually – just sort of – grows up. He contemplates, or perhaps even resolves, to reform himself, find a wife, start a family, and walk the straight and narrow.

How nice.

Really? I hate the alternate ending, really hate it. It very nearly excuses Alex’ violent past as a youthful indiscretion. It is also the most implausible part of the story, even amid the otherwise fantastic creations of the dystopian fantasy world.

But in spite of all this, there was something I liked: The Clockwork...Orange. Burgess himself offers several different explanations for the title, but they point to this:  Man is a clockwork – a delicate and precise machine, and an orange – a sweet and living thing.

The reader is tempted to approve of the first behavior modification to Alex. But somehow, Burgess manages to make Alex more likeable before he is cured, before he is a clockwork. That's a bit of masterful writing in my opinion, because Alex is pretty detestable. I suppose I am more comfortable with all the follies of man that accompany a free will, rather than a sterile orderly society of soulless machines. I hope this was Burgess' point.

The prison chaplain perhaps explains it best:
He has no real choice, has he? Self-interest, fear of physical pain, drove him to that...He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice.

Film Rendition: I didn't like the 1971 Stanley Kubrick film. Like many of Kubrick's films, it was very "artsy". An imprecise description on my part, but I don't know how else to explain it. I just didn't like it. Additionally, Malcolm McDowell was not convincing as Alex. Neither pro nor con, but the film does not include the final chapter.