Heart of Joseph Conrad’s darkness

What was the secret to the making of a best selling author?

Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad

Mike Selby

Anyone familiar with the film ‘Apocalypse Now’ will know that this highly regarded visual masterpiece (eight Oscar nominations), descends into a chaotic and incomprehensible mess in its third act. Entire books and documentary films have been made as to just why this film was and remains an “artistic failure” — but most if not all the blame lands squarely on the shoulders of its director, Francis Ford Coppola (which may or may not be unfair; hurricane season in the Philippines routinely destroyed any set he had built, his main actor had a nervous breakdown and a heart attack, his other main actor showed up morbidly obese, unprepared and uncooperative, and Coppola himself joined this madness by binging on cocaine, openly cheating on his wife, and three suicide attempts.)

The failure may have less to do with any of the above, and more to do with the film’s source material — Joseph Conrad’s short novel ‘Heart of Darkness.’ Just why Coppola used an 1899 story about a merchant sailor’s river journey into the Belgian Congo for a film about the Vietnam War is anyone’s guess. It should be noted though in 1939 Orson Welles tried to film ‘Heart of Darkness,’ and it defeated him as well (he made ‘Citizen Kane’ instead).

Welles’s screenplay was presented to the public in 2012, earning nothing but praise from critics with one stating “You feel that if this film had been made, Hollywood might have been a different place.”

What is it about this 80-page novel that defeated two of the best known film directors of the 20th century (one being regarded as the best film director of all time)? The answer has to do with Conrad himself, his art, and a book no one really remembers anymore called ‘Chance.’

Born in the Ukraine and raised in Poland, Conrad didn’t arrive in England until he was 21 — an unusual beginning for “one of the greatest English novelists” of all time. His work immediately impressed the critics, but unfortunately for Conrad only a handful of people would buy his books. Unlike many better selling authors at the time, Conrad tackled weightier subjects than most people were comfortable with, such as raising multiracial children (‘Almayer’s Folly’), nature’s unconcern for mankind (‘Lord Jim,’), and the doubtfulness of humanity’s moral progress (‘Nostromo’).

Added to all this cheeriness is Conrad’s commitment to what he called his “art,” which means each book becomes more and more difficult to read. As one critic would note Conrad’s “sceptical bleakness and technical difficulties” would translate into very few sales. He was absolutely right. Each year that passed Conrad slipped further into debt, borrowing large sums of money from his literary agent just to pay his monthly bills.

Conrad also knew that by staying true to his “art” was also making him poor. His friend H.G. Wells advised him to write something more appealing to the masses. He tried with ‘The Inheritors’ and ‘Romance,’ but these didn’t sell well either.

Then in 1914 his novel ‘Chance’ was published, and it sold and sold and sold. It outsold all the rest of his novels combined, and was even serialized in the ‘New York Herald.’ Suddenly, Americans could not get enough of Joseph Conrad, even though ‘Chance’ is as densely complicated and difficult to read as any of his other books.

The reason for his success had nothing to do with his writing, or a sudden shift in literary taste. ‘Chance’ was Conrad’s first book to have a woman on the cover.

It finally clicked with someone at Doubleday that Conrad’s writing does not appeal to female readers, who in 1914 were the ones who bought books. So a woman was put on the dust jacket. The serialization of the book was also strategic, as excerpts were printed between women’s fashion and haircare ads.

And that is how Joseph Conrad became a much more known quantity than he would have been otherwise, and how a story like ‘Heart of Darkness’ would peak the interest of Welles and Coppola. Films (one made and one not) which are as longwinded and intellectually demanding as their source.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library