Some Penguin Classics are beautiful productions in and of themselves, quite separate from the beauty (or, in the case of some authors reprinted with inexplicable regularity, the lack thereof) of the prose involved. Conspicuous along these lines is the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition line, which puts wonderful extra effort into making paperback classics worth treasuring on the outside and the inside. These editions have gatefold covers, deckle edges, and, most noticeably, newly-commissioned and often deliberately off-kilter cover art. And while on rare occasions that cover-art can go awry (the less said about the new Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Anne of Green Gables, the better – although the stuff inside was as wonderful as ever), most often its both arresting and, often playfully, subversive.
In the case of the new Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the cover represents a natural pairing: illustrating Conrad’s novella of frightening human degradation is comic book artist Mike Mignola, the creator of Hellboy. Mignola is a virtuoso of dark spaces in his art, and looming behind the semi-human figure on the cover is a tangled, swollen heart – in a pointed gesture of creepiness, the vein are embossed.
A reader who can resist embossed heart-veins is made of sterner stuff than I am, but even for such die-hard holdouts, this Conrad edition offers a mighty strong temptation in the form of an Introduction by Adam Hochschild, author of the bestselling King Leopold’s Ghost – in one sense a perfect choice, considering how extensively Hochschild has written about the same forces of colonialism that drive a wedge of madness right through the middle of Conrad’s book. Hochschild is a sensitive reader of fiction, but in this case he’s calling for more:
We miss much if we look at the novel only as a work of imaginative literature. It is also a remarkable description of “the actual facts of the case,” the Scramble for Africa at its most naked. The river that Marlow travels up may never be named – and, indeed, it doesn’t always physically resemble the Congo River, nor does the Inner Station much resemble the Stanley Falls Station Conrad saw … But consider the figure at the novel’s center, Mr. Kurtz, the brilliant, ambitious, supremely rapacious hoarder of ivory. Kurtz is sketched with only a few bold strokes, but he has become our time’s most famous literary villain: the lone white man with his dreams of culture and grandeur, his great store of ivory, and his barbarous fiefdom carved out of the jungle.
Of course the main draw here is the same as in all Penguin Classics: the book itself. I recently re-read and loved Maya Jasanoff’s great new biography of Conrad, The Dawn Watch, so I was primed and ready to re-read Heart of Darkness, which I confess I’d never really enjoyed all that much and whose vicarious elevation in the wake of Apocalypse Now I resisted with a degree of stubbornness that was doubtless unfair to Conrad.
My worry about him has always been the disquieting murk of his prose, and this latest re-reading of Heart of Darkness didn’t exactly sooth that worry: Conrad is a prolix writer. The wits who’ve been commenting for 100 years that his English reads like a fair-to-middling translation from some very different and perhaps far more glottal language have always been delivering a grain of truth. But this latest re-reading revealed slow (not to say sludgy) undercurrents in passages I’d always previously considered simple self-indulgence. I don’t know whether or not it was largely due to Maya Jasanoff’s book, but I navigated the undercurrents far more easily this time around and actually enjoyed myself in re-reading even fervid passages like this one:
“I let him run on, this papier-maché Mephistopheles, and it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe. He, don’t you see, had been planning to be assistant-manager by and bye under the present man, and I could see that the coming of that Kurtz had upset them both not a little. He talked precipitately, and I did not try to stop him. I had my shoulders against the wreck of my steamer, hauled up on the slope like the carcass of some big river animal. The smell of mud, of primeval mud, by Jove! Was in my nostrils, the high stillness of the primeval forests was before my eyes; there were shiny patches on the black creek. The moon had spread over everything a thin layer of silver – over the rank grass, over the mud, upon the wall of matted vegetation standing higher than the wall of a temple, over the great river I could see through the sombre gap glittering, glittering, as it flowed broadly by without a murmur. All this was great, expectant, mute, while the man jabbered about himself. I wondered whether the stillness on the ace of the immensity looking at us two were meant as an appeal or as a menace. What were we who had strayed in here? Could we handle that dumb thing, or would it handle us?”
My other, non-Deluxe Penguin Classics edition of Heart of Darkness has the traditional Penguin black spine with white letters, but as is usually the case, this Deluxe Edition is easily superior, a slim, gorgeous thing in its own right and now haunted by Mike Mignola’s somber artwork. Complete with embossed veins.