Setting out for Brussels: Conrad and the "Sepulchral City"

Article excerpt

RONALD FIRBANK'S waspish line in his 1915 novel Vainglory, "'I can hardly imagine anyone," Lady Georgia observed, "setting out deliberately for Brussels," finds its flat contradiction in Conrad's life-story. As his correspondence documents, he visited the city on several occasions in search of employment and for personal reasons. Still, given the paucity of Conrad's contact with the capital of Belgium and Marlow's hostility towards it in "Heart of Darkness," it is hardly surprising that Brussels is neglected among the far-flung cities treated in the homage to Hans van Marle, Conrad's Cities.1 Conrad's contact with the city proved crucial: it was for him the gateway to the Congo; he met several of its important and influential residents during his passages through it; and, although camouflaged, it provided the setting for parts of "Heart of Darkness."

Meeting the Congo in rue Brederode: Thys and Wauters

The preparation for Marlow's meeting with the Company Manager in "Heart of Darkness" is widely admired as one of the great set-pieces of Modernist literature. It privileges the metaphoric over the literal as darkness, silence, disorder, and hermetic and inward-looking closure presage entrée to the meeting with the Fates: "A narrow and deserted street in deep shadow, high houses, innumerable windows with venetian blinds, a dead silence, grass sprouting between the stones . . . immense double doors standing ponderously ajar" (Youth 55). Conrad recast his own encounter with rue Brederode, in which the offices of the Société Anonyme Belge du Haut-Congo were located, in imaginative terms; it was transformed for fictional purposes and given symbolic dimensions.

The actual street to which Conrad had made his way,2 named after the Renaissance comte Henri de Bréderode, lies directly behind the Royal Palace and proves in effect to have been (as it is today) its back entrance (see Map 1). In 1890, the Annuaire official du commerce et de l'industrie (hereafter cited as Annuaire), a street-by-street listing of businesses and residents, indicates its mixed character (I, 24); there were a handful of private residents, including a baron, but, as might be expected given its centrality, the street was largely given over to offices, shops, and services (a pharmacy, a hairdresser's, a shoemaker's, a wine merchant's). The palace, with its granthose and ornate frontage, also had positioned behind it several commercial interests linked to the Congo. In addition to the Société Anonyme Belge du Haut-Congo, headed by Albert Thys,3 the Annuaire lists no less than three other such concerns: the Compagnie des Magasins généraux du Congo (S. A.), the Compagnie du Congo (S. A.), and the Bureaux de la Compagnie du Congo. Thys's enterprise, housed at no. 9, was located directly next door to the Department of the Interior's office for the Congo, the Administration générale de l'État indépendent du Congo. (The intermingling of business and government could be no more eloquently clear.)

Conrad's first visit to rue Brederode occurred sometime in late October 1889, his letter to Thys (Fig. 1), of 4 November being written to follow up his visit (CL1 25). Dating is, for once, important: Conrad's first contact with the company had no connection with Marguerite Poradowska, whom he first met some months after it, a departure from its fictional depiction, with Marlow's aunt providing him entrée. How the meeting with Thys came about must remain a matter of speculation; Conrad presumably relied upon friends in shipping circles in London to provide him with an introduction.

It is unclear whether he also met on this occasion the enormously versatile A. -J. Wauters, the Secretary-General of the Société Anonyme Belge pour le Haut Congo (Fig. 2).4 Conrad certainly did encounter him on his next visit, calling on him on 5 February 1890 (CL1 46, 62). 5 Wauters presumably lies behind the statement of Marlow's aunt in "Heart of Darkness": "I know the wife of a very high personage in the Administration, and also a man who has lots of influence with,' etc. …