Russia then and now | Under Western Eyes | Joseph Conrad
Under Western Eyes
General Books LLC
, 2010 - 202 pages
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To be(tray), or not to be...
This is a Russian story for
ears, says the narrator, an Englishman who teaches languages in Geneva at the beginning of the 20th century.
A Russian student in St.Petersburg is faced with a dilemma that must have been experienced in similar form by many others in many times and countries, and by many more in their imagination. What would I do, if...
Say, you were a German student with vaguely leftwing orientation in the early 70s, and Ulrike Meinhof had just gone
ground, and by some strange combination of coincidences she turns up in your flat and asks for temporary shelter and some minor help in an escape plan.
This is the situation that Conrad puts his hero Razumov in. Not with Meinhof, silly, but with a freshly successful assassin of a high Russian politician; the 2 students knew each other barely.
From here, Conrad develops a compelling story of betrayal and espionage and political revolution, starting in St.Petersburg, then moving to Geneva. Like in real life, one might say. Switzerland becomes the playground for the Russian revolutionaries in exile and for their hunters. The title of the story means exactly that: Russian fights fought in the West for `them' to watch and wonder over.
(This book is another case of oddly misinforming book descriptions, here on an otherwise blameless Penguin: the back cover says that the book explores the conflict between East and West. What nonsense. The book explores no such thing.)
Conrad was far from sympathizing with `the Russians', but he seems to have known them quite well. His Razumov (the word means `reason' or `mind', says the writer of the notes) is a variation on Razkolnikov. Conrad disliked Dostoyevsky, who was `too Russian' for him, but he was rather obviously writing `against' him here. Razumov's guilt is his betrayal of the assassin, and his atonement/punishment comes in hard struggles between reason/self preservation and emotion.
The novel has a rather simple structure, for a major Conrad novel.
The narrator came into possession of Razumov's diaries; he paraphrases and summarizes them for us. (Why not stick to the fiction and let us read the `original' diary, as Nabokov might have done? - I thought of Nabokov here because VN, like JC, disliked Dostoyevsky; it may be an interesting subject to compare the differences of the dislikes of JC and VN.)
Part 1 is the story in St.Pete, by the diaries. Then we follow the narrator's personal experience in Geneva. Protagonists in the story have not read part 1, of course... This gives the narration a Hitchcockian flavor. We know more than the people in the story, and that drives suspense.
JC did not have the benefit of the Bolshevik revolution hindsight, that's why some of the politics are oddly off target. It could hardly be otherwise in 1910.
The novel has more women than most other Conrad books. This about the main female character: at the educational institutions, she was looked upon unfavorably. She was suspected of holding independent opinions.
Quite possibly, JC wrote women into this book as a defense mechanism. He had been attacked from that angle.
In the life work of Conrad, this novel is in a surprising position. He wrote it before he reached his prominent and profitable phase. It is not necessarily a shocking departure in terms of methods, but it is for sure a pure thriller: a precursor of Graham Greene and John Le Carre, and their next generation. There is nothing of the complexity and complication of Nostromo in this novel. Even the Secret Agent is much more complex.
I do not hesitate to include this in my short list of best Conrads.
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The Greatest Russian Novel...
...of the 20th Century written in English by a Pole! Honestly, you could remove any and all of the prepositional qualifiers from that assertion, and I'd still be willing to defend it.
is a superb novel in every way - in emotional impact, in intelligence, and in narrative art - and it is very specifically a Russian novel as well as a novel about Russia. Anecdotes suggest that Conrad wrote it in response to his reading of Dostoevsky; if so, he exceeded his model in dazzling narrative acrobatics and in intelligence.
The central character, Razumov, is the most dislikable anti-hero in all fiction, so it's an amazing feat of empathy by which Conrad brings us to care about his fate. Conrad's genius as a narrator is his ability to place himself and the reader in a realm of detachment, so that every event and every character can be observed from several angles at once. The "unreliable narrator" is child's play for Conrad. I don't want to spoil any of the prismatic effect of Conrad's narrative structure by telling any more of the tale of Under Western Eyes, but I will mention that the title is not insignificant.
The Russia portrayed in this novel is a land of cynicism and naivete intertwined - hyper-emotionalism and psychological repression in equal measure - omnicompetent surveillance and hopeless myopia - ruthless bureaucracy and utter disorganization - a land in short of oxymoronic self-destruction. This is NOT, however, the Russia of Communism! The novel was written in 1911! This is Russia as it existed under the Tsarist autocracy, and everything about it clamors for revolution. It's interesting to compare Conrad's portrayal of the old regime with the nostalgic and idealized version served up by Vladimir Nabokov in his memoir "Speak, Memory." Nabokov wrote far more beautiful sentences, but Conrad saw deeper. The horror for us, post-Stalinist readers, in Conrad's depiction of the pre-revolutionary state-of-things is that we KNOW that change will not change much, that autocratic, arbitrary repression will be replaced by...more of the same.
Conrad wrote two novels aground, away from the sea - this one and The Secret Agent. They are among his best. Some readers of today seem to find Conrad's style involuted and dry, and blame it on his status as a 'second-language' writer. To my mind, they are missing the point, the complex lensing of perspective through the minds of Conrad's narrative intermediaries. This is a book to be read slowly and observantly; the effort will be rewarded.
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Russia then and now
"Autocracy knows no law," is the essential message Conrad send us in this harrowing tale of a young Russian student, Razumov, who finds himself involved in a political assassination in pre-World War I Tsarist Russia.
We know his involvement to be purely accidental without complicity, but he is unable to prove that and the authorities, though accepting his account, leave him
a cloud. Unable to free himself of suspicion, Razumov leaves Russia for
In Switzerland, Razumov finds himself involved with other Russians, revolutionary plotters intent on overthrowing the Tsar. The events surrounding our protagonist's time in Switzerland are woven in Conrad's usual masterful way. Razumov finds love with a sympatico woman, a fellow exile, but ultimately nothing comes of it.
I would be tempted to label Razumov a sociopath, given his described thoughts about others he encounters. He is a loner described as having no family or close friends, and seems driven by ambitions unrelated to the involvement of anyone outside himself. Fellow students he knows are seen by him as no more than nodding acquaintances. It is true that Conrad never suggests Razumov suffers from some emotional incapacity, but the evidence is certainly there.
With respect to Conrad's theme about the autocratic state, we have been told that the totalitarian state is worse than one that is merely a dictatorship. Both would appear to be lawless, qualifying under Conrad's definition as autocracies. Insofar as neither would recognize any limit on the power of those in power, the foregoing distinction becomes one possessed of no substance.
Today's Russia appears to differ from the Tsarist one in that some law appears even as limit on the power of the national leaders.
Does that leave today's Russia the same as the Tsarist one? Probably not: some power-limiting law seems to exist in the current Russian state.
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Great Novel for Conrad Fans and Others
Though not in Joseph Conrad's top tier,
is an excellent novel that would be nearly any other writer's best. Moving further from the symbolic sea stories of his early career, it extends the remarkable diversity that Nostromo and The Secret Agent introduced. It is in many ways an extension of the latter but also mixes in elements of classic Russian fiction and other factors to make a truly great work. The novel is many things: a psychological portrait, a sociohistorical look at political unrest, a philosophical take on revolutions, a complex depiction of the Russian character, a dramatization of the conflict between politics/morality and idealism/practicality, a nuanced view of Russia filtered through a Western lens - and by extension a contrast between Eastern and Western sensibilities -, and more. It is essential for fans, and those not fond of more representative Conrad may be pleasantly surprised, especially those interested in Russian, historical, or political fiction.
As Conrad's 1920 Preface notes, this 1911 work became in many ways a historical novel in only a few years. It depicts Czarist Russia's death throes, unflinchingly showing its many horrors and atrocities. Conrad always had great sympathy for the poor and downtrodden, and this may be the clearest example; the book's portrayal of poverty and other forms of want is truly eye-opening. That such suffering existed less than a century ago in an ostensibly modern country is enough to breed misanthropy in the staunchest optimist. Conrad leaves no doubt that it was ripe for reform - nay, that drastic change was practically inevitable. Revolution of course came in only six years, instantly changing the book's significance. The writing is very visceral, leaving no doubt that the era was anything but pretty; a focus on various forms of dreariness makes clear that it was in many ways truly wretched. It is particularly valuable as an antidote to those who for decades championed - and still champion - Czarist Russia as a haven of relative tranquility and liberty in the wake of the Soviet Union's admitted oppression.
However, this is not a liberal work crying for revolution. Conrad was far too deeply conservative to ever write or even think such a thing - not in today's dumbed-down political catchphrase sense but in a truly pessimistic way. He had little hope for melioration in politics or anything else, tragically convinced that human life will always be pained and striving with the poor and downtrodden forever at succeeding tyrannies' mercy. I have never seen another work with such little faith in revolution or political change of any sort; Conrad's Preface concludes by mocking "the strange conviction that a fundamental change of hearts must follow the downfall of any given human institutions," noting, "These people are unable to see that all they can effect is merely a change of names." If this sounds dry, however astute, worry not; the dramatization is very engaging and intriguing, making the point clear without failing to entertain and managing to avoid heavy-handedness.
Indeed, like nearly all Conrad, the novel can be enjoyed on a very basic level. Like The Secret, it deals heavily in international political intrigue complete with spies, assassinations, etc. It certainly has little resemblance to the superficial spy stories so sadly ubiquitous in recent decades but has more excitement and adventure than most century-old novels. Perhaps more integrally, it is told in an essentially straight-forward, though not linear, way, especially compared to most Conrad; the feeling of being lost and disoriented that turns off so many casuals to much of his work is only slightly present and used with great skill for suspense and dramatic irony. Under is thus one of his most accessible major works and a good place for neophytes to start or for the unconvinced to try again.
Many other factors give wide appeal. For instance, Russian fiction's many fans would be very hard-pressed to find a more "Russian" work by a non-Russian. The novel is often called Conrad's response to Fyodor Dostoevsky, whom he apparently loathed, particularly in regard to Crime and Punishment. There are indeed many similarities between the latter's Raskolnikov and Under's Razumov; Crime fans and Dostoevsky scholars can have a proverbial field day analyzing this and other aspects. More fundamentally, much of the novel is set in Russia and is thoroughly inundated with all things Russian. We not only get a good idea of how early twentieth century Russia looked but more than a glimpse of its culture - everything from manners to speech to politics. Also, in the grand tradition of Russian greats like Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy, Conrad includes a wealth of thought-provoking material - without their famous bulk, doubtless to the great relief of many. The novel is both broadly and specifically philosophical, dramatizing a wide variety of abstract and practical issues in a way that forces us to confront the weighty subjects that many think necessary to great literature. The depiction of feminism, implicitly championed in other Conrad, is especially dubious and thus fascinating. Also like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and unlike other Conrad, much of this is done via dialogue - another striking instance of Conrad's diversity.
Even more fundamentally, Under is a profoundly penetrating study of the Russian character - not only as it then was but in its essence. This is in many ways what the Russian greats were really getting at, and that Conrad was able to approach their greatness is a true testament to his artistry. Rarely has a foreigner had such a clear vision of another country or its people. The thoughts, emotions, and sensibilities at the heart of Russia and its people are given with great verisimilitude and sensitivity. This alone would make the novel worthwhile, especially to the many interested in the subject. Like all Conrad novels to this point, Under was a European commercial failure, but the Preface notes with great satisfaction that it did very well in Russia, which says much about its believability and empathy.
The most remarkable thing about the book in this and other regards is complete lack of didacticism. Conrad shows the characters and what they stand for on their own terms sans comment, never even coming close to preachiness or any other authorial intrusion. He simply dramatizes sociopolitical concerns and lets us decide, remaining admirably neutral. This is extremely rare in any sociopolitical work, and the story is better for it; those turned off by didacticism have nothing to fear. However, it is all the more remarkable in that Conrad had every reason to lambaste Russia; a Pole born in the Ukraine, his family suffered under Russian imperialism, crushing his parents and forcing him to leave his native land at seventeen never to return. As one might expect, the struggle to remain dispassionate was agonizing; he had a nervous breakdown lasting several weeks during which, in his wife's words, he lived the scenes and spoke to the characters, apparently in Polish. That none of this shows is truly incredible - an amazing feat of artistry rarely seen or even attempted.
Separate from, and perhaps over and above, all this is the deft characterization that will be one of the main features for many. This is not one of Conrad's acknowledged strengths, but Under proves him on par with the best in this important area. There is a notably wide variety of characters, everyone from aristocrats and generals to intellectuals and revolutionists to the poorest of the poor, and all are drawn realistically and compellingly. The most important is of course Razumov, who forms one of Conrad's - and thus one of literature's - most intriguing character studies. He is in some ways the era's representative young Russian; well-educated and intelligent with a social status neither high nor low, he is clear-eyed enough to see the problems around him, but inherited loyalty and self-interest check his liberal impulses. This again recalls characters in the Russian greats' work, as do his more universal qualities. He is in many ways thoroughly dislikable, even despicable - vain, selfish, and indecisive with occasional malice. However, in a true sign of his artistic skill, Conrad somehow manages to make us care about him, even if he is not quite sympathetic. He may be more sinned against than sinning, but more to the point, he is like many intelligent youths throughout history - full of potential but unsure what to do and thus pitiably easy prey. His lack of resolve and true convictions may offend strict moralists, but he is distinctly human; his faults if anything make him more relatable. Some have criticized Conrad for not condemning him, but this misses the point - an essentially ordinary person, he could be almost anyone. Only the very few who have been in comparable situations can say how they would act in his place. Even more essentially, though, Razumov symbolizes many conflicts that numerous youths in politically turbulent eras have experienced: personal vs. public morality, idealism vs. practicality, politics vs. morality, patriotism vs. conscience, etc. His confessions also bring up many important debatable issues. Whatever we think of them generally, the acts have a certain courage that even the revolutionaries cannot deny. These and other aspects make Razumov one of Conrad's most fully realized and important characters.
As all this suggests, different as the book is from most Conrad, it carries on his tragic vision. A dark fatalistic streak is particularly notable; Razumov shows how people can be pulled into extremely precarious situations against their will, and they seem unable to escape. Conrad shows little hope of meliorism here or in the larger political sense. Like The Secret, despite being published only shortly into the twentieth century, Under in many ways anticipated much of its darkness. It depicts humanity on despair's verge with little or no reason for optimism; the time and place may be distinct, but these and other factors are sadly universal.
Great as the novel is generally, a few minor problems ensure it is below Conrad's best. The primary one is the narrator and the unusual narrative style to which he leads. Many will like this last because of aforementioned strengths and because it is yet another Conrad innovation, but the character himself is somewhat awkward. Conrad's Preface makes a good case for why he had to exist, and he may well be right, but Conrad himself often seems unsure how to use him. His presence is supposed to lend the verisimilitude that can only come from direct observation, but the narrative plan - having him write in the first-person but mostly from Razumov's perspective because he has read his diary - is quite a stretch. Conrad does an ingenious job of eventually explaining how he knows all he tells, but the apparent initial impossibility can be distracting, and his intrusions are particularly so. The author also attempts to explain the latter - in fact quite cleverly -, but the whole premise often seems contrived. Excerpts from Razumov's journal mixed with the narrator's recollections may have worked better. However, the narrator frequently seems out of place even when present, having little or nothing to do with the scene; it is almost as if Conrad forgot he was there or was simply unable to come up with a reason despite thinking him necessary. The ending - not the climax - is also somewhat weak, especially compared to Conrad's usual high standard, coming somewhat arbitrarily and failing to satisfy.
Thankfully, though, these are minor limitations and detract little from what is an excellent novel overall. Indeed, it is one of Conrad's most widely appealing works. It comes highly recommended for nearly everyone who likes any type of classic literature.
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