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on 15 February 2008
Influenced by Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment", also a gripping pyschological study of an aloof, "guilty" man, but with a new twist: this is a searing indictment of cynical Russian autocracy (so timeless!) - and of police states in general. And it also vividly illustrates Conrad's famous (and wise) scepticism about the effectiveness of violent revolutionary action. The hero Mr Razumov, and his associates, are oppressed human victims of these two great opposing forces. This is one of Conrad's very best works - better I think than "The Secret Agent" - and is also one of the best (and politically phrophetic) novels of the early 20th century.
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In ways almost all students, and certainly their teachers also, are hard-pressed to explain, one particular work of an author becomes the one "assigned," and the others are dismissed, usually unread, as "minor," or, at least not necessary to have read in order to say that one has "done" this author. For example, for Thomas Wolfe, it is Look Homeward, Angel and for Gustave Flaubert, it is Madame Bovary (Penguin Classics). For Joseph Conrad, it is Heart of Darkness (Penguin Classics), and it still rankles me that it was adopted as a metaphor for the Vietnam War in Apocalypse Now (3-disc Special Edition including Hearts of Darkness) [Blu-ray] [1979]. The better intentioned readers will often say... someday... I'll read another work by that author. And I'm pleased to say that that someday has finally arrived, and I read my second work by Joseph Conrad, one that seemed better and more insightful that the one normally "assigned."

Conrad was born a Pole, lived for a period in exile in Russia proper, with his parents, and was orphaned at the age of 11. He commenced to "seek his fortune" in the merchant marines, at the age of 16. Nautical themes are the subject of several of his works. English is his THIRD language, and it is truly humbling to recall that while reading his exquisitely crafted prose, like beautifully polished fine grain wood.

"Under Western Eyes" opens in pre-revolutionary Russia, in the first decade of the 20th Century. The majority of the novel however transpires in Geneva, in the milieu of Russian revolutionaries and poseurs. The narrator, sometimes direct, at other times indirect, is an older English teacher of languages, who is the Western eyes of the title, and believes himself an impartial observer, an "inertial reference frame" if you will, of the machinations and power struggles of the revolutionaries, primarily, but also of the Russian establishment figures as well. The action commences when a student revolutionary, Victor Haldin, assassinates Mr. de P--, the President of the notorious Repressive Commission. Haldin then turns to a fellow student he does not know well, Razumov, to assist him in his escape. Haldin is betrayed to the quintessential establishment figure, Counsillor Mikulin. However, it appears that despite Razumov's actions, he is "tainted," and must seek exile himself in Geneva, where, inter alia, he develops a relationship with Haldin's sister and mother. It is a deeply psychological novel, and much of the action is in the drawing rooms of Geneva, where the revolutionaries pose, and establish pecking orders. Of the several sub-plots and minor characters of interest is Peter Ivanovitch, who supposedly made a spectacular escape from the Far East of Czarist Russia, with the help of a woman, and thence became an ardent "feminist," though he sure manages to abuse his housekeeper / stenographer. Another theme in the novel is similar to The Red Badge of Courage (Wordsworth Classics) After the "battle," with Haldin's demise, who really knows what happened, and is it possible for the coward and villain to portray himself as the hero?

Conrad was generally considered to be politically conservative, with a strong distain for revolutionary elements, and certainly in this novel many do not come off well. However, Conrad also paints an exceedingly bleak picture of living conditions, and the repressive nature of Russian society, certainly sufficient to motivate revolutionaries. In his notes, as an afterword, Conrad says: "The obligation of absolute fairness was imposed on me historically and hereditarily, by the peculiar experience of race and family, in addition to my primary conviction that truth alone is the justification of any fiction...I have never been called before to a greater effort of detachment: detachment from all passions, prejudices and even from personal memories."

I firmly believe that Conrad succeed in his stated objective above. The novel is also an excellent "spy novel" filled with intrigue and duplicity that inspired Graham Greene, W. Somerset Maugham and John Le Carré. Prince Peter Kropotkin famously said that the worse things are, the better, since reform is the enemy of revolution. Counsillor Milulin understood this dictum well, and is why he fought the revolutionaries, so that his reformist agenda could succeed.

It was a bitter cold February day in Santa Fe, NM when my hiking friend and I sought refuge in an excellent second-hand bookstore. In continued attempts to broaden my literary horizons, Mike bought me this excellent work, with a historical picture of the Pont du Mont Blanc in Geneva on the cover. Thanks, Mike, and can Lord Jim be far behind? 5-stars plus for UWE.
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on 6 December 2001
Apart from being a gripping story, Under Western Eyes is one of best portrayals of the turn-of-the-century Russian mind that you will come across. Some of the characters, notably Razumov and the main exiled revolutionaries, could come straight out of Dostoyevsky. The dialogue is abstract, halting and slightly sinister, mixing intolerance, fear and semi-hysteria. Crucial to the atmospherics is the depiction of Geneva as a dull, smug, ugly city where freedom is taken for granted in a way that sets it a world apart from Russia. It may not quite be as good as Nostromo or Heart of Darkness, but it is well up there as one of the early 20th century's great novels.
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on 25 May 2011
This I believe is one of Conrad's later works and is bereft of the rampant descriptive verbosity that added an almost manic quality to the narrative of his earlier works.This I may add is not a negative criticism,but rather an observation as it is still a fine piece of entertaining work.
It contains some disturbing insights into the male psyche and makes one question ones own personal integrity and motives and how far we are willing to go to protect ourselves from the traitor that dwells within us.
It does bear the mark of Dostoevsky quite heavily which is maybe why his personal style is slightly muted but to label it a work of stylistic plagiarism would not be fair.
Overall by today's standards this is a challenging read but more fruitful if you make the effort.
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on 26 May 2000
I strongly recomend this book especially for people who have not read Conrad before: it is the easiest Conrad book to "get into" because the plot begins straight away and is imediately interesting. Through no fault or his own, through another person's misunderstanding the main character finds himself involved in a situation which changes his life and where he has to act in the face of moral dilemnas.There is no other writer like Conrad: the continual depths conveyed in all his books I have not encounted before in this way. This particular book is different from his others in subject matter - I have heard it said that it is more intellectual; you could say perhaps that it's subject is more intellectual and you would not be wrong. Still it is easy to read and compelling. I wish there were more writers like Joseph Conrad.
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VINE VOICEon 8 June 2015
`Under Western Eyes' was written six years after the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the resultant constitutional reforms that were to become a major factor in the 1917 Russian revolution. The book is set in that tumultuous period and, as Razumov - prudently - leaves Russia after the assassination of a prominent statesman, the story shifts from St Petersburg to Geneva.

Told in part by an elderly English teacher of languages (the 'western eyes' of the title), the depths of introspective angst suffered by both Razumov and the Russian expatriate Natalie Haldin, are a virtual echo of the sufferings of Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky's slightly earlier Crime and Punishment.

Once again we have murder - this time politically inspired and by a third party - together with an attempt to justify that, in pursuit of a higher purpose, murder can be acceptable. In Conrad's book this `higher purpose' is the revolutionist aim of sweeping away the Czarist regime and, out of the ensuing chaos, creating a communist political system.

The 336 pages of `Under Western Eyes' are not, by today's standards, an easy read. Conrad was Polish by birth (he didn't learn to speak English until in his 20s) but, if the parallel with Dostoevsky's `Crime and Punishment' is relevant, the two books might form the subject of an in-depth analysis of the eastern European psyche of the late 19th/early 20th centuries.

Or perhaps not...
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I picked this up to take on a trip to Poland last month, unable to think of any other Polish writers. Although it turns out that it's not set in Poland, and doesn't have any Polish characters, I found it an enjoyable and interesting read. Set in Geneva and St Petersburg, it's a story about individuals caught up in the political turmoil of pre-revolutionary Russia (to be strict, it was first published in 1911, after the failed revolution of 1905, but before the 1917 revolutions). An oppressive atmosphere of plot, betrayal and counterplot pervades, which - coupled with the failings of the characters and the misunderstandings which too much secrecy brings - veers into the almost comic at times (a central tenet of the story is the misidentification of a traitor as a hero). In that respect, it appears to be one of the inspirations for the pessimistic spy stories of Graham Greene or John le Carre; conversely, the author was apparently influenced by Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment (superficially at least, his protagonist here has a name - Razumov - which might contain echoes of Dostoevsky's hero Raskolnikov).
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on 16 September 2012
Conrad's use of language improved with age - less verbosity - and the plot is good. Clumsily sourced narration though as he jumps from the diary, to the girl, to someone's wife he happened to meet, in justifying the 'factuality' of the story. (Why bother?). And it's not about the sea, which was what he knew best. It's still Conrad, though.
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on 3 November 2010
This is a beautifuuly written, well-told story by an under-rated author. Despite being written a century ago, it still has a very modern feel. It covers the period around the end of the 19th century, in Tsarist Russia, when the struggle between the autocratic police state and those seeking freedom and justice was at its height.

Razumov, a student in St. Petersburg with little interest in politics, is compromised by a fellow student, Haldin, who he finds in his room after he (Haldin) has just assassinated a leading state official. Razumov initially agrees to help Haldin escape, but then betrays him. Because of his association with Haldin, the fact that his room was searched by the police and that he was taken in for questioning, he acquires an unjustified reputation as a revolutionary sympathiser. The secret police decide to make use of this reputation by persuading (Siberia- or worse?) him to spy on the revolutionaries in Geneva- he arrives there under the pretence of fleeing arrest.

He meets many of the major conspiritors there (an unlikely bunch!), some of whom doubt him. He also meets and begins to fall in love with Haldin's sister, Natalia. His overall feelings of decency and, particularly, of remorse lead to him confessing his involvement in Haldin's capture and death, for which he is severely punished.

Those reading this edition should avoid reading the notes, which I found broke up the flow of the story and were irritating. They deal with such matters as the various manuscript alterations made by Conrad (he was a great tinkerer), the sources and influences on the book in French and Russian literature, translations of simple foreign phrases and Conrad's grammatical errors- such as "shall" instead of "will"!
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on 6 September 2013
He writes prose like a monumental sculptor shapes stone. Each sentence is as clear as it needs to be. Pictures are drawn in clear lines. Terrific
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