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] . 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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