Wednesday, April 26, 2017
Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)
Last week we drove to New Haven, where we became part of a small, surprise dinner party honoring a close friend on his seventy-fifth birthday. The memorable meal, featuring succulent chicken and lamb, was supplied by a restaurateur-caterer with a mobile barbecue pit towed behind his SUV. We had a great time, spent the night with our friends, and made a leisurely start on the return drive next morning. But I am an inveterate early morning riser and, as usual when I am an overnight guest in someone’s home, I found myself with a good two or three predawn hours on my own. I addressed them in the usual manner, by taking an interesting-looking title from a shelf of books: an anthology of spy stories.
In this anthology were two pieces I had already read, and now reread with pleasure, by two authors I hold in the highest esteem: sections from Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) and Rebecca West’s The Birds Fall Down (1966). Both of those books deal with revolutionary terrorism and police repression in pre-Revolutionary Russia. West’s explicitly fictionalizes one of the most extraordinary facts in the history of espionage: the fact that a double agent named Yevno Azef was at the same time an organizer of social-revolutionary terror against the Czarist regime and a highly placed counter-terror agent of the Okhrana, the Czarist secret police.
The effect of this early morning reading was the typical effect of most good reading: I wanted to do more of it. Without attempting any description of my circuitous mental processes, I shall go immediately to their product. I returned to Princeton determined to take up one of the few important Conrad novels I had never broached—Under Western Eyes (1911)—and I did so at the first convenient moment. I have had a delighted several days. It has been a while since I was reading something so pleasurable that I felt the need to ration the reading, as one might the eating of a fine piece of chocolate, lest I too quickly finish it.
People have reading habits just as they have habits of other kinds. I once had a friend whose mode of reading a novel I found most peculiar, especially since he had been an English major in college. His principal aim, so far as I could tell, was to read the book as fast as possible. His first move was to ascertain the number of pages. He would then make a silent and tentative commitment to the first five percent of it—for a four-hundred-page book the first twenty pages. At that point he had another chance. He could either chuck the project or make a solemn commitment to finish it to the last page. The arrangement was sort of like that of the religious novice under provisional vows faced at a certain point with the awesome choice of accepting or declining a life commitment. But even when committed to a whole novel he allowed himself a major time-saving reading practice. He would skip all parts “between quotation marks”—that is, all directly reported speech. He reckoned that in general dialogue did very little to advance narrative.
In the edition I own--the collected edition of the 1920s-- Under Western Eyes is 380-pages long; but if I applied to it the “quotation marks canon” it would instantly become a longish short story. It is absolutely full of Russian revolutionaries and sentimentalists, and although they do enough to keep a plot of sorts going, what they mainly do is talk…and talk some more. “In this book,” Conrad wrote to his friend Edward Garnett, husband of the famous translator of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, “I am concerned with nothing but ideas, to the exclusion of everything else.” The ideas are thick on the ground, and major characters are tireless in enunciating them. The unfortunately unreliable narrator is an ex-pat Brit in Geneva, where there may have been a few native-born Swiss people in residence at the fin de siècle, though it seems unlikely. This man, a hell of a talker himself, is a “professor of languages” like me, except much more in demand, because most of the talkers wouldn’t dream of attending the salon of Madame de S---- without at a minimum perfect English, French, German, and Russian under their epiglottises. (The book itself, fortunately, stays mainly in the impressive English of its Polish author.) As the title might imply, a major theme of the book is the difficult if not impossible challenge presented to the “western” liberal mind by the opulent barbarism of Czarist autocracy. A popular book of my Cold War youth was entitled Why They Behave Like Russians. Its author must have been a reader of Conrad.
When Conrad published Under Western Eyes in 1911 readers likely brought to mind the pseudo- or semi-revolution of 1905; but from a slightly later perspective it is likely to seem prescient with regard to the Bolshevik coup of 1917 and the huge cataclysm of the Great War of which it was an episode. Just at this moment certain aspects seem quite contemporary. When we speak of the “timelessness” of a fine book it is rarely because we think it free of time’s bonds, but because those bonds seem to become ever more elastic.