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Aug 6, 2012


“VICTORY” by Joseph Conrad (first published 1915)

Once upon a time – nearly forty years ago – I thought Joseph Conrad was the Greatest Novelist Who Ever Lived. This was before I went through the phase of thinking Honore de Balzac the Greatest Novelist Who Ever Lived. Later still I had my Nadine Gordimer period. Then I at last gave up on the whole silly idea of nominating somebody as Greatest Novelist Who Ever Lived although, naturally, Don Quixote remains the Greatest Novel Even Written. 

Anyway, my Conrad phase occurred when I was aged 21 and doing an M.A. course on the Modern Novel. I gobbled up Conrad’s novels and novellas eagerly, confident that the English-writing Pole totally outclassed other authors featured on the course – the English-writing American Henry James, the English-writing Irishman James Joyce, the gibberish-writing Englishman D.H.Lawrence and the mandarin-writing Englishwoman Virginia Woolf. Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, Under Western Eyes, Typhoon, Youth, The Shadow Line and short stories like An Outpost of Progress and The Secret Sharer – down they went smoothly, feeding my taste for hard-headed realism mixed with exoticism and lashings of descriptive melancholy. My favourite student memory is of sitting in the uni caff all afternoon, consuming The Secret Agent at one sitting and missing a couple of lectures because I couldn’t put it down. A brilliant, devious, well-crafted novel where every phrase counts.

But even as I idolised Conrad, there was one of his novels on our course that I just didn’t get. To put it more bluntly, I thought it was damned silly.

Even Conrad devotees know that some Conrad novels are for devotees only (such as the complex Nostromo) and some are not up to scratch (lame efforts like Chance and The Rescue). Victory, however, was supposed to be one of his mature masterpieces, and was written up as such in the critical essays to which we were directed.

Why, then, did I find Victory forced and unconvincing, with an improbable plot straight-jacketed into heavy-handed symbolism? Why did I trudge through pages of opaque dialogue with an unclear idea of what the characters were really talking about? Why were characters’ motivations always unclear? It was the one Conrad novel I found myself actively disliking.

Two or three years ago, I decided to revisit it, to test whether my first reactions were merely those of an immature kid who didn’t recognise subtlety when he saw it. For the first time in about 36 years, I re-read Victory.

This time, I will give you a synopsis.

For reasons which are never clearly elucidated, but which may have something to do with his upbringing by an over-idealistic father, the middle-aged Swede Axel Heyst has withdrawn from humanity. He was in charge of a coal-mining enterprise on an island in the Malay archipelago. When the enterprise went bust he decided to stay on the island, alone except for a Chinese man, Wang, who has married a local Malay woman.

On one of his rare visits to a settlement where there are a number of Europeans, Heyst stays at the hotel run by the gross German Wilhelm Schomberg. Visiting and playing there is a women’s orchestra. The women are clearly encouraged to be “friendly” to male members of their audience. Heyst rescues one young woman, Lena, who is unwilling to be part of this enterprise. He takes her back to his island.

This causes the envy and wrath of Schomberg who had his own lustful eyes on Lena, in spite of his having a (browbeaten) wife of his own.

A trio of ruffians come to stay at Schomberg’s hotel, the “gentleman” Mr.Jones, who detests women, his “secretary” Martin Ricardo and the brutish, ape-like Pedro. Schomberg spies into their affairs, deduces that they mean him no good and suspects that they may wish to rob him or do him violence. Still smarting over the loss of Lena, and having come to half-believe the stories he himself has made up about Heyst, Schomberg decides to divert the trio. To Ricardo, he spins a long yarn about Heyst, how he swindled people, and how he must have a fortune. He gives Ricardo sailing directions to reach Heyst’s island.

Heyst and Lena live together on the island, and seem to have found a sort of accommodation which isn’t quite love, although Lena wishes it was.

When the trio of ruffians arrive, parched and sunburnt after their voyage, Heyst keeps Lena out of sight, protecting her from these intruders. At no point do the trio openly declare their intentions, but as they become established they are a sinister presence on the island, and Heyst knows they mean him no good. He plans to protect himself, but two things go wrong. First, he discovers that Wang has stolen his revolver and retreated to the hills with his Malay wife, thus disarming him. Second, although Heyst doesn’t know it, Ricardo discovers the presence of Lena and clearly thinks that he will be able to seduce her.

The climax comes when Jones at last makes clear to Heyst the robbery he intends. Armed with a revolver, Jones marches Heyst over to Heyst’s bungalow, where he expects to find Ricardo rifling through Heyst’s effects. Instead, he finds Ricardo with Lena (who has disobeyed Heyst’s advice to stay hidden in the jungle, and has returned to be with him). Jones goes berserk at the sight of a woman and fires, wounding Ricardo and mortally wounding Lena who, as she dies, believes she has achieved some sort of “victory” over death by showing her love in trying to protect Heyst.

In the hasty wrap-up Ricardo dies, Pedro is shot dead by Wang, Jones (apparently) commits suicide by drowning, and Heyst himself is burnt to death when his bungalow is fired. All this is reported to “civilisation” by the captain, Davidson, who has kept a friendly eye on Heyst whenever he passed the island, and who turns up in time to witness the last of these tragic events.

The world has intruded on Heyst and destroyed him; but then no man can really be an island.

Whose “victory” is it? The only character with whom the word is associated is Lena, but Heyst does not share her faith, so the title of the novel could be heavily ironic. Then again, it could be a “victory” to recognise that one cannot retreat from humanity, no matter how destructive human society may be.

Thus my synopsis which, like all synopses, telescopes things unfairly but does give the general outline.

Coming back to Conrad after all those years, I could see still some of the things that delighted me as a student. The vivid, sweltery tropical descriptions, of course. The sense of moral seediness and menace. Some dramatic moments that stand out in relief – when Schomberg’s wife rifles through the trio’s belongings while her husband keeps watch; or the arrival of the sinister trio on the island, nearly dead and croaking in their open boat.

And yet reading it as an adult I was more alert to what Conrad avoided talking about, or euphemised, in keeping with his times. Presumably the “orchestra” to which Lena is attached is a sort of travelling brothel. Mr.Jones’s hatred of women is pathological. We are three or four times told that he has somehow “defied convention” in a previous life, so we are presumably meant to infer that he is not only misogynist but also homosexual. This being the case, his “secretary” Ricardo becomes his piece of rough trade; and his violent reaction when he finds Ricardo with Lena declares a sense of sexual betrayal.

I was more aware, too, of Conrad’s racial assumptions – the disgusting and exploitative German is to be expected from this Polish writer, and would have gone down a treat with English readers when the novel first appeared during the First World War. The odd reference to “buck niggers” would have been common usage at the time. But it is Wang, the Chinese who plays a pivotal part in the story, who is most subject to racial stereotyping. Conrad would have us believe that the psychology of a Chinese is something so remote from European comprehension that it can lead Wang to act in ways which are convenient for Conrad’s plot (disarming Heyst), but otherwise highly unlikely. While I do not agree with their criticisms, it is easy to see why followers of Edward Said and literary critics of colonialism have said very harsh things about Conrad in the last forty years. His despatches from empire are interpreted as endorsements of imperialism and Euro-centrism.

What weighs heaviest on this novel, however, is its overt symbolism. Heyst on his island being man isolated from society in a personal Eden [the novel is subtitled “An Island Tale”]; the nearby volcano (likened to his glowing cigar end) being the passion that might be aroused; the entrance of Lena being the coming of Eve and trouble into Heyst’s Eden; and Jones, Ricardo and Pedro perhaps being the World, the Flesh and the Devil.

Things happen because it is symbolically right that they happen – that Heyst is disarmed when the intruders come; that Lena ignores his instructions and comes back to relieve Ricardo of the knife he is wielding [pointlessly, because Jones has a revolver] etc. etc. Things do not happen because they are either probable or in keeping with the characters as they have been drawn.

This goes for the dialogue, too. Characters do not say what they would be likely to say, even given the dramatisation a novel entails. Instead they speak in abstract philosophy, or talk around things without actually addressing them. Possibly fastidious Heyst might speak this way, but not Lena and not the three criminals.

In the end, then, I felt on re-reading Victory after 36 years that I was not only reading the same novel, but reacting to it in the same way as I had when I was a student. Symbolism leads credibility by the nose as Conrad preaches that no man is an island, but that the world is still the “destructive element”.

Perhaps I have been vindicated in my student view. I notice that in more recent critiques of Conrad, Victory has been down-graded and now appears to be regarded as one of Conrad’s lesser novels. For example I was delighted to discover that in his survey Ten Great Writers (Penguin, 1989), the reliable Malcolm Bradbury chooses to illustrate Conrad’s genius by an analysis of The Secret Agent, and doesn’t even mention Victory. The recent Conrad biographer John Stape, in The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad (Heinemann, 2007), mentions Victory only to tell us how hard Conrad found it to write, and how it may reflect some of his reactions to those homosexuals he met in his years as a seaman. There’s also the fact that, in her recent selection of Frank Sargeson’s letters, Sarah Shieff includes one letter Sargeson wrote to William Plomer in 1958 after Plomer had written an introduction to an Oxford Classics reprint of Victory. Sargeson says “I’ve never been able to make my mind up about Conrad” and then adds of this particular novel “I’m worried that the careful plausibility of the beginning goes down the drain as the melodrama begins to go really into action.” Misanthropic and vindictive old sod though Sargeson was, I’d have to agree with him on that one; though I do wonder how he and Plomer – who were both closeted homosexuals – really reacted to the novel’s negative and sinister portrait of its homosexual character.

On the other hand, and much to my surprise, I came across an interview in the Spring 2006 issue of The Paris Review in which the American novelist Joan Didion said (God bless her) that Henry James and D.H.Lawrence irritated her on every level; but then went on to say that she re-reads Conrad’s Victory (“maybe my favourite book in the world”) whenever she is about to start a novel because she regards it as a masterpiece of narration – the whole story being told at third-hand by somebody (Davidson) detached from the novel’s events. In other words, she sees it as a strong case of the “unreliable narrator” (just as Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness are), but pushed so far that we understand its events are as much a fabrication of the fictional narrator as its viewpoint is. I have also recently come across a respectful reference to Victory in the New Zealand anthropologist Michael Jackson’s memoir Road Markings (Rosa Mira Press, 2012)

So what do I know? Maybe Joan Didion’s reaction shows the eccentricity of the talented. Maybe Michael Jackson’s fleeting reference was an aberration. Or maybe I’ve just proven that I have a tin ear for fine prose.

The Horror! The Horror!

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