Joseph Conrad's powerful novels anticipate the bloody political conflicts of the modern worldby Clive James / September 17, 2015 / Leave a comment
When Clive James was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2010, as he writes in the introduction to his new book Latest Readings, he “could hear the clock ticking.” He decided to dedicate the rest of his life to reading—and re-reading. “If you don’t know the exact moment when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do.”
One of the authors he rediscovered was Joseph Conrad, whom he had first come across as a student in Sydney. He was struck by how in novels such as Lord Jim, Nostromo and Victory, Conrad showed how revolutionary idealism is at the root of terrorist violence. In the following three essays, taken from Latest Readings, James reflects on how Conrad anticipated the worst conflicts of the 20th century, including the Russian Revolution, and how his work can inform our response to the political extremism of today.
Among the disadvantages of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which used to be called emphysema, is a susceptibility to chest infections. Despite one’s daily intake of antibiotics, different bacteria keep arriving from all directions, eager to squat. One day I was checking in at the hospital for a routine clinic, and my temperature was deemed to be too high for me to go home. I spent 10 days in the pulmonary ward, while the fever turned into pneumonia. A flood of intravenous antibiotics eventually got on top of it, but meanwhile the problem of boredom loomed. I staved it off by re-reading Lord Jim, a copy of which, along with the usual epics about swords and dragons, was on the library cart which a very sweet and obviously fulfilled senior female volunteer was wheeling around the wards. More than half a century ago Lord Jim had been one of the set novels for my first-year English class at Sydney University, and I remembered it as a boring book. I suppose I had a plan to stave off one kind of boredom with another, as a kind of inoculation.
On the strength of this long-delayed second reading, the book struck me as no more exciting than it had once seemed, but a lot more interesting. I had long known Conrad to be a great writer: on the strength of Under Western Eyes alone, he would have to be ranked high among those English writers—well, Polish writers resident in England—who, dealing with eastern Europe, analysed the struggle between the imbecility of autocracy and the imbecility of revolution. But on the strength of my earlier memories, I didn’t see Lord Jim as part of that international historical picture. Now, reading a few pages at a time as I lay fitfully on a sweat-soaked sheet while my fever refused to break, I could see that I had been laughably wrong about Conrad’s most famous book for the whole of my reading life. An international historical picture is exactly what is exemplifies.
But the picture, or viewpoint, is well guarded. In the first place, the story turns on a character study. Without Jim’s weakness, there would be no story at all. At the beginning of the narrative, in his role as an officer in the mercantile marine, he jumps off a sinking ship that turns out not to have been sinking. He never gets over this: which raises the question, as we read on, of whether we ourselves could go on functioning if we were unable to forget out ignoble moments. At the end of the narrative, in his role as the de facto monarch of the magic kingdom of Patusan, he ruins the lives of his consort and his people by failing to accept that the pack of renegades who have penetrated their little Paradise might have evil in mind. The book’s narrator, Marlow, puts Jim’s failings down to his romantic personality: his later life is “an expiation for his craving after more glamour than he could carry.” We, the enthralled readers, are at liberty to deduce that European politics have infected the whole world, even the parts of it that are not yet known: the renegades would not have come if Jim had not made Patusan just and prosperous.
Unfortunately, for us enthralled readers, the story is not quite enthralling enough. Marlow is telling it, and Marlow is a bore. He is Conrad’s sole tedious creation, because ordinarily Conrad can see the point of anything completely and at once, whereas Marlow feeds you information only a few drops at a time. Perhaps because I had an IV plugged into my arm, I couldn’t help thinking of the last chick in the clutch wasting away getting not quite enough food.
Marlow was a useful device if you thought the book’s revelations needed delaying, but his terrific ability for beating around the bush was bound to register as a tease play. I finished reading the book though, full of admiration for both Conrad and myself: him for his moral scope, me for my endurance. Perhaps to induce self-esteem in the reader had been one of the author’s aims. There are those who believe that Richard Wagner made Siegfried so wearisome because he wanted the audience to admire themselves.
Anyway, when I got home I reached for my old copy of Nostromo. Long ago, just after I had read Lord Jim, I had read Nostromo too, and been deeply impressed. There was, after all, no Marlow in it: the narrator’s voice came through unfiltered by an intervening cloth of tedium. But now, reading again, I wondered how I had coped with an English novel’s plentiful supply of Spanish words. How could I have been impressed, instead of puzzled and put off? Eventually, after more than 20 years of not being able to read any Spanish at all, I acquired enough to assess what I had been missing. Now, finally, when Conrad referred to the capataz de cargadores, I could tell for sure that he meant Nostromo. Also, I had learned a great deal more about politics. Years of reading in modern history had equipped me to understand retroactively the lethality of the historic events that Conrad seemed to know about in advance, so sensitive was he to the political forces that were already reshaping the world during his own lifetime. In my own lifetime, most of the reshaping actually got done, with a death count of many millions. It’s clear now that Conrad had guessed what might happen. But when I first read Nostromo I was too young to have much of a clue even about what had already happened. So what had impressed me?
Undoubtedly it was the story, in the Hollywood sense, which means the scenario. The events are thrilling. Don Carlos Gould and his excellent wife build Sulaco into a kingdom with all the enchantment of Jim’s Patusan, but Sulaco, on the page, is more actual in its workings. You can hear the ring of picks and hammers as the silver is torn from the mine. It’s like Das Rheingold with the lights turned on. All the practical details of a foreign-owned capitalist enterprise are laid out, not just hinted at. Every supporting role is blazingly alive. They are all there: the corrupt dictator, the predecessor of so many Trujillos and Batistas; the local wiseacre who knows everything and understands nothing; and the beautiful girl with the book of poetry in her hand, all set, by her mere existence, to lead the previously feckless young intellectual editor fatally away from his usual protective cynicism. Idealism gets him killed. Above all, there is Nostromo (did I know, first time around, that his Italianised nickname meant “our man”?), who has built such a reputation for competence and integrity that the gringo ruling class revere him, not for a moment suspecting that the man they trusted never to steal an ounce of silver would eventually steal a ton of it. He didn’t suspect it either: but when the moment came, he overruled any loyalty except to himself.
And those themes are only the beginning of what is in Nostromo, which I can see now as one of the greatest books I have ever read. But I thought the same when I had read almost no serious books at all. Somewhere in that paradox lies the secret of a magic novel, and the secret of why the later novels of Henry James have never held me in a spell: in the opening chapters, their subtleties of style catch the attention of the experienced reader in me, but the inexperienced reader in me finds too little to draw him forward. If only Henry James had been to sea. But Edith Wharton’s account of how he rambled on incomprehensibly when he got out of the car to ask directions tells us that any order he delivered on the bridge would have been so elaborately expressed that the ship would have hit something on the first day of the voyage.
Under Western Eyes
Suddenly I am reading Under Western Eyes again. I had vowed not to re-read the whole of Conrad, but after a lifetime spent in the world that he presaged, I realise that I am at last ready for him. Much of the presaging is encapsulated in Under Western Eyes.
In Switzerland before the First World War, before the tragedy in Europe, and before the chaos of the Russian Revolution, the Russians who gather in Geneva to enjoy democratic freedom—their part of the city is nicknamed La Petite Russie—are already carrying within them all the varieties of doom that will soon engulf their land of origin. The book gives us a preview of the terrors to come. Some of the characters, indeed, are outright terrorists; but the majority of the radicals on view have as yet seen little of the life of action, although they talk a lot of theory. And some of the characters will be victims one day, if they do not have the sense to stay away: they are members of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, and they tend to think that tsarist despotism is the worst thing that their homeland has to offer.
They are, in fact, idealists: and idealism is a cast of mind that Conrad questions even more than he questions radicalism. The logical end of radicalism, in his view, is terrorism; but idealism is the mental aberration that allows terrorism to be brought about. Conrad’s originality was to see that a new tyranny could be generated by people who thought that their rebellion against the old tyranny was rational. Thus his writings seem prescient about what was to happen in the Soviet Union. He didn’t predict the Nazi tyranny because he had underestimated the power of the irrational to organise itself into a state. But then, nobody predicted that except its perpetrators; and anyway, mere prediction was not his business. His business was the psychological analysis made possible by an acute historical awareness. Under Western Eyes is valuable not because it came true but because it rang true even at the time, only now we can better hear the deep, sad note.
The book’s antihero, Razumov, is Lord Jim all over again; although this time Jim has started off, in Petersburg, by getting someone killed, and now, in Switzerland, must face the dilemma of having fallen in love with the victim’s sister, and being unable to tell her. She is a wonderful character, Natalia Hardin: operatically attractive yet sensitive to the point of being saintly. But she is an idealist. In the end she will go home to Russia, in order to do good. Conrad published the book in 1911, when the Revolution was still six years in the future: but he got all the contending forces into the story, and the future along with them—the perfect girl, a living synthesis of everything praiseworthy and desirable, is heading for an appointment in which her superior qualities will not be forgiven. Or so we think; so history makes us think, after Conrad and the very few writers of comparable greatness have shown us what history is. The book takes a little too long to end, but a reader today should not miss the author’s note at the start. Describing the unplumbably evil torturer Necator, Conrad calls him “the perfect flower of the terroristic wilderness. What troubled me most in dealing with him was not his monstrosity but his banality.” Later in the century, Hannah Arendt was to say almost the same thing about Adolf Eichmann. She made the mistake, however, of finding his banality more remarkable than his monstrosity. Conrad, had he lived that long, could have told her that the two things, though one of them might be the more difficult to describe, are both as fundamental to evil as hydrogen and oxygen are to water.
Conrad’s Greatest Victory
Starting in the infusion suite at the hospital, and continuing as I ambulate up and down my kitchen, I have been reading Conrad’s Victory; and I feel that my recent years of reading have come to a kind of culmination. First published in 1915, the novel perfects Conrad’s signature themes. The hero, Heyst, is a Lord Jim figure without the guilt. Heyst has managed to get beyond the bounds of civilisation, and even of capitalism: the coal company that he helped to found in the islands has fallen into ruins, but he himself has survived. In the dance hall of the despicable hotelier Schomberg, Heyst encounters the ideal girl, Alma, who is the helpless prisoner of the tatty Zangiacomo orchestra and has nowhere to turn as Schomberg odiously threatens her with his attentions.
Heyst bears her away to Samburan, a magic kingdom like Patusan and Sulaco. There, seemingly in control of events, he calls her Lena, princess of Samburan. They are like Adam and Eve, needing only each other. Or so it seems: but it soon emerges that they need a knowledge of evil, too, because it is heading towards them in the chilling form of “plain Mr Jones,” one of Conrad’s most profound studies in terror. As the collision between bliss and destruction gets closer, the reader will spend at least a hundred pages praying that Heyst has a gun hidden away somewhere. The first big slaughterhouse battles of the First World War had already been fought while Conrad was publishing the novel, but there is not a hint of pacifism. Conrad knew that unarmed goodwill is useless against armed malice. It was to be a lesson that the coming century would teach over and over, and so on into the present century: peace is not a principle, it is only a desirable state of affairs, and can’t be obtained without a capacity for violence at least equal to the violence of the threat. Conrad didn’t want to reach this conclusion any more than we do, but his artistic instincts were proof against the slightest tinge of mystical spiritual solace, and so should ours be. Our age of massacres has also been an age of the intellectual charlatan, when people claiming to interpret events can barely be relied upon to give a straightforward account of what actually happened. Conrad was the writer who reached political adulthood before any of the other writers of his time, and when they did, they reached only to his knee.
That being said, however, it must be admitted that Heyst’s upright stupidity grows tedious in the final scenes. Conrad should have made his heroes as intelligent as himself, the better to illustrate his thematic concern with how the historic forces that crush the naive will do the same to the wise, if they do not prepare to fight back. Finally, he tends to reinforce our wishful thought that cultivation—gained, for example, from reading the novels of Conrad—might be enough to ward off barbarism. But barbarism doesn’t care if we are cultivated or not.