69 Following



Under Western Eyes - Joseph Conrad

“I am quite willing to be the blind instrument of higher ends. To give one's life for the cause is nothing. But to have one's illusions destroyed - that is really almost more than one can bear.” 

 photo JosephConrad_zps086a605c.jpg
Joseph Conrad

Razumov is serious about his studies. He is quiet, and like most men who brood, there is attributed to him by the people he knows a depth of wisdom that isn’t due to his eloquent conversations or his grand standing on theories, but simply attributed to him because he doesn’t say enough to dispel the illusion. Razumov seems like a man who is stewing about the state of affairs, and might be hatching a scheme to do something seditious. He is, needless to say, lonely. 

”Who knows what true loneliness is--not the conventional word but the naked terror? To the lonely themselves it wears a mask. The most miserable outcast hugs some memory or some illusion. Now and then a fatal conjunction of events may lift the veil for an instant. For an instant only. No human being could bear a steady view of moral solitude without going mad.”

Razumov returns to his rooms one day, from the turmoil of the streets inspired by the successful assassination of a politician, to find the assassin lying on his bed waiting for him to come home. Joseph Conrad based this incident off of the real life assassination of Vyacheslav von Plehve.

 photo Vyacheslav_von_Plehve_zps8061c71b.jpg
Vyacheslav von Plehve, Minister of the Interior

Yes, this mere acquaintance has decided out of all the people in St. Petersburg that he has to come to Razumov for sanctuary. Haldin asks for his assistance, and after debating the matter thoroughly with himself, Razumov agrees to help. 

It all goes wrong. Razumov flips out. He realizes that he is on the verge of being completely compromised by his association with Haldin. 

He goes to the police and reveals all. 

All he wants to do is go back to being a student, but he soon learns that his friends, really more like acquaintances, are now looking to him for leadership. Haldin had told their circle of friends that Razumov was a man they could count on. A friend named Kostia insists that Razumov must use him in his next plans.

”What was his life worth? Insignificant, no good to anyone; a mere festivity. It would end some fine day in his getting his skull split with a champagne bottle in a drunken brawl. At such times, too, when men were sacrificing themselves to ideas. But he could never get any ideas into his head. His head wasn’t worth anything better than to be split by a champagne bottle.”

The police have further uses for Razumov. He suddenly finds himself trapped into being this person he never intended to be. 

Mr. Razumov looked at it, I suppose, as a man looks at himself in a mirror, with wonder, perhaps with anguish, with anger or despair. Yes, as a threatened man may look fearfully at his own face in the glass, formulating to himself reassuring excuses for his appearance marked by the taint of some insidious hereditary disease.”

The narrator of this story is an Englishman (also the source of the title) teaching English to the Russians in “Little Russia” Geneva, Switzerland. He is telling this tale from notes in Razumov’s journal, and through second and third hand information from various people who had some association with events. He also happens to be the tutor of Haldin’s sister. He is, without any doubt, an unreliable narrator, and one can’t help but think that Razumov is still being corkscrewed into a bottle with the wrong label. Our narrator does meet Razumov when Razumov is dispatched to Little Russia to interact with the revolutionaries.

 photo d404a748-b041-4e7f-84d0-fb54ccc2dec4_zps4f2586ce.jpg 
The Meeting of The Unreliable Narrator and Razumov

”He listened, without as much as moving his eyes the least little bit. He had to change his position when the beer came, and the instant draining of his glass revived him. He leaned back in his chair and, folded his arms across his chest, continued to stare at me squarely. It occurred to me that his clean-shaven, almost swarthy face was really of the very mobile sort, and that the absolute stillness of it was the acquired habit of a revolutionist, of a conspirator everlastingly on his guard against self-betrayal in a world of secret spies.”

It is impossible to read this book without thinking about Raskolnikov from Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. Both characters have completely gotten away with their moral dilemma; and yet, the burden of the guilt consumes their lives. Their crime is spread across their faces and everyone they meet, they feel, will be the one to finally reveal their guilt to the world. You could believe that this book was written as an ode to Crime and Punishment, but that would be a wrong assumption. Conrad did not think much of Dostoyevsky’s writing style and was, in my opinion, trying to write a better book.

 photo CrimeandPunishiment_zpsa1691bbc.jpg 

This book almost didn’t see the light of day over a disagreement with his publisher. 

”In the summer of 1909 J. B. Pinker, dissatisfied with Conrad’s failure to deliver the long-awaited manuscript, threatened to sever their business connection. In December they reached a crisis when Pinker refused to advance any more funds and the aristocratic Conrad, threatening to throw the manuscript into the fire, angrily exclaimed; ‘ in a manner which is nothing short of contemptuous you seem to holding out a bribe--next week forsooth!--as though it were a bone to a dog to make him get up on his hind legs.’”

The relationship did not improve, but the manuscript was finally delivered in 1910. 

Andre Gide was a great admirer of this work. He supervised the translation of Conrad’s works into French. 

”One does not know what deserves more admiration: the amazing subject, the fitting together, the boldness of so difficult an undertaking, the patience in the development of the story, the complete understanding and exhausting of the subject.”

Poor Razumov, a man content to read his books and puzzle out the keys to a myriad of philosophies. He is intelligent, and in some ways fits the profile of a revolutionary leader. Certainly the revolution that comes to Russia shortly after this book is published was lead by men similar to Razumov. The moment that Haldin decided to come to his rooms Razumov was faced with an impossible decision with two paths equally beset by guilt or damnation. Conrad uses the fickleness of fate to toy with the reader and show how little control we have of our own lives. It is nearly impossible to know what series of decisions needed to be made for Razumov to escape his self-condemnation. Highly recommended! Rating: 4.25