Over the last couple of days I read Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad. I read it many years ago and remembered it as a story of a young man, thrust among Russian Revolutionaries, who are living in exile in Geneva; he despises these people and their aims and only sticks around because he has a massive crush on a young lady – who is not particularly caught up in their schemes. I remembered it chiefly as a novel about disillusionment, with the twist of the unrequited romance to give it an added piquancy. My conception of Conrad is that he writes novels in which the chief protaganoist is not so much an ‘anti-hero’ as is often claimed as a ‘non-hero’ or ‘accidental’ or ‘incidental’ character. I remembered Under Western Eyes as being like that in that the young man at the centre of the story (Razumov) was lost, bewildered and scathing of the activities of those around him.
My memory of the book was imperfect, but not completely inaccurate. The story is told by an English languages professor, who knows some of the people concerned socially, or through his tutoring work, in Geneva. The title, then means something like ‘this story has been filtered through a foreigner’s sensibilities’ or ‘I might have got this wrong’. As such it also fits with my understanding of Conrad’s work: that he tells ‘pub stories’. That is ‘true’ stories, that he might have heard from a bloke in a pub wherein the names have been changed ‘to protect the innocent’. They are only fantastic tales, because the world is a fantastic place. In the ‘weird’ sense. Not in the ‘wonderful’ sense.
I thoroughly enjoyed this story. I didn’t find the frame-effect (the English man is providentially given Razumov’s diary) at all implausible. This is because, apart from some preliminaries apologising for how ill-equipped he is, as a foreigner, to tell the tale, the reader is then immediately plunged into Razumov’s perspective on events from his diary. Razumov believes he has been shang-haied by history, seemingly; press-ganged into being involved in ways that he cannot comprehend; he is an innocent by-stander who has been swept up in the current of politics, like a twig on a river in spate. Across the whole novel, the order of presentation of the facts of the matter and their consequences, is very simple, but has a tremendous emotional impact. The reader knows considerably more than any of the actors in the drama, right from the start. The whole piece then is simply a working out of who knows what, and when, to maximum dramatic effect.
The book is obviously a political one (so many of Conrad’s are), and there were certain passages that made my hair stand on end, because they seemed so pertinent to parts of the world today. There are discussions of how impossible it is to trust anyone in an autocratic government whose only purpose is to preserve itself, that could be read as a warning for anyone choosing to travel to certain parts of the world today; and a template for the current Russian government, even though the book was written a hundred years ago (1911); and touched on events in the 1870s or thereabouts.
The framing device, of having the story told by someone foreign to the group concerned, and using written material, had the effect of making the main characters somewhat mysterious. Although we sympathise with Razumov based on his own account of himself in his diary, once our narrator meets him, he is clearly a difficult, stubborn, awkward young man, who frightens more sensitive people. The Russian Revolutionaries, are clearly considered as no better than con artists, by the Englishman. When the heroine’s mother loses her mind over the loss of her son, Haldin, the Englishman finds this regrettable over-emotionality and when the heroine devotes herself to the poor and needy of her mother country, the narrator thinks this is a terrible waste of a rather nice young woman. This does not have the effect of making the narrator seem an idiot; it does not force the reader to take sides – which is due to Conrad’s skill as a story-teller. Throughout the narrator emphasises how foreign the Russians are: but we are allowed to believe both sides of the story.
The only part of the text that I found hardest to follow was the speech and language of the would-be Russian Revolutionaries. Razumov is always very careful what he says to them. But the response from the people he is surrounded by seems to be very long-winded and I found it hard to grasp what they were really trying to say to him. Even when they are speaking to the Englishman narrator and discussing the difference between Russian autocratic government and English freedoms, they make claims that the English ‘have paid too high a price’ for our rights, that either, went over my head, or goes to show that they didn’t know what they were talking about. It was hard to tell whether people were very sincere, but mistaken; or insincere and putting on a strange sort of act. That, possibly, was the point.
There were two minor aspects that caught my eye, and gave me great pleasure in the book, as a text, as a piece of writing. I kept feeling that many of the people and situations were familiar to me: that in fact Conrad was deliberately thieving from great Russian literature. His main character is a student who (spoilers?) in the end feels obliged to blurt out his crime (familiar?). The student encounters drunken sleigh-drivers and self-indulgent so-called anarchists. Some of the characters indulge in martyrdom to squalor. There is a strong sense of being trapped, of futility. The great man who will lead the revolution is also a guru or prophet figure. These seem like tropes from everything we know about Russia from literature.
The other little thing that made me smile, is Conrad showing great faith in the power of language. The two young people are fascinated by each other because they have been recommended to one another by a mutual acquaintance: her brother, his fellow student. This man – Haldin – spoke or wrote admiringly of each, to the other, and the recommendation – because of the character of Haldin himself – has a profound effect on both of them. They are doomed to be interested in one another, simply because of his words. Which saves a lot of messing around, having to create opportunities for them to meet and form an impression of each other, for Conrad. Why spend 350 pages dodging around one another, when you can just decide to fall in love based on a casual sentence, uttered by someone else?
I enjoyed re-visiting this book. It is a work of classic fiction that is not only a pleasure to read but is remarkably easy to read with an insanely well-structured story in well-evoked settings. Oh boy can Conrad write!