Joseph Conrad's Dark 'Victory'

Monday, May 9, 2005

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

The extraordinary and uncommonly influential literary career of Joseph Conrad began in 1895, when he was 38 years old, with the publication of his first novel, "Almayer's Folly." It continued beyond his death in 1924 as his letters, essays and various other papers were published posthumously, but it really ended in 1915, with the publication of "Victory." Many books followed, but none came close to the high standard it set, and indeed for many years critics argued that "Victory" itself fell short of Conrad's finest work.

If a cruel God ordered that I could have only one of Conrad's novels to read now and in the future, the painful choice would be between his masterpieces, "Heart of Darkness" (1899) and "Nostromo" (1904), and by the narrowest of margins my choice would be the latter, not least because it is so much longer than "Heart of Darkness" and thus would give me so much more Conrad in which to immerse myself. Yet when I raced through one Conrad after another as a student in the 1950s and a young man in the 1960s, it was "Victory" that I loved most, and thus "Victory" to which I turned for this Second Reading.

Reading it for the first time in about four decades turns out to be an instructive exercise in the fallibility of memory and the power of novels to assume many guises. "Victory" remains for me today, as it was years ago, a powerful, moving book, but it bears remarkably little resemblance to the book I remember. What stayed with me all those years was the romance between the reclusive Axel Heyst and the girl, Lena, whom he rescues from the predatory hotel keeper Schomberg, but it turns out that although this is indeed the novel's chief narrative thread, its real story is about good and evil, innocence and malignity -- themes central to all of Conrad's work, yet which I'd somehow managed to lose sight of, dazzled by the glow of a romance that itself turns out to be a lot more complicated and ambiguous than I recalled.

When I first read "Victory," Conrad was Required Reading for anyone who aspired to an understanding of the English-language literary heritage. His novels "Lord Jim" and "Nostromo" were commonly understood to be masterpieces, and many of his novellas and stories, "Heart of Darkness" and "Typhoon" in particular, were held in similarly high regard. Beyond that, Conrad himself was a figure of mystery and renown.

Born Jozef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski in Poland in 1857, he went to sea when he was 17 and spent the next two decades sailing around the world. In his early twenties Conrad found his way to England and entered the British merchant navy, working his way up the ladder to the rank of master mariner, which permitted him to command a ship. He went almost everywhere, and along the way he became fluent in English. The might and majesty of the sea as well as the terror it could produce inspired him to begin setting it down in writing. He quit sailing and got married in fairly short order in the mid-1890s, having decided to devote himself to literature, but for all the critical approval bestowed upon his work he did not achieve real popular success until the publication of "Victory" two decades later. He lived out the 10 years remaining to him as an international literary celebrity. After his death, his reputation steadily rose, among ordinary readers and in the academy, where his work was often assigned to undergraduates and gnawed upon by the critical establishment.

How widely his work is now read outside the academy, I cannot say. "Heart of Darkness" and "Lord Jim" score impressive numbers at, but so do Cliffs Notes guides to these and others among Conrad's books, which certainly suggests that students are now his chief readership. In an age when people seeking literary diversion are offered the assembly-line, instantly digestible prose of the hack pop novelists who occupy the bestseller lists, Conrad's dense sentences and passionate outbursts must seem more than slightly antiquated. Yet his stories are no less powerful than they were a century ago, his characters no less compelling, his themes no less pertinent.

Among these are the clash between East and West, between the civilized and the raw, yet these have only peripheral importance to "Victory." A Chinese man named Wang lives on Heyst's isolated island in the Malay Archipelago, and his inscrutability (a notion about the Orient still commonplace among Westerners of Conrad's day) surfaces from time to time, and one of the villains is a Latino, but mainly this is about conflict among Westerners who for various reasons find themselves in the East.

Chief among them is Heyst, about 35 years old, "broad chest, bald forehead, long moustaches, polite manner," who lives on Samburan in the East Indies. As a consequence of doing a kindness for a man named Morrison, Heyst became "manager on the spot of the Tropical Belt Coal Company, with offices in London and Amsterdam," an operation that soon went bust, leaving Heyst "a forgotten cast-off, derelict manager of a wrecked, collapsed, vanished enterprise," content to live in near solitude on his island with only the occasional (and mostly silent) company of Wang and his Chinese wife.

Occasionally Heyst ventures to another, more populous island, where the hotel keeper Schomberg, "a big, manly, bearded creature of the Teutonic persuasion, with an ungovernable tongue which surely must have worked on a pivot," nurses a passionate, wholly irrational loathing for him. When Morrison goes home to England and dies, Schomberg spreads the rumor that Heyst somehow had killed him, a "horrible calumny" that comes to obsess Heyst because, as he says, "the power of calumny grows with time. It's insidious and penetrating. It can even destroy one's faith in oneself -- dry-rot the soul."

The person to whom Heyst speaks those words is Lena, not yet 20, who has come to Schomberg's hotel as "a performer in a ladies' orchestra." Schomberg lusts after her and pursues her menacingly. She is terrified, and Heyst comes to the rescue, spiriting her away to Samburan: "It's easy to imagine Schomberg's humiliation, his shocked fury, when he discovered that the girl who had for weeks resisted his attacks, his prayers, and his fiercest protestations, had been snatched from under his nose by 'that Swede,' apparently without any trouble worth speaking of."

When three strange, scary drifters arrive at his hotel, Schomberg sees in them the instruments of his revenge. He tells them that Heyst has a fortune on the island, gives them directions and sends them off. They are: a sallow, cynical man known only as Mr. Jones, who claims to be a gentleman who, "having been ejected, he said, from his proper social sphere because he had refused to conform to certain usual conventions . . . was a rebel now, and was coming and going up and down the earth"; Martin Ricardo, his Sancho Panza, to whom "life was not a matter of passive renunciation, but of a particularly active warfare"; and Pedro, "a creature with an antediluvian lower jaw, hairy like a mastodon, and formed like a prehistoric ape."

The three make their way to the island, where important things have happened: Lena and Heyst have fallen in love, have begun sleeping together and have established an enclave of innocence and goodness in a world that is "evil upon the whole." As soon as the three arrive, Heyst understands "that this visit could bode nothing pleasant." He tells Lena: "Here they are, the envoys of the outer world. Here they are before you -- evil intelligence, instinctive savagery, arm in arm. The brute force is at the back. A trio of fitting envoys perhaps -- but what about the welcome? Suppose I were armed, could I shoot those two down where they stand? Could I?"

What follows is called by Mr. Jones "a sort of test." He regards Heyst as a fit adversary -- "He's a man of the best society. I've been hounded out of my sphere by people very much like that fellow. How enraged and humiliated he will be!" -- but as is so often the case with Conrad, things don't turn out quite as anyone expects. The confrontation at the novel's climax is catastrophic for everyone, as what Heyst calls "the envoys extraordinary of the world we thought we had done with for years and years" close in with malign incompetence.

In this as in so many other ways, "Victory" is Conradian to the core: its acknowledgment of the possibility for human goodness but its acknowledgment as well of the evil, the heart of darkness, that so often thwarts innocence and kindness; its exotic setting, richly and powerfully evoked; its muscular prose, slightly antiquated now but in many respects still modern and immediate; its complex, fully drawn characters, real men and women rather than ideas or themes masquerading as people; its evocation of the sea and those who sail it; its mixture of fatalism and hope.

There was only one Conrad, but many have followed in his path. Some of the best writers of the 20th century and today -- Graham Greene, V.S. Naipaul, Paul Theroux -- have read Conrad with care and have employed his influence to their own interesting and illuminating ends. At least a half-dozen of his novels and stories still must be read by people who fancy themselves literate, and "Victory" -- ivory-tower critics of its unforgivable popularity to the contrary -- is one of them.

"Victory" is available in many editions and online. The Modern Library paperback ($9.95) was used for this essay.

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