Source of book: I own this.
This book is one of two Conrad books that I was given by a colleague who was downsizing. They are small leatherbound (not hardcover) books printed by Doubleday in 1926. I suspect they were intended as pocket editions, and they are rather unique in my collection.
It has been a few years since I read Conrad. I blogged about The Secret Agent eight years ago. Prior to that, I read The Rescue - but that was years before I started blogging.
Conrad’s writing is always superb, which never fails to astonish me. Conrad was born in the Ukraine, to Polish parents, and didn’t learn English until his 20s. He did, however, have a knack for languages, eventually learning at least a half dozen to the point of fluency, and mastering English in a way that many native speakers never do. He greatly influenced later 20th Century writers, from Hemingway on down.
Under Western Eyes was written right after The Secret Agent, and shares some common ideas, namely, Russian anarchists as the focus of the story. Unlike The Secret Agent, set in Britain, this book takes place in St. Petersburg and Geneva, and, except for the narrator - an Englishman who serves the role of the Chorus in this book - the characters are all foreigners, mostly Russian.
In researching the background of the book after I finished it, I discovered that Conrad intended this book to be a response to Crime and Punishment - and now that I know that, many things about the book make sense. Conrad was not a fan of Dostoyevsky, apparently, and found Crime and Punishment to be less than good. The response, in the form of this book, however, doesn’t seem so much a rebuttal of Dostoyevsky’s conclusions, but of his very premise. Ironically, it isn’t difficult to see that Dostoyevsky and Crime and Punishment in particular greatly influenced Conrad’s writing.
For those who haven’t read Crime and Punishment, the student Raskolnikov (great name in English, although I doubt the author intended it) decides to murder and rob and elderly pawnbroker. After the murder, his conscience haunts him until he finally turns himself in. Dostoyevsky intended the book to be a critique of so-called “Western” philosophy, arguing for a more religious - and specifically “Russian” morality. Conrad tackles this head-on with this book, making the argument that “Russian” values (as opposed to Western values) are centered in totalitarian cruelty - both the Czarist establishment of the time, and the revolutionary elements that would eventually prevail. Conrad is not exactly wrong about that, honestly. And he came by his views from personal experience - his father was imprisoned as a dissident.
Conrad takes a different approach to telling a similar story. The student, Razumov, is an illegitimate child - probably of a Russian aristocrat - who has literally no living family. His only chance of advancement is to study hard, and get a position in the Russian bureaucracy. So he is indeed studying hard and showing promise, when disaster strikes.
Razumov has made a habit of being quiet and just listening to the various philosophical debates among his fellow students. He refuses to take any side, because he worries that doing so could jeopardize his future, either by alienating his peers, or getting caught up in revolutionary ideas that could torpedo his future career. To the extent Razumov has political opinions, he is in favor of reform from within the system. (Note: this is how I tend to be, my natural tendency. The “reform” party, not the keeping my opinions to myself part. Not so good at that…) Unfortunately, Razumov’s reticence leads a revolutionary student, Viktor Haldin, to believe that Razumov is a fellow revolutionary.
After a bit of the framing story (the Englishman is given Razumov’s journals), the main part of the plot begins with an assassination. A brutal government minister, Mr. de P___, is killed by a bomb, which also kills one of the two assassins. The other escapes. This incident is based directly off of the real-life assassination of Vyacheslav Konstantinovich von Plehve, who persecuted dissidents before being killed by an anarchist bomb in 1904.
The assassin turns out to be Haldin, who sneaks into Razumov’s apartment while he is in class, and expects Razumov to help him escape.
This is both a catastrophe for Razumov, and a dilemma that has no good resolution, no matter what he does. Initially, he tries to assist Haldin, but the man who is supposed to smuggle him out is in a drunken stupor. After going back and forth, Razumov eventually consults his aristocratic patron (and probably his father), who assists him in going to the police. Haldin is arrested and executed.
Razumov’s dilemma is palpable. If the authorities find out he is connected in any way to Haldin, his career is over, and he probably will be imprisoned for a long time, even though innocent. So, Razumov feels he has little choice. On the other hand, he doesn’t want to betray Haldin - he has some sympathy for reform and even revolution, as long as he isn’t involved. And also, Razumov isn’t a bad person. He doesn’t want to harm anyone, he just wants to be left the hell alone. As Conrad describes him, “Razumov was one of those men who, living in a period of mental and political unrest, keep an instinctive hold on normal, practical, everyday life. He was aware of the emotional tension of his time; he even responded to it in an indefinite way. But his main concern was with his work, his studies, and with his own future.”
Haldin, therefore, has done violence to Razumov, by involving him in a plot he has no desire to be in on. I found it difficult to feel much sympathy for Haldin, honestly. If someone pulled that stunt on me, I would certainly kick them out of my house forthwith. Sorry.
So, that is the first part of the story. The book then switches to Geneva, where Haldin’s mother and naive sister Natalia have fled (at Haldin’s insistence). They have no idea what happened to Haldin, because he was supposed to have joined them. Natalia has his last letter, in which he praises Razumov, but they only find out about Haldin’s death later. The situation puzzles Natalia and her mother, because they cannot imagine that Haldin would have just let himself be captured without trying to escape.
Razumov shows up in Geneva, sent there as a spy - he has been recruited by the police bureaucrat who subjected him to an interview that is a direct parallel to that endured by the actually guilty Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. Razumov is seen (thanks to Haldin’s letter) as a sort of hero, and the anarchists try to recruit him. His conscience is troubling him, however, and he is unable to commit to either side. This being Conrad, Razumov gets to play the part of the antihero, unable to triumph over either circumstance or his own demons.
Conrad is a master of this sort of book, one where deeply flawed characters break down mentally and spiritually as a result of circumstances and their own weaknesses. It isn’t an inspiring story in that sense, but it also doesn’t seem truly hopeless. Razumov is a failure by his own standards, but his conscience eventually wins out. He may not find a way to success, but at least he finally refuses to betray his own values.
I should also comment here that one thing I like about Conrad’s “anarchist” novels is that they avoid his racist and colonialist views that mar many of his other books, notably Heart of Darkness. Because Conrad himself bridges the gap between the “West” and the Russian “East,” he is able to treat both sides with nuance and empathy - and a solid understanding of both.
And, I must say, Conrad’s writing is just so very good. Every time I read one of his books, I marvel at his use of language. It isn’t flowery, it isn’t complex, but his word choices are so perfect, his turns of phrase suited exactly to what he wants to convey. For those of us who take pleasure in the sounds and meanings of words, Conrad is one of those masters that thrill us to the marrow.
Let me give a few examples that particularly stayed with me. This one, from the introductory section, is a great place to start.
The origin of Mr. Razumov’s record is connected with an event characteristic of modern Russia in the actual fact: the assassination of a prominent statesman - and still more characteristic of the moral corruption of an oppressed society where the noblest aspirations of humanity, the desire of freedom, an ardent patriotism, the love of justice, the sense of pity, and even the fidelity of simple minds are prostituted to the lusts of hate and fear, the inseparable companions of an uneasy despotism.
Seriously. Just read that a few times, and marvel in the way he conveys so many important truths - ones that remain relevant today - in such a beautiful way. Also excellent is the description of the manifesto of Mr. de P____, which sounds so much like Bill Gothard’s view of the world.
In the preamble of a certain famous State paper he had declared once that “the thought of liberty has never existed in the Act of the Creator. From the multitude of men’s counsel nothing could come but revolt and disorder; and revolt and disorder in a world created for obedience and stability is sin. It was not Reason but Authority which expressed the Divine Intention. God was the Autocrat of the Universe.” It may be that the man who made this declaration believed that heaven itself was bound to protect him in his remorseless defense of Autocracy on this earth.
Conrad also captures Razumov’s feeling of helplessness when caught between these opposing forces.
The true Razumov had his being menaced by the lawlessness of autocracy - for autocracy knows no law - and the lawlessness of revolution. The feeling that his moral personality was at the mercy of these lawless forces was so strong that he asked himself seriously if it were worthwhile to go on accomplishing the mental functions of that existence which seemed no longer his own.
For Conrad, the most central issue of the story is Razumov losing his autonomy - of becoming the pawn of forces beyond his control. This is, obviously, the flip side of Crime and Punishment: Razumov doesn’t wrestle with the responsibility of moral choice, but with the fact that he has no real choice - his life’s trajectory has been irreparably altered by Haldin’s choice. All around him now associate him with Haldin and the anarchist cause, even though he is not part of it.
Again he experienced that sensation of his conduct being taken out of his hands by Haldin’s revolutionary tyranny.
Later, the narrator discusses the idea of revolution with Natalia, who is ever the idealist. She denies that the Russion revolution-in-the-making is about either class or economic interest. Because she sees it as a conflict that westerners can never fully understand, she dismisses the narrator’s belief that a conflict of ideologies cannot be resolved into some peace attained by violence.
“Everything is inconceivable,” she said. “The whole world is inconceivable to the strict logic of ideas. And yet the world exists to our senses, and we exist in it. There must be a necessity superior to our conceptions. It is a very miserable and a very false thing to belong to the majority. We Russians shall find some better form of national freedom than an artificial conflict of parties - which is wrong because it is a conflict and contemptible because it is artificial. It is left for us Russians to discover a better way.”
This is a fascinating statement. First, she seems to be endorsing the Pragmatist and Pluralistic views of William James. But then she makes the leap to a more Platonic viewpoint, so to speak, in which the necessity of peace leads to it by ways not known to logic. This is naive, of course, and doubly so in light of future history which was not known to Conrad in 1911, but which he seems to anticipate. Far from creating some new and better way, Russia just found an even more totalitarian system than Tsarism. And polished the old secret police into the even more brutal KGB. Conrad was correct about the lawlessness of both autocracy and revolution.
Natalia hasn’t come up with these ideas herself, of course. Some she got from her brother. But she is also under the spell of Peter Ivanovich, a revolutionary based on Mikhail Bakunin. In one of several passages, Ivanovich holds forth at length on his philosophy.
“The great Powers of Europe are bound to disappear - and the cause of their collapse will be very simple. They will exhaust themselves struggling against their proletariat. In Russia it is different. In Russia we have no classes to combat each other, one holding the power of wealth, and the other mighty with the strength of numbers. We have only an unclean bureaucracy in the face of a people as great and as incorruptible as the ocean.”
Yes, that is definitely blither. No one nationality is immune from corruption, to say the least. And the idea of Russia as a classless society oppressed by bureaucrats is as ludicrous then and there as it is here and now - even if the American Right Wing thinks it is true.
Natalia and the narrator talk often about ideas. He is concerned about her getting swept into the revolution, which he (correctly) notes she does not truly understand. She is too naive, too purehearted, to avoid being crushed by a revolution. I think the Englishman is correct in this assessment of how revolutions go in real life.
“The last thing I want to tell you is this: in a real revolution - not a simple dynastic change or mere reform of institutions - in a real revolution the best characters do not come to the front. A violent revolution falls into the hands of narrow-minded fanatics and of tyrannical hypocrites at first. Afterwards comes the turn of all the pretentious intellectual failures of the time. Such are the chiefs and the leaders. You will notice I have left out the mere rogues. The scrupulous and the just, the noble, the humane, and devoted natures; the unselfish and the intelligent may begin a movement - but it passes away from them. They are not the leaders of a revolution. They are its victims: the victims of disgust, of disenchantment - often of remorse. Hopes grotesquely betrayed, ideals caricatured - that is the definition of revolutionary success. There have been in every revolution hearts broken by such successes.”
That’s exactly right. Conrad would have been thinking of the French Revolution, most likely. His qualification about dynastic succession or reform is probably a reference to the English Civil War, and perhaps the American Revolution, neither of which were true revolutions in the usual sense. Most institutions in both cases were preserved, with reform to the laws and balance of power, and careful maintenance of traditional rights and duties.
History has proven Conrad correct. Perhaps later reform takes place, but initially, revolutions do indeed sell out their ideas and become captive to the fanatics and rogues. The Englishman could have been describing Mao and the Chinese Communist Revolution too.
One more minor character is Tekla, an older woman who serves as a servant/companion to the Baroness - a central figure in the revolutionary group. Tekla grew up as the daughter of a finance minister, and was horrified at how others starved during a famine, while her family lived well on a government salary. She gets a monologue of her own, with a fascinating point of view.
“Upon my word, I would think that finances and all the rest of it are an invention of the devil; only that a belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness. Finances indeed!”
Baroness de S____ is intriguing as well. She is a believer in the revolution, but is also greedy and thoroughly unscrupulous. In a conversation with Razumov and others, she claims that the key is to “spiritualize” the discontent of the people.
“Yes, I said spiritualize! How else can you make discontent effective and universal?”
Man, this is really what Evangelicalism has done in the era of Trump. Take people’s discontent - about cultural change, about demographic (aka racial) change, about economic insecurity - and make it into a spiritual battle against everyone outside the tribe. And thus are they willing to support all manner of evil and hate in support of their cause.
Again, it is Tekla who actually sees through this.
“I know Peter Ivanovitch sufficiently well. He is a great man. Great men are horrible. Well, that’s it.”
Tekla tries to persuade Razumov to keep Natalia away from Ivanovich and the Baroness. But he really has no power to do so.
In the climactic scene, where Razumov bares his soul to Natalia - and confesses that he has hated her and hated Haldin and his entire family for what Haldin did to him - he confesses his love for her as well. It is all tied together and his psyche has crumbled under the strain.
“But don’t be deceived, Natalia Victorovna. I believed that I had in my breast nothing but an inexhaustible fund of anger and hate for you both. I remembered that he had looked to you for the perpetuation of his visionary soul. He, this man who had robbed me of my hardworking, purposeful existence. I, too, had my guiding idea; and remember that, amongst us, it is more difficult to lead a life of toil and self-denial than to go out in the street and kill from conviction.”
I strongly believe that is true. The rioters who attempted to overthrow our government in January did the easy thing - it isn’t that hard to kill and destroy. The hard work is the quiet life of reform and building. It is unfair to blame Natalia, and Razumov realizes this, which is why he eventually sacrifices himself in an attempt to save her and to clear his own conscience.
As I said, this is a fascinating book, every bit as thoughtful as the one it was intended to respond to. Conrad links Russia and the West in an unforgettable way, through the struggles of a tragic anti-hero, a pawn of forces he cannot fight. It is particularly impressive that Conrad seems to have anticipated much of the result of the series of revolutions that Russia was just beginning to undergo at the time. Indeed, the trajectory of Russia in the 20th Century seems to have been predicted in significant part by Conrad, drawing entirely on the psychology of the peoples of Europe and Asia - or, perhaps, on universal human nature.