The next post will be on or before Monday July 10th


‘I do not know why she should have felt so friendly to me. It may be that she thought I understood her better than I was able to do. The most precise of her sayings seemed always to me to have enigmatical prolongations vanishing somewhere beyond my reach. I am reduced to suppose that she appreciated my attention and my silence. The attention she could see was quite sincere, so that the silence could not be suspected of coldness. It seemed to satisfy her. And it is to be noted that if she confided in me it was clearly not with the expectation of receiving advice, for which indeed she never asked.’

Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad (1911)

Reading prose as accomplished as the above makes me dizzy with both admiration and with a sense of vaporous but enjoyable vertigo. From start to finish of this paragraph there is a sonorous and rhythmic felicity which partly comes from the famous austerity and nuanced simplicity of Conrad’s prose. Recall that Conrad (1857-1924) was an ethnic Pole, born in the Polish Ukraine, writing in English and that he did not find the transformation easy. He collaborated with the long-suffering Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939) in composing some of his works and drove the pair of them half mad as Ford comically describes in some of his memoirs, struggling for what seemed the unattainable but never willing to give in. For what it’s worth my 2 favourite bits of phrasing in the above are the august but precise ‘enigmatical prolongations’ (and the business of their permanent elusiveness) and ‘reduced to suppose’. The latter is an extremely unusual use of ‘reduced’ (literally ‘reduced to the condition of supposing’…) and would more usually read ‘obliged’.

The novel is the harrowing story of 2 Russian ladies Mrs Haldin and her daughter Nathalie, radical liberals living in exile in Geneva, Switzerland, aka Little Russia. They are visited by a tense and unhappy young man called Razumov who they believe knows something of the last days of their son and indeed must logically have been an ally and comrade of his. Young Haldin had assassinated a Tsarist state official and had turned to Razumov for protection. Instead of which in a blind panic he had shopped him to the state police and within a short time Haldin had been executed by hanging. Neither his mother or his sister know of this betrayal, nor do any of the Russian exiles in Geneva, counting on which the Tsarist secret police had ordered Razumov to go to Geneva and spy on the 2 women and on their treacherous circle. That circle included the legendary radical, Peter Ivanovitch, The Wild Beast, a bombastic, insensitive and insufferable monologuist, who had achieved the impossible and escaped from his terrible Siberian prison, then miraculously found his epic and endless way to freedom in exile.

Where Conrad excels is in portraying the terror-stricken egotism of Razumov, who thanks to his treachery has no friends left anywhere in the world and cannot think of anyone’s anguish other than his own. He has cowardly betrayed a young radical and sent him to his death and now he is the hapless pawn of the Tsarist secret police who can do what they like with him. Meanwhile he is incapable of feeling any pity towards grief-stricken Nathalie and her mother, an old woman who already shows signs of losing her mind as she is convinced that her son is somehow still alive. Here is Razumov ranting obscurely at the novel’s narrator, a Genevan now in his 50s, who was raised in Russia and is fully fluent in the language.

‘He approached his face with fiercely distended nostrils close to mine, so suddenly that I had the greatest difficulty in not starting back. “You ask me! I suppose it amuses you, all this. Look here! I am a worker. I studied. Yes, I studied very hard. There is intelligence here.” (He tapped his forehead with his finger-tips). “Don’t you think a Russian may have sane ambitions? Yes – I had even prospects. Certainly! I had. And now you see me here abroad, everything gone, lost sacrificed. You see me here – and you ask! You see me, don’t you? – sitting before you.”

Yet for all his genius Conrad sometimes does unintendedly clumsy, even comic things with his characters. I was reading the novel sat outside Makis’s Ouzeri in Piraeus while waiting for the boat to Kythnos last Friday, when suddenly I started to laugh immoderately. Joseph Conrad definitely wouldn’t have wanted me to laugh at what he had written, for it was at a very tense and dramatic part of the novel where the police have been to Razumov’s apartment and turned everything upside down. When he returns home, there is his fretful old landlady, commonsense and no nonsense personified.

‘She was a short, thick, shapeless woman with a large yellow face wrapped up everlastingly in a black woollen shawl. “Kirylo Sidorovitch – little father – what have you been doing? And such a quiet young man, too! The police are just gone this moment after searching your rooms…What is the good of mixing yourself up with these Nihilists? Do give over, little father. They are unlucky people…Or is it that some secret enemy has been calumniating you, Kirylo Sidorovitch. The world is full of black hearts and false denunciations nowadays. There is much fear about.”

Very true prophetic landlady for you have foreseen Josef Stalin to a tee, the same who got into his virtuoso never to be equalled mass murderer’s stride about a decade after Conrad was dead. But all the same which is the glaring odd man out in that landlady’s dialogue above? What word would the yellow-faced black-shawled lady never have used in a million years?

That’s right, it’s ‘calumniating’. Uneducated old landladies have never even heard of it, much less used it. That is an example of the genius Conrad distracted for a while and putting his own words into a mouth that quite simply would never have known them. And yes I know that he was a Pole writing in English about an old woman talking in Russian, and yet…

It is gratifying to know that even consummate geniuses have their occasional human flaws. Isn’t it?


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