Saturday, 16 July 2016

Victory, by Joseph Conrad: more relief than victory

What was Conrad thinking when he wrote this novel? It feels as though he were not fully engaged, as if he were simply going through the motions of writing. There is nothing here of his best work, which appears to be either (a) a Western response to colonization, and (b) the response of humans to moral challenges, that force them to confront themselves. The two factors often appear together.

But in Victory, there is none of this. One rather feeble man, Heyst, does a good deed but is unfairly condemned for it. As a result, he runs away from society to live on an island by himself (although it turns out that is he not quite by himself – he has a Chinese servant, Wang). He is confronted by some very Western villains who are simply cardboard cut-outs of evilness; they don’t convince. He fails to defend himself or the woman staying with him (who he has rescued from a difficult situation).  That’s it! No great moral controversy; most of the book is about westerners against westerners. As a reader, I wasn’t very bothered about any of them.

My complaints about this novel:
1.      The hero is a ditherer. When confronted by a challenge on his island he fails to take decisive action.
2.      The phrase “motiveless malignity” applies to Heyst’s enemy, Schomberg. He is the mechanism that leads to the denouement. But nobody would be convinced by his arguments.  Why would a gang of murderers chase a man for his money when the company he worked for has gone bust, and there is no indication that has ever had any money?
3.      The novel is written by an omniscient narrator, who takes it in turns to write as if from the standpoints of individual characters. Some of the narrative is written as if by the main female character, Lena, a member of a touring band. That narrative doesn’t ring true. On the basis of this novel, Conrad couldn’t write as a female character.
4.      Where is the moral choice, the quintessential component of a Conrad novel?
5.      Is there ever any questioning of why Heyst retreated to a desert island? After all, it’s a strange thing to do (even if it is matched in another Conrad story, ‘The Planter of Malata`, another rather indifferent Conrad tale, which, it seems was written at the same time as Victory.
6.      A few Shakespearean parallels (Schomberg as Iago, Pedro as Caliban, did not lift the novel above the commonplace.
7.      Is there any awareness of any humanity in the non-western characters? No, they are treated as inferior beings. The character of the Chinese servant, Wang, as described by the narrator, reveals a colonial attitude that does not reflect well on Conrad.  By contrast, Kipling has a respect for and a genuine interest in other civilizations; on the evidence of Victory, Conrad has neither.

Incidentally, where is the victory of the title? The novel ends in disaster for all the major characters. My feeling on completing the novel was more like relief at having finished it.  

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