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Friday, July 3, 2020

Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad



Under Western Eyes is Joseph Conrad’s Russian novel. I found this to be another brilliant Conrad effort. As is typical of Conrad, this book is filled with complex characters, prose and themes. This work was known to be written as a response to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Conrad’s novel has some similar plot devices and characters. This book’s protagonist, Kyrilo Razumov even has a similar name to Dostoyevsky’s Rodion Raskolnikov. Among several objections, Conrad apparently beloved that Dostoyevsky was too sympathetic to the Russian State and Russian autocracy. However, like the Dostoyevsky book, this work is a scathing indictment of radicalism and revolutionaries. 

This novel, like many of Conrad’s works, is narrated by a narrator who interprets and tells the story. The narrator is an English teacher of languages who filters the story through “Western eyes” by reading and interpreting the protagonist’s diary. Thus, there is a lot here about the differences between Russian and Western European political systems, thinking and philosophy. 

Razumov is a young student living and studying in St. Petersburg. He is intelligent but unlike Dostoyevsky’s main character, he seems destined for a bright future and does not harbor radical ideas. Early in the story his views on politics are more or less neutral. Razumov is a good listener and sometimes does not talk much. He tends to elicit the trust of those around him. Sometimes people mistake his way of interacting for sympathy for their own causes when in actuality he is neutral or hostile towards them. 

Razumov’s life is turned upside down when Victor Haldin, a young revolutionary, who has just assassinated a brutal government official, lands in Razumov’s room asking for help. Haldin mistakenly believes that Razumov is sympathetic to his cause. Razumov is beside himself and fears that he will be drawn into revolutionary activities. He secretly turns Haldin in to the authorities. The young revolutionary is quickly executed. The government is happy with Razumov’s actions and Haldin’s fellow revolutionaries erroneously believe that Razumov is on their side and helped in the assassination. The autocratic authorities decide to use Razumov as an agent to infiltrate the revolutionaries since the radicals trust him. They send the protagonist to Switzerland to spy on the community of Russian exiles there. The revolutionary exiles are capable of murder so Razumov is aware that he must carry on the deception in order to survive. All this time he is morally conflicted as to who or what he supports. 

In Switzerland Razumov meets various characters who he interacts with through the remainder of the book. Peter Ivanovitch is an older revolutionary who is famous and held in awe by the revolutionaries but also hypocritical and cruel. Tekla is a young woman who has joined the revolutionaries but who is abused by them. The hypocrisy of the movement is illustrated as the person who mistreats her the most is Peter Ivanovitch who is known to be great “feminist”. There are other revolutionaries of varying morality hanging about the story. 

Razumov also meets Natalia Haldin. She is the sister of Haldin. She is thoughtful and ethical. She has strong ideas which include are integrated with her tendency to be kind and charitable. Mrs. Haldin, who is Nalalia's and Haldin's  mother, is also present. Throughout the story she becomes further and further consumed with grief over her son's execution. 

Throughout the narrative the protaginist navigates between these various characters while trying to conceal the fact that he is actually working for the Russian government. He finds himself falling in love with Natalia who reciprocates the feeling. He begins to slide deeper and deeper into cynicism as he begins to understand the moral vacuity of both the government and the rebels. He also has difficulty coming to terms with the guilt that he feels for betraying Haldin. 

The connection with Crime and Punishment, which I also recently read, is interesting. For his part, though Conrad wrote in English and is considered an English writer, he was born in the Ukraine of Polish nobility. His family had connections with the Polish revolutionaries and ran afoul of Russian authorities. Obviously, this background influenced Conrad and this work. Though Conrad wrote this book as a supposed argument with the Russian novel, both books are biting indictments of radicalism. One way that Under Western Eyes differs, is that this work is also an attack on Russian autocracy. The sympathetic characters in this novel, seem to be caught between the two malicious systems.

The plot, characters and ideas that this book explores are, like other Conrad novels that I have read, complex. But its center, this is essentially a tale of of bad forces in conflict with good people caught in the middle.  Most of Conrad’s writing has a streak of cynicism in it. Here is savagely cynical towards both the autocratic Russian Government as well as toward the revolutionaries. Principled and humane people are stuck between the two. At one point the narrator thinks about Natalia, 

There was almost all her youth before her; a youth robbed arbitrarily of its natural lightness and joy, overshadowed by an un-European despotism; a terribly sombre youth given over to the hazards of a furious strife between equally ferocious antagonisms. 

Conrad does finds morality and good in the world. Here, virtue is found in the characters of both Natalia and Tekla, both are characterized as loyal, compassionate and self - sacrificing. Both are among several characters who have been hurt by the amorality practiced by both sides. The toll that malevolent politics has wrought upon Natalia and her mother, Mrs. Haldin, is spelled out, At the same time the young woman’s compassion shines through, 

Away from the lamp, in the deeper dusk of the distant end, the profile of Mrs. Haldin, her hands, her whole figure had the stillness of a sombre painting. Miss Haldin stopped, and pointed mournfully at the tragic immobility of her mother, who seemed to watch a beloved head lying in her lap. That gesture had an unequalled force of expression, so far-reaching in its human distress that one could not believe that it pointed out merely the ruthless working of political institutions. 

Razumov is a very complex character who is often unlikeable. In the end Razumov, though headed for material calamity, he finds moral redemption when he chooses to be honest with himself and with others. Thus, rising above the conflict between these forces. 

Like other Conrad works, the book is filled with long complex sentences. The characters often engage each other in long, meditative and philosophical discussions over life, morality, gender, politics and all sorts of other stuff.  This novel is full of ideas.

In regards to the Dostoyevsky connection, one does not need to read Crime and Punishment before reading this novel. However, being familiar with the Russian book made the this more rewarding for me. 

I have read multiple Conrad novels now. I have come to appreciate him as a writer. This book, like almost everything else that I have read by him, is filled with interesting and complex characters and ideas. The plot of tis also engaging. The novel also has the added interest of having some connection with the ideas and works of Dostoyevsky. Evan aside from that, this is just a great classic book.

58 comments:

Dorothy Borders said...

Conrad's works often seemed conflicted and quite cynical about revolutionary "movements" and it sounds as though this one, which I haven't read, falls within those parameters. He was always exploring the bounds of morality with his characters' actions. Your excellent review makes clear his obsession with these themes.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Dorothy. He was so interested in morality. His dislike of revolutionary movements was apparent here and in The Secret Agent.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, Wow. What a book and your review is superb. This novel with its focus on Russian Revolutionaries and its connection to Crime and Punishment is the Conrad book I have been waiting for and I can't wait to read it. The book is also timely because Russia is never really out of the news and yet we know so little about its culture, people and history. Having read Lord Jim I sense that guilt factors into Conrad's work. Basically the main character does something that betrays his ethics and then the dilemna is what to do after that. Once again, really great review.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kathy - Indeed, Conrad explored guilt here and in Lord Jim.

Russian history is fascinating and relevant to today’s world. I took a bunch of classes in Russian history back in college. I have also read a few books. It is a subject that is worthy of study.

Debra She Who Seeks said...

You know, I've never read anything by Conrad. I really should remedy that. I feel like I'm missing out.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Debra - I thought that Lord Jim was his best book that I have read so far. Heart of Darkness was short and I thought that it was excellent so it might be a good introduction.

mudpuddle said...

perceptive and penetrating post... interesting portrayal of the despair and pain instilled by an overly intense study and participation in politics. and it is also interesting how the borders between "good" and "bad" are blurred and smudged: momentary situations determining ethical behavior don't appear to be an appropriate method of fostering moral behavior

Lisa Hill said...

I'd never heard of this. I must read it, but I think I'll re-read C&P first because it's decades since I read that...
Thanks for a great review!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Mudpuddle. You make good points. Intensity of political thought at this level does usually lead to bad. Conrad also loved these morally complex situations.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Lisa. Reading Crime and Punishment beforehand really can enhance this book.

James said...

A great review of one of Conrad's best novels. I'm a big fan of his and this is one of the many I have enjoyed over the years.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James - I am liking Conrad more and more as I read more of his books.

Marian H said...

Brian, I'm so glad you enjoyed this novel! I feel it's a bit underrated, possibly because it's not technically a "Russian" novel though it shares so many of the same characteristics that you point out. I think I'll read it again after I read Crime & Punishment.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Marian - For whatever reason this book gets less attention then other Conrad books. It may indeed be because of its odd position as a Russian novel. I think that reading this after Crime and Punishment is a good combination.

Judy Krueger said...

Well, I thought Crime and Punishment was just great. This does sound like a good companion read.

kaggsysbookishramblings said...

Great post Brian. I've had a copy of this for years and keep meaning to read it, particularly as I loved his The Secret Agent, and also love Dostoevsky! But my copy is old and crumbly with small print which may have something to do with it. An excuse to buy a new copy, maybe...

Susan Kane said...

That part of history is murky. Razumov was a brave man, complicated by guilt and his place in a comflicted time. I like him.

So many books, so little time said...

I need to read Crime and Punishment, I do have it I am sure I got it after one of your posts. I haven't read this author yet either xxx

Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Judy -It is a good way to compliment Crime and Punishment.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kaggy - Sadly, I have trouble with fine print books myself.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - Murky is a good way to describe a lot of what goes on in this book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - Crime and Punishment May be the best way to start with Dostoevsky. As for Conrad, I think that Lord Jim is a good start.

Suko said...

Brian Joseph, thank you for the intro to this new-to-me novel. It sounds as if it's truly worth reading. Wonderful, thoughtful review, as usual.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I confess I haven’t heard of this one, and I haven’t read his more famous book, Heart Of Darkness. Do you prefer this one?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sue - I really liked Heart of Darkness but it was hard to compare because it was so short. I thought his best book was Lord Jim.

JacquiWine said...

Interesting commentary as ever, Brian. Conrad's characterisation sounds excellent, very rich and complex. The link with Dostoevsky is fascinating too. Your reviews often remind me of how many gaps there are in my reading, all the classics I've never managed to get around to over the years.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Jacqui. Conrad’s characters are superb.

One cannot real everything. There is so much to read.

The Padre said...

Oh, Those Western Eyes - Pleased With A Novel That Fills The Mind With Ideas - Sounds Rewarding In Deed - Enjoy The Week, Enjoy The Month, And Read On My Brother

Cheers

thecuecard said...

It does sound like it has a lot of ideas in it ... perhaps more than some of his other books. So I gather Razumov doesn't side with the autocracy or the radicals at the end? He doesn't turn them in? I like how it's written as a response to Crime & Punishment. Interesting. what did Dostoyevsky think then?

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Padre!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sue - Dostoevsky had died before this was published. I think that it was an argument that Conrad had with a dead man.

Sharon Wilfong said...

This sounds like a great novel. Since I've. Already read Crime and Punishment I should be ready. Thanks for a good review.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon. I think that you would like this and that you would get a lot out of it.

baili said...

Remarkable and very impressive commentary dear Brain

i enjoyed stepping into bit different world of interest than mine as i am less into politics or political revolutions

if it was up to me i want to erase politics from this earth so public can live peacefully
do you think it will be possible ever ???

i found main character quite real and practical ,writer seems to handle him well throughout the story and i think it was more possible because he himself has lived through that difficult time
i think feeding characters with your own philosophy of life and views is not unnatural still i would more enjoy characters who are nurtured and empowered by their own perceptions and experiences and speak vaguely through the pen of writer and each stand identical as individual
i liked the end and you shared it so nicely
thank you for an other great review !
blessings

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Baili - You raise an interesting question about erasing politics. I guess politics are necessary as we need a way to set up systems and laws as well as to solve problems. I think politics can also easily become destructive and that is what we must seek to avoid. As I often say, I think that over time, humans are getting better at this and the bad stuff is slowly lessening. But I do not think that we will ever reach perfection.

Conrad was a little heavy handed here in infusing his characters with certain political views. But maybe that went with the territory as the world that he was depicting here was very political.

Have a great week.

Fanda Classiclit said...

Of Conrad, I've only read Heart of Darkness. And it's already many years ago. I need to read more of him, but I don't think I'd like this one - though its connection to Crime and Punishment is very interesting. Do you have any suggestion, which one I should read next?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Fanda - My favorite Conrad book is Lord Jim.

CyberKitten said...

After reading some Conrad a while back (and enjoying it) I actually added this book to my Amazon Wish List. I must actually *purchase* it at some point. I already have a small collection of his works (unread) and this one needs to be added to it! Thanks for the prompt.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CyberKitten- He has become one of my favorite writers.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Loving the sound of these characters, I knew we had a copy of this on our shelves except, borrowed by a friend several years ago now, we never got it back. Oh well, I guess its another book to add to the wish List.

HKatz said...

Ok, this sounds fascinating, and I plan to read it. I love these explorations of malicious politics and murky ethics that don't lack for well-written individual characters.

The only other novel I've read by Conrad is The Secret Agent, and I enjoyed it (what a grim ending it had though).

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Felicity- I hate it when folks do not return books.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - The Secret Agent really went grim. This did so too but bit as much

Richard said...

Where do you rate this among the Conrad novels you've read, Brian? I used to hear it referred to as lesser Conrad, but I've been finding more fans of it than I used to of late.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Richard - I never read Conrad novel that I did not like. But I liked Lord Jim the best. Then Heart of Darkness. I would tie this to Nostromo. I liked The Secret Agent but one has to go last.

Whispering Gums said...

I'd like to read more Conrad one day, more classics, in fact. Is this book as long as Crime and punishment? (Of course, I could check this myself!)

Anyhow, I liked this statement, that he is "savagely cynical towards both the autocratic Russian Government as well as toward the revolutionaries. Principled and humane people are stuck between the two." I feel this is often the case, ie, that fanatical people on all sides can behave less humanely than you'd like.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi WG- Thiz book is about two - thirds as long as Crime and Punishment.

It is so true. So many times the moderate and the ethical are caught between inhumane extremes.

RT said...

Great critique .... isn’t it amazing that English was not his primary language!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks. RT. The language thing is astonishing.

Paula Vince said...

Wow, this sounds like an intense read, but being a novel written by Joseph Conrad as a reaction to Crime and Punishment, it naturally would be. He was evidently thoroughly in tune with the situation in Russia, and would have done his story justice.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Paula - Conrad seemed to have understood both Russia and revolutionaries well.

Caroline said...

How very interesting. I hadn’t heard of this book but since I’ve read Crime and Punishment this sounds very interesting. Especially since he criticizes Russian autocracy.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - Reading the two books around the same time was very intellectually rewarding.

Carol said...

I haven’t read anything by Conrad yet but will probably try Lord Jim. Russian history & politics is such a fascinating mine field. I’m reading Dr Zhivago and it’s so good to be caught up in that part of the world again.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Carol - I think that Lord Jim is a good place to start with Conrad.

I really must get to Doctor Zhivago. The world of Russian literature is a world in and of itself.

the bookworm said...

Glad you enjoyed this one and the Crime and Punishment connection. I like the passages you shared here.
Great review as always.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Naida. The connection to Crime and Punishment made this extra interesting.