Saturday, September 28, 2019

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

This post contains spoilers.

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad is a dark tale of spying, radicalism and family strife. Like other Conrad books that I have read, the prose and characters are masterly crafted. First published in 1907, the story seems to take place in the 1880s. This is the fourth Conrad book that I have read. I had previously completed Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim and Nostromo. Though I found this novel to be nearly great, I thought that the ideas and some characters could have been developed more. This also seemed like darkest Conrad novel that I have read so far. 

This is the story of Adolph Verloc. The protagonist is currently living in London and is covertly employed by a foreign embassy, possibly Russian. Verloc has spent his life infiltrating anarchist and other radical circles with the intent of monitoring and disrupting these organizations on the behest of various governments. Mr. Vladimir is Verloc’s new supervisor who hatches a plot that involves the incitement of violence. The theory is that if the anarchists set off a bomb, it will rouse the British government and public to take more vigorous action against radicalism. Thus, Verloc is set into motion to set off a bomb at the Greenwich Observatory.

In the non - covert world Verloc runs a shop that sells all kinds of shady wares including pornography. He lives with his wife Winnie, his mother - in - law and his brother - in - law Stevie. Verloc’s young brother – in – law is someone who in our present times would likely be diagnosed with autism. Over the course of the book it is revealed that Winnie and Stevie’s father had been abusive. Even after he died, Winnie’s family faced a world of abusive men and a future that would probably see Stevie institutionalized. Winnie married Mr. Verloc because he showed himself to be a financially stable, outwardly good natured, non - abusive man who would tolerate Stevie. Her actions are almost entirely motivated by her desire to take care of and protect her brother. For his part, though easy going, Mr. Verloc is emotionally detached and exhibits almost no ethics. Though the characters that he surrounds himself are disreputable, it is not to Verloc’s credit that he spies upon and betrays them. 

Verloc’s radical friends are portrayed as a combination of immoral and ridiculous people who advocate terrible theories. A few, like the bomb  -   making “Professor” are willing to commit or at least assist in the perpetuating violence and are horrifying people.

In an effort to carry out the bombing of the observatory Verloc enlists Stevie to assist him. After procuring a bomb from The Professor, Verloc sends the trustful and naive Stevie to plant the explosive at the observatory. Unfortunately, in route to place the device, Stevie trips on a tree root and blows himself up. The book ends on a bleak note as both Verloc and Winnie fall into personnel catastrophe. 

I think Stevie’s character is key here. Though he has difficulties with the world, Stevie spends a lot of time thinking about topics such as morality and suffering. He shows a great deal of empathy for others. At one point he becomes aware of the difficult and painful lives of both a carriage driver and his horse, 

“Poor brute, poor people!” was all he could repeat. It did not seem forcible enough, and he came to a stop with an angry splutter: “Shame!” Stevie was no master of phrases, and perhaps for that very reason his thoughts lacked clearness and precision. But he felt with greater completeness and some profundity. That little word contained all his sense of indignation and horror at one sort of wretchedness having to feed upon the anguish of the other— at the poor cabman beating the poor horse in the name, as it were, of his poor kids at home. And Stevie knew what it was to be beaten. He knew it from experience. It was a bad world. Bad! Bad!

The above is just one example in the text where Stevie’s character manifests itself. He also creates artwork through which one gets the sense that he is trying to makes sense of a very chaotic universe,

innocent Stevie, seated very good and quiet at a deal table, drawing circles, circles, circles; innumerable circles, concentric, eccentric; a coruscating whirl of circles that by their tangled multitude of repeated curves, uniformity of form, and confusion of intersecting lines suggested a rendering of cosmic chaos, the symbolism of a mad art attempting the inconceivable.

Stevie’s views are contrasted with the motley crew of anarchists who operate on all kinds of social theories that purport to make the world better. These men are nihilistic, egotistical, callous to suffering and are willing to hurt people. Like Fyodor Dostoevsky did with his portrayals of radicals, Conrad seems to anticipate the mass murders and genocides of the twentieth century as The Professor talks about plans for mass extermination of people. One of these anarchists label Stevie as “degenerate”; the irony being that it is actually the accuser who shows degeneracy. The radical world eventually kills Stevie, further heightening the contrast. 

Of course, Stevie’s morality is also at odds with Mr. Verloc’s narcissism and the embassy official’s callous disregard for ethics and human life. At the end however, Stevie’s conceptions of justice have their day to some extent.

There is a lot more going on in this book. There are multiple characters, including police officials and criminals that Conrad digs into. One flaw in the narrative manifests itself as some of these characters seem only partially formed. The author spends a fair number of pages developing some of the police officials and their stories but seems to leave them hanging in the end. 

Winnie is also explored in great depth. She shows great selflessness in her devotion to Stevie. By the story’s end, her understandable decisions lead to disastrous consequences for herself. I could devote an entire post to her. 

Like the other Conrad books that I have, the prose here is very dense. The description of places and people are filled with words. I found myself rereading passages often. Others have observed that Conrad tends to construct long sentences that go in circles. I tend to agree with this. I do not consider these things drawbacks however, in fact, I love Conrad’s style. It is unique, interesting to read, and bursting with meaning.

Despite a few flaws and despite the fact that it is very dark, this is a suburb novel. It is filled with interesting and complex characters. The plot and themes are fascinating. It is also filled with Conrad’s unique but wonderfully crafted prose. With that, I thought that the ideas here might not have been as complex as Lord Jim or Nostromo. Still, this novel deserves its reputation of being a classic.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

Song of the Lark by Willa Cather is considered the second of the author’s Great Plains Trilogy. However, though it takes place in the American Midwest as did O Pioneers!, the two stories are unconnected. I found this to be great character study. Along the way, Cather adds in a lot of ponderings on the things that make a person an artist. In addition, the novel is filled with musical references ranging from American and Mexican folk music to the operas of Richard Wagner. These references greatly enhanced my reading experience.

This is the story of Thea Kronborg. Thea is born into a Swedish - American family that resides in the fictional town of Moonstone, Colorado. She grows up in the early years of the Twentieth Century. Thea is special. The is smarter than most of her peers. She loves books. She has enormous musical talent. She seems to exude a charisma, even as an adolescent, that draws men to her. These men invest time and effort info promoting Theas’s future, as she slowly emerges as a successful and gifted opera singer. 

Perhaps the most important male supporter of Thea is Dr. Howard Archie. His interest in her strikes one as a little odd. Though never overtly romantic, one gets the sense that there is a subtext of attraction as Thea gets older. Late in the book, Dr. Archie himself thinks back on the relationship, 

He realized now that she had counted for a great deal more to him than he knew at the time. It was a continuous sort of relationship. He was always on the lookout for her as he went about the town, always vaguely expecting her as he sat in his office at night. He had never asked himself then if it was strange that he should find a child of twelve the most interesting and companionable person in Moonstone. It had seemed a pleasant, natural kind of solicitude. He explained it then by the fact that he had no children of his own. But now, as he looked back at those years, the other interests were faded and inanimate. The thought of them was heavy.

Dr. Archie supports Thea in her early years, helps her get set up in Chicago where she goes to study music and eventually finances her journey to Germany to properly hone her skills as an opera singer. There are many others in Thea’s hometown who are drawn to her including Ray Kennedy, an intelligent railroad brakeman who intends to marry Thea when she gets older but who is killed in a train accident. Her charisma and her musical interests lead her to the form bonds with several other adults including members of the Mexican – American community.

While studying music in Chicago Thea meets Fred Ottenberg. Fred is the son of a wealthy parents. Thea and Fred begin to fall in love until Fred is forced to tell Thea that he is actually married to woman that he has come to hate. 

Later Thea travels to Germany to study opera. The narrative then jumps forward ten years when Thea returns to America to be greeted by both Dr. Archie and Fred. Thea is becoming something of a diva and the two men are entranced by her. 

I thought that the prose here, while very good, did not reach the nearly sublime level that they reached in O Pioneers! There may have been a few passages that came close to the earlier work, but only a few. Instead, the strength of this book lies in the fact that it is a superb character study. This book is a classic and successful example of a bildungsroman. 

Thea is complex and nuanced. In some ways her development is a study in talent and the formation of an artist. As mentioned above, she exhibits enormous talent and intelligence when growing up. She is tomboyish as she is not afraid of the outdoor elements or the rougher nature of life. This roughish part of her nature reasserts itself at various points on the plot throughout Thea’s life. 

When she goes to Chicago to study music she exudes confidence, self – reliance as well as enormous drive. To Cather’s credit she has endowed her literary creation with flaws. Thea goes through a period where her detachment, calmness and confidence begins to trend into coldness and arrogance. As it sometimes happens in real life, this period seems to pass naturally. Later when she learns that Fred is married Thea is hurt but not devastated, indicating just how self - reliant that she is.

There is a duality to Theas's character. There is a contrast between the fairly tough girl who grew up on the plains and cosmopolitan woman who is honing her considerable musical talent. At one point, Thea is present at a concert where Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 "From the New World” is played and it reminds her of her youth. Later some of Wagner’s operatic works are performed presaging the life that she in entering. 

Toward the book’s conclusion Thea comments on how her ties to Moonstone has buoyed her as an artist. She tells Dr. Archie, 

Nearly all my dreams, except those about breaking down on the stage or missing trains, are about Moonstone. You tell me the old house has been pulled down, but it stands in my mind, every stick and timber. In my sleep I go all about it, and look in the right drawers and cupboards for everything. I often dream that I'm hunting for my rubbers in that pile of overshoes that was always under the hatrack in the hall. I pick up every overshoe and know whose it is, but I can't find my own. Then the school bell begins to ring and I begin to cry. That's the house I rest in when I'm tired. All the old furniture and the worn spots in the carpet— it rests my mind to go over them.”

I found this to be an excellent book. Thera’s character and her development is at the heart of it all. She is not just complex and interesting but she is unusual. Though I did not find the prose to be as soaring as Cather’s effort in O Pioneers!, the character development makes up for it. Cather’s exploration of artistry and music is also fascinating. This novel is a fine example of American literature.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Empire by Niall Ferguson

Empire by Neil Ferguson is a history of the British Empire. The book also presents several of the author’s arguments about that empire. First published in 2012 this work has garnered some controversy. I found this to be a compelling history book that could have used more detail. I agreed with some, but not all of Ferguson’s contentions. Either way, the author is a lively thinker who is not afraid of going into all sorts of directions and who presents evidence to support his conclusions. 

Those who have been reading my posts over the past several months know that I have been reading books that cover the subject of colonialism. I started off by reading a series of books that fit within the category known as postcolonialism. This ideology can be described as left wing. I am now moving on to more conservative, and moderate writers. Thus, I read this book.  Ferguson is often called  a conservative. With that, though some of Ferguson’s views fit into the realm of conservative thought, to characterize this book as purely conservative seems to be an oversimplification. As I will try to highlight below, there is a lot of complexity here.

This work falls short of being   a comprehensive history. Ferguson tends to drop into a region and examine a time period or certain events. He then jumps into another time and place, leaving some gaps along the way. My version of this book was 380 pages long plus notes. Another 80 to 100 pages would have filled in the gaps and painted a more comprehensive picture.

Ferguson traces the early days of English colonization. He asserts that during the Seventeenth Century the British basically operated a piracy campaign aimed at stealing the gold that was being transported on Spanish ships. The British needed bases for these operations and thus established colonies in places like Jamaica. Later these colonies grew, and became economic engines in and of themselves. Colonization throughout the world, from Ireland to the West Indies to Africa to India and elsewhere is covered.  

The colonization of America and Australia is also explored. I want to mention some of Ferguson’s arguments regarding these places. Colonization in these regions was different as it involved settler colonization. That is, Europeans actually moved in and displaced indigenous societies. This involved murder, genocide, various forms of oppression and the taking of lands. Ferguson pulls no punches describing these facts and commenting upon the lack of morality on the part of the Europeans.  However, he does contend, that these trends would have happened with or without the presence of the British Empire. In fact, in the case of North America, most of the continent was subjugated by an independent United States.   I agree with him that these things would likely have happened regardless of the British. I think that this particular argument is important as it relates to Ferguson’s summing up of the Empire that he commences toward the end of this work.

Some of the book is aimed at providing evidence to support the author’s contentions. To Ferguson’s credit, he often presents both sides of an argument. He does not straw man and he presents evidence to support even arguments that he opposes.  

One of his main contentions, in fact, the most important contention of the book, is that despite the terrible things that the Empire did, it was also very beneficial to humanity. This contention also opens an entire series of issues that the author delves into. First, as mentioned above, Ferguson clearly makes the point that the British Empire did unconscionable things. Furthermore, he goes out of its way to innumerate and analyze these things. To name just a few terrible events perpetuated during the time of empire that are explored here: the Tasmanian genocide, the brutal suppression of the Indian Mutiny including the murders of civilians, forcing the Chinese government to accept the importation of narcotics, the outright stealing of native lands, are among the outrageous detailed.

Despite all this the author contends that The British Empire brought benefits to humanity. First, Ferguson details how, in the Nineteenth Century the Empire, at prompting of both Evangelical Christian and Liberal movements, engaged in a mostly successful campaign to eradicate slavery throughout the world. 

The author goes on to detail how the Empire spread free trade, communications networks, competent civil service, legal systems and parliamentary democracy throughout the world. He engages in economic and political analysis that I admittedly cannot really evaluate. However, he concludes, that despite problems, on average former British colonies are more democratic, and more prosperous, then the rest of the developing world. I agree these things have been beneficial to humanity and that to some degree the British spread them. I think it is not clear however, just how far these trends would have grown and advanced without the Empire. 

Ferguson contends that the Empire bestowed another benefit to the world in that it was instrumental in destroying much more harmful empires of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan. Furthermore, he argues that Great Britain choose to confront these empires when it could have simply coexisted with them.

The book goes on to contend that the strain of fighting two world wars were what caused the empire to dissolve in the twentieth century. Ferguson writes, 

What had been based on Britain’s commercial and financial supremacy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and her industrial supremacy in the nineteenth was bound to crumble once the British economy buckled under the accumulated burdens of two world wars. The great creditor became a debtor.

The author goes on to argue that much of Britain’s debt was owed to the United States which opposed the continuation of Empire. The United States proceeded to use its leverage to undermine the Empire. 

Ferguson believes that the movements for national liberation that spread throughout the Empire were not as strong as assumed. He argues that they were similar to movements that were defeated in previous centuries. However, an Empire that was weakened by fighting the Axis could not contend with them. He writes eloquently in this passage,  

Yet what made it so fine, so authentically noble, was that the Empire’s victory could only ever have been Pyrrhic. In the end, the British sacrificed her Empire to stop the Germans, Japanese and Italians from keeping theirs. Did not that sacrifice alone expunge all the Empire’s other sins?

I think that the contention that the Empire would not have unraveled had it not been for the world wars is questionable. It seems far - fetched to contend that, but for the lack of resources, that the British would have hung on to the colonies. The drive toward self - determination was, and still is, a world - wide one that was greatly accelerated during the twentieth century. It manifested itself in places well beyond the British Empire. Nationalist self - determination movements were also usually successful. 

As for Britain being weakened by fighting two world wars, Ferguson, who was initially an economic historian and makes a seemingly strong case. However, I do not really know enough to have a strong opinion on this one.  I had previously read Ferguson ‘s War of the World. That book was also history book where the author laid out several contentions. It turns out that the arguments that Ferguson made in that book are related to the arguments that he makes here. In that book, the author also contended that the stress of two world wars was what caused France and England to lose their empires. 

I want to note that Ferguson is very much at odds with the postcolonial writers that I have recently been reading. In fact, a few moths ago, I read Colonialism/Postcolonialism in which Ania Loomba was specifically critical of Ferguson’s views. Loomba and several other writers tend to be highly negative about capitalism, free trade and globalism. Ferguson champions these things. In addition, arguing that the Empire was in some ways beneficial seems like anathema to postcolonial thought. 

I commented in a previous post that I had perused several postcolonial academic reading lists.  I thought that these lists represented an echo chamber with little diversity of thought with a lot of emphasis on anti – capitalism, Marxism, intersectionalism, critical race theory, etc.  It seems to me, that books such as Ferguson’s should be included as part of postcolonial readings. Even if most professors and students disagree with these more conservative contentions, it is important to consider differing views. 

Though I thought that this book could have been more comprehensive, it is a very good book.  It is interesting and informative, I learned a lot about the British Empire. I agree with some of Ferguson’s contentions but disagreed with others. However, he is a sharp and coherent thinker who presents his arguments well. He is also not hesitant to present evidence that might support both sides. In the end, this was a very worth - while read.