Monday, June 19, 2017

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.   

“UNDER WESTERN EYES” by Joseph Conrad (first published in 1911)

I have noted before on this blog how, as an Honours student in English at the University of Auckland over 40 years ago, the novelist who most gripped and held me was Joseph Conrad (1857-1924). (See posts on Victory and The Secret Agent). I read with enthusiasm all the Conrad books that were on the curriculum – Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ and (the only one that didn’t click with me) Victory. But I went beyond the set texts and also made my way through Almayer’s Folly, Youth, Chance, The Mirror of the Sea, The Rover and a few others. Certainly the exoticism was an attraction – the African, Malayan and sea-borne settings – but so was the stern and ultimately moral tone of a man who clearly believed that something had to be clutched at, to hold mankind together in a world that might otherwise be meaningless. Conrad’s formula of “fidelity” – solidarity with other human beings in a cohesive society – was an attractive form of existentialism, while his intelligent psychoanalyses of characters also lived in the context of what amounted to suspense thrillers. No wonder Graham Greene was so besotted with him when he was a young author (see the posting on The Man Within).

Although in an earlier post I dismissed it as “pretty good”, I’d have to say that of all the extra-curricular Conrad novels I devoured, the most intriguing was Under Western Eyes. Like my favourite Conrad The Secret Agent, it has nothing to do with the sea and much to do with politics. Specifically, Under Western Eyes is the Pole Conrad’s dissection of the Russian soul as seen both in its (tsarist) autocracy and in its revolutionaries. As it was first published in 1911, its first readers would have received it in the context of the failed Russian Revolution of 1905, which left Russia still an imperial autocracy but with the beginnings of (very limited) parliamentary representation.

This is the story of Kyrilo Sidorovitch Razumov but – given that Conrad was a pioneer of the “unreliable narrator” technique – it is Razumov’s story told at one remove. The first person narrator is a Professor of Languages (at one stage described by another character as an “old Englishman”) who has acquired Razumov’s diaries and who pieces together Razumov’s story, only part of which he himself has witnessed.

In St Petersburg, a brutal police commissioner is assassinated. The Pan-Slavic student Victor Haldin was one of the assassins. On the run from the police, he begs the ambitious student Razumov to hide him in his apartment and arrange for him to escape. Razumov agrees to find for Victor the coach and coachman whom Victor had arranged to hire. But when Razumov finds the peasant coachman Ziemianitch in a drunken stupor he has a manic fit and beats him mercilessly. Having no means now of getting rid of Victor quickly, Razumov is filled with terror at the thought of the punishment he would receive for sheltering a revolutionary assassin. But then he is overwhelmed by the soulful Russian mysticism that says Russia depends on an autocrat and its only real future is not revolution but benign autocracy. As Conrad’s narrator remarks with deep irony:

In Russia, the land of spectral ideas and disembodied aspirations, many brave souls have turned away at last from the vain and endless conflict to the one great historical fact of the land. They turned to autocracy for the peace of their patriotic conscience as a weary unbeliever, touched by grace, turns to the faith of his fathers for the blessing of spiritual rest. Like other Russians before him, Razumov, in conflict with himself, felt the touch of grace upon his forehead.” (Part One, Chapter 2)  

The result of this “conversion” is brutally simple. Razumov dobs Haldin in to the police and sends him off to a police trap while absolving himself of all radical connections. Haldin is later tortured and executed. The representatives of autocratic government to whom he betrays Victor Haldin, Prince K- and General T-,  say that Razumov is a young man who “inspires confidence”. He could be of use to them.

Back in his apartment, with Victor Haldin now gone, Razumov writes the five anti-revolutionary theses of his reaffirmed belief in autocracy: “History not Theory. Patriotism not Internationalism. Evolution not Revolution. Direction not Destruction. Unity not Dusruption.” His landlady warns him not to get mixed up in what she calls Nihilists. Razumov discovers that his room has been searched and ransacked. Are the secret police now watching him? He is summoned to see the high official Councillor Mikulin, who confirms that he is indeed of interest to the police and they have searched his room, but that they know now he is a trustworthy young man. When the official asks Razumov what he will now do, Razumov says he will retire. Councillor Mikulin asks “Where to?” and the question is left hanging, for Conrad now abruptly moves the action from St Petersburg to Switzerland..

What we discover only much later in the novel is that Razumov has been recruited by the tsarist police to infiltrate the circle of Russian émigré revolutionaries in Geneva and spy on them.

After some initial hesitation, Razumov is accepted as Victor Haldin’s friend and part of the revolutionary brotherhood. He gets to know Victor Haldin’s mother and his sister Nathalie (“Natalka”). Indeed, he gets to know a large number of exiled revolutionaries, whom Conrad differentiates as ideological types. Of the idealistic Nathalie herself, Conrad’s narrator remarks:

That propensity of lifting every problem from the plane of the understandable by means of some sort of mystical expression, is very Russian. I knew her well enough to have discovered her scorn for all the practical forms of political liberty known to the western world. I suppose one must be a Russian to understand Russian simplicity, a terrible corroding simplicity in which mystic phrases clothe a naïve and hopeless cynicism…” (Part Two, Chapter 1)

Nathalie has not been impressed by the domineering radical Peter Ivanovitch, but through him she meets Razumov when he is newly arrived from St Petersburg. He breaks to her the painful news that Victor has been executed.  Razumov creates a favourable impression on Nathalie by his very taciturnity, which seems modesty and profundity, but to the narrator he seems impatient and contemptuous of the West. Peter Ivanovitch accepts Razumov enthusiastically as a revolutionary – but Razumov is mentally disgusted by the “revolutionary” Mme. De S- who lives in comfort with a maid and talks of “spiritualising” the revolutionary movement and fomenting revolution in the Balkans. It is this wealthy woman who funds Peter Ivanovitch.

            Viewing the group of émigrés, many of whom live in comfort, disgusts Razumov even more than do Western individualistic ways, especially when he speaks to the old revolutionary woman Sophia Antonovna, whom he fears because of her sharp insight into how revolutionary groups work, how (in the West) they are often funded by well-meaning wealthy idiots, and how they can be riddled with spies. More than anyone, this perceptive woman could have the insight to unmask him.

Razumov is given a fright when somebody reports that the coachman Ziemianitch hanged himself in remorse, after babbling about being beaten up by a police spy. As well as the domineering Peter Ivanovitch, the Haldins and the wealthy revolutionary imbeciles, Razumov also gets to know the brutal side of revolutionism in the form of Nikita (“Necator”), a thug and assassin who makes it his business to hunt down and kill police informers.

At quite an advanced point in the novel, Razumov writes his secret reports to his tsarist contacts, and it is only as he does so that he recalls (and we are for the first time privy to) his conversation with Councillor Mikulin, and how he now feels about the councillor as if he were some sort of substitute father.

Where does this all go? Razumov is still honoured as a true revolutionary; but as half-true rumours of  how Victor Haldin was betrayed begin to filter in, Razumov feels more and more the compulsion to confess – to throw himself at the mercy of some power greater than himself. Indeed he feels a lively remorse as Victor’s spirit hovers over him, especially as he is by now half in love with Nathalie. It is exactly the same impulse he felt in betraying Victor Haldin. He wants to cleanse his soul before something more powerful than himself. He wants to abase himself. He half-confesses his guilt to Nathalie and her mother, leaving them both frantic, and especially destroying Nathalie’s illusions by showing that the real revolutionary “idea” of Peter Iavanovitch is to simply set up a state with himself as autocratic head. In the same conversation he undermines Nathalie’s sentimental view of the virtuous Russian peasantry by describing accurately the brutal and drunken peasant coachman Ziemianitch.

Razumov writes a truthful report of what he did and posts it to Nathalie before going to a meeting a revolutionaries headed by the anarchist Julius Lespara. Here he cleanses himself by confessing all. In retribution, Nikita and three fanatics smash his eardrums and render him deaf. Rainsoaked in the grey morning, Razumov stumbles into the streets, falls in front of a tramcar whose approach he cannot hear, has his ribs crushed, and is rendered an invalid for life.

There is a bitter and ironic coda. Years later, Razumov is living in Russia, cared for by the humble servant Tekla, and often visited by revolutionists who see him as some sort of sage now that he has “redeemed” himself. Nathalie herself has returned to Russia, now performing simple acts of charity and still confident that one day an era of benevolence will dawn. Peter Ivanovitch got nothing from Mme. De S’s will, which was the main thing this ardent revolutionist sought in Geneva, and he is back in Russia living with a peasant girl in the Tolstoiean manner. As for the brute Nikita, he turned out to have been a police spy himself, who had killed for both sides and whose career stopped only when Councillor Mikulin informed on him to the revolutionaries, because he was beginning to be something of a nuisance.

Neither Razumov nor the revolutionaries have changed anything substantial. Russia remains an autocracy and the revolutionaries are just alternative autocrats in waiting. Conrad the Pole was quite obviously demolishing Russian tendencies which he thought were destructive, perhaps with many memories of how his Polish nationalist father and other forebears had suffered under Russian rule.

How is the novel “under Western eyes”? Because the Polish author on this outing identifies himself with the Western parliamentary tradition, the liberal tradition, the type of civil society that rejects autocracy. Through his (English) narrator, he tells us that autocracy infects all strains of thought in Russian society, so that even the revolutionaries are profoundly anti-democratic. This is the judgement of “Western eyes”. Even the soft and soulful Nathalie, when speaking with the Professor of Languages, expresses her preference for monolithic Russian institutions over Western ones, after the narrator has given his cautious and desultory asessment of the (1905) revolution and its outcome. There is also in the novel the strong implication that centuries of autocracy have infantilised the Russian people. Razumov is their archetype – a man without a firm identity of his own and therefore waiting to be mastered. The Professor of Languages Describes Razumov thus: 

Officially and in fact without a family…, no home influences had shaped his opinions or his feelings. He was as lonely in the world as a man swimming in the deep sea. The word Razumov was the mere label of a solitary individuality. There were no Razumovs belonging to him anywhere. His closest parentage was defined in the statement that he was a Russian. Whatever good he expected in life would be given to or withheld from his hopes by the connexion alone. This immense parentage suffered from the throes of internal dissensions, and he shrank mentally from the fray as a good-natured man may shrink from taking definite sides in a violent family quarrel.” (Part One, Chapter 1)

There are many elements of style in this novel that mark it as Conradian. There is the indirect narration through the medium of a fictional character (the Professor of Languages is like Marlowe in Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness, or Captain Davidson in Victory). There is the non-linear narration, which twists back upon itself. In The Secret Agent, we are many chapters beyond the explosion at Greenwich before we learn the details of how young Stevie died. In Under Western Eyes, we break off at the end of Part One midway through Razumov’s conversation with Councillor Mikulin. We circle back to the rest of this conversation at the beginning of Part Four. Conrad, as always, goes for flashback and the insertion of anterior information late in novel.

There is also that matter of symbolism, which I found so strained in Victory, but which is not too intrusive in Under Western Eyes. Razumov’s watch stops at the moment Haldin leaves him and walks into a police trap. Razumov’s mental and ideological development stops at this point too. A tramcar at one point seems to Razumov a symbol of freedom and escape – but it runs on predetermined rails, just as the mastered Razumov does, and in the end it helps to destroy him. In Part Three, Chapter Four, Razumov finds that the perfect place to write his reports undisturbed is under a statue of Jean-Jacques Rousseau where “the exiled effigy of the author of The Social Contract sat enthroned above the bowed head of Razumov in the sombre immobility of bronze.” So much for Enlightenment notions of rational shared freedom, such as Rousseau’s.

More than one commentator has noted that Under Western Eyes is a very Russian novel, not just in its subject but in its style. It is often said that Conrad would never have created Razumov if he had not known Rashkolnikov in Dostoievsky’s Crime and Punishment. There, too, there is the pattern of crime, remorse, submission and confession. But as a Russophobe, Conrad rejected this suggestion. There is, however, a very interesting biographical detail about the composition of Under Western Eyes. Conrad took about three years to write it and in the midst of so doing had a nervous breakdown in which his wife said he raved and talked to his (dead) parents in his native Polish. It was, some infer, as if Conrad were reconnecting with his Polish roots and with the anti-Russian revolutionism of his forebears.

Nine years after Under Western Eyes was published, Conrad added an “Author’s Note” to the novel. This was in 1920. By then the Russian Revolution had happened and Conrad noted that “by the mere force of circumstances Under Western Eyes has become already a sort of historical novel dealing with the past.” He added that “when I began to write I had a distinct impression of the first part only, with the three figures of Haldin, Razumov and Councillor Mikulin defined exactly in my mind.” In other words, his first conceptionm of the novel was as a long short story comparing the revolutionary, the uncommitted student and the upholder of autocracy. Most important of all, however, Conrad’s 1920 note described the Russian political situation thus: “The ferocity and imbecility of an autocratic rule rejecting all legality and in fact basing itself upon complete moral anarchism provokes the no less imbecile and atrocious answer of a purely Utopian revolutionism encompassing destruction by the first means at hand, in the strange conviction that a fundmental change of heart must follow the downfall of any given human institution.”

These are prophetic words indeed. In both the novel itself and in this note, Conrad correctly foresees the following century of Russian history. The autocracy of Tsarism was followed by the even more intrusive autocracy of Communism, with Lenin following the Tsar, Stalin following Lenin, grey Politburo figues following Stalin and eventually, after a brief burst of what seemed like democracy, the postmodern dictator Putin controlling a state which only pretends to be pluralistic. Russia still has not developed the traditions of a civil society; populations still bend to “strong men” and see them as saviours; and revolution has merely perpetuated the national temper. And of course the first post-tsarist autocrat came from exile in Switzerland.

Cinematic Footnote: I had believed that Under Western Eyes had never been filmed for the cinema apart from a very simplified BBC TV version which I saw some years back, made in 1975 by the director Stuart Burge. But I discovered that the French made a film version, Razumov - Sous les Yeux d’Occident, in 1936 and to my surprise I was able to find and watch it on Youtube. As it has no subtitles, I limped along following the high-speed French dialogue, but I got enough of the gist of it to realise how it had altered the story. The film was apparently a Grade A production of its day, featuring talent that were among the most familiar names in French cinema of the time. It was directed by Marc Allegret and had a soundtrack score by France’s most prolific film composer Georges Auric. Pierre Fresnay played Razumov (looking much older than the student he is supposed to be), with Jean-Louis Barrault as the betrayed Haldin, Michel Simon as the leader of the émigré revolutionary group in Geneva and a little-known actress Daniele Parola as Nathalie. But the story was so simplified as to remove most of Conrad’s political discourse. Razumov betrays Haldin. Razumov gets sent to Geneva to infiltrate the Russian émigré group. Razumov falls in love with Nathalie, feels remorse, admits his betrayal and retribution follows. The complex political reasoning and analysis of Russian authoritarianism weren’t there. And it was disconcerting that while the film’s (studio-bound) version of late Tsarist Russian looked reasonably accurate for the period it was supposed to be depicting, the scenes set in the West (only the last third of the film) made no pretence at period detail and looked like the (1930s) present. I suppose in the end it was a fairly average cinematic scramble through a complex novel that perhaps couldn’t really be turned into film in the first place. The only actor who emerged with credit was Jean-Louis Barrault, then aged 22 and near the beginning of his film career, who was appropriately frantic as the trapped Victor Haldin in the film’s earlier sequences.

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