Saturday, December 08, 2012

Haunting Romanticism

Victory: An Island Tale
Victory: An Island Tale 

“The use of reason is to justify the obscure desires that move our conduct, impulses, passions, prejudices and follies, and also our fears.”  ― Joseph Conrad, Victory

I enjoyed this novel from the pen of Joseph Conrad - it may be my favorite of his works although Conrad has the knack for writing consistently good novels that makes it hard to rank them. Victory's most striking formal characteristic is its shifting narrative and temporal perspective with the first section from the viewpoint of a sailor, the second from omniscient perspective of Axel Heyst, the third from an interior perspective from Heyst, and the final section. I found the character of Axel interesting primarily due to his complexity. On a superficial level the novel reads like a melodrama more suited to a muddled opera libretto than a serious work of literature. But upon reflection the allegorical and psychological implications of the action, landscape and narrative structure redeem it as a modern novel worthy to be included with the best of Conrad. I am always more impressed when the author can make a serious work of literature appear on the surface, to be merely a "good story" (eg. Moby-Dick). The story line follows: through a business misadventure, the European Axel Heyst ends up living on an island in what is now Indonesia, with a Chinese assistant Wang. Heyst visits a nearby island when a female band is playing at a hotel owned by Mr. Schomberg. Schomberg attempts to force himself sexually on one of the band members, Alma, later called Lena. She flees with Heyst back to his island and they become lovers. Schomberg seeks revenge by attempting to frame Heyst for the "murder" of a man who had died of natural causes and later by sending three desperadoes (Pedro, Martin Ricardo and Mr. Jones) to Heyst's island with a lie about treasure hidden on the island. The ensuing conflict does not end well and has been compared to the ending of an Elizabethan drama where the stage is littered with corpses. The robust romanticism of Axel and Lena's story continues to haunt the reader long after one puts the novel down.
Another of my favorite writers, Joan Didion, had this to say about Victory:
"I often reread Victory, which is maybe my favorite book in the world… The story is told thirdhand. It’s not a story the narrator even heard from someone who experienced it. The narrator seems to have heard it from people he runs into around the Malacca Strait. So there’s this fantastic distancing of the narrative, except that when you’re in the middle of it, it remains very immediate. It’s incredibly skillful. I have never started a novel — I mean except the first, when I was starting a novel just to start a novel — I’ve never written one without rereading Victory. It opens up the possibilities of a novel. It makes it seem worth doing.” — From a 2006 interview in The Paris Review

Victory by Joseph Conrad.  The Modern Library, 2003 (1915).

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