Latest Readings - Clive James (2015)

Conrad’s Greatest Victory

STARTING IN THE infusion suite at the hospital, and continuing as I Ambulate up and down my kitchen, I have been reading Conrad’s Victory; and I feel that my recent years of reading have come to a kind of culmination. First published in 1915, the novel perfects Conrad’s signature themes. The hero, Heyst, is a Lord Jim figure without the guilt. Heyst has managed to get beyond the bounds of civilization, and even of capitalism: the coal company that he helped to found in the islands has fallen into ruins, but he himself has survived. In the dance hall of the despicable hotelier Schomberg, Heyst encounters the ideal girl, Alma, who is the helpless prisoner of the tatty Zangiacomo Orchestra and has nowhere to turn as Schomberg odiously threatens her with his attentions. Heyst bears her away to Samburan, a magic kingdom like Patusan and Sulaco. There, seemingly in control of events, he calls her Lena, princess of Samburan. They are like Adam and Eve, needing only each other. Or so it seems: but it soon emerges that they need a knowledge of evil, too, because it is heading toward them in the chilling form of “plain Mr. Jones,” one of Conrad’s most profound studies in terror. As the collision between bliss and destruction gets closer, the reader will spend at least a hundred pages praying that Heyst has a gun hidden away somewhere. The first big slaughterhouse battles of the Great War had already been fought while Conrad was publishing the novel, but there is not a hint of pacifism. Conrad knew that unarmed goodwill is useless against armed malice. It was to be a lesson that the coming century would teach over and over, and so on into the present century: peace is not a principle, it is only a desirable state of affairs, and can’t be obtained without a capacity for violence at least equal to the violence of the threat. Conrad didn’t want to reach this conclusion any more than we do, but his artistic instincts were proof against the slightest tinge of mystical spiritual solace, and so should ours be. Our age of massacres has also been an age of the intellectual charlatan, when people claiming to interpret events can barely be relied upon to give a straightforward account of what actually happened. Conrad was the writer who reached political adulthood before any of the other writers of his time, and when they did, they reached only to his knee.

That being said, however, it must be admitted that Heyst’s upright stupidity grows tedious in the final scenes. Conrad should have made his heroes as intelligent as himself, the better to illustrate his thematic concern with how the historic forces that crush the naïve will do the same to the wise, if they do not prepare to fight back. Finally, he tends to reinforce our wishful thought that cultivation—gained, for example, from reading the novels of Joseph Conrad—might be enough to ward off barbarism. But barbarism doesn’t care if we are cultivated or not.