Latest Readings - Clive James (2015)

Under Western Eyes

SUDDENLY I AM reading Under Western Eyes again. I had vowed not to reread the whole of Conrad, but after a lifetime spent in the world that he presaged, I realize that I am at last ready for him. Much of the presaging is encapsulated in Under Western Eyes.

In Switzerland before World War I, before the tragedy in Europe, and before the chaos of the Russian Revolution, the Russians who gather in Geneva to enjoy democratic freedom—their part of the city is nicknamed Le Petit Russie—are already carrying within them all the varieties of doom that will soon engulf their land of origin. The book gives us a preview of the terrors to come. Some of the characters, indeed, are outright terrorists; but the majority of the radicals on view have as yet seen little of the life of action, although they talk a lot of theory. And some of the characters will be victims one day, if they do not have the sense to stay away: they are members of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, and they tend to think that tsarist despotism is the worst thing that their homeland has to offer.

They are in fact, idealists: and idealism is a cast of mind that Conrad questions even more than he questions radicalism. The logical end of radicalism, in his view, is terrorism; but idealism is the mental aberration that allows terror to be brought about. Conrad’s originality was to see that a new tyranny could be generated by people who thought that their rebellion against the old tyranny was rational. Thus his writings seem prescient about what was to happen in the Soviet Union. He didn’t predict the Nazi tyranny because he had underestimated the power of the irrational to organize itself into a state. But then, nobody predicted that except its perpetrators; and anyway, mere prediction was not his business. His business was the psychological analysis made possible by an acute historical awareness. Under Western Eyes is valuable not because it came true but because it rang true even at the time, only now we can better hear the deep, sad note.

The book’s antihero, Razumov, is Lord Jim all over again; although this time Jim has started off, in Petersburg, by getting someone killed, and now, in Switzerland, must face the dilemma of having fallen in love with the victim’s sister, and being unable to tell her. She is a wonderful character, Natalia Hardin: operatically attractive yet sensitive to the point of being saintly. But she is an idealist. In the end she will go home to Russia, in order to do good. Conrad published the book in 1911, when the Revolution was still six years in the future: but he got all the contending forces into the story, and the future along with them: the perfect girl, a living synthesis of everything praiseworthy and desirable, is heading for an appointment in which her superior qualities will not be forgiven. Or so we think; so history makes us think, after Conrad and the very few writers of comparable greatness have shown us what history is. The book takes a little too long to end, but a reader today should not miss the author’s note at the start. Describing the unplumbably evil torturer Necator, Conrad calls him “the perfect flower of the terroristic wilderness. What troubled me most in dealing with him was not his monstrosity but his banality.” Later in the century, Hannah Arendt was to say almost the same thing about Adolf Eichmann. She made the mistake, however, of finding his banality more remarkable than his monstrosity. Conrad, had he lived that long, could have told her that the two things, though one of them might be the more difficult to describe, are both as fundamental to evil as hydrogen and oxygen are to water.