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15 October 2015

Joseph Conrad and the lure of solitude

The sceptical doubt that infuses Conrad’s work – particularly his last great novel, Victory – has to do with the human world, which he believed was moved by illusions.

By John Gray

“It was the very essence of his life to be a solitary achievement, accomplished not by hermit-like withdrawal with its silence and immobility, but by a system of restless wandering, by the detachment of an impermanent dweller amongst changing scenes. In this scheme he had perceived the means of passing through life without suffering and almost without a single care in the world – invulnerable because elusive.”

This is how the unnamed narrator describes Axel Heyst, the central protagonist of Joseph Conrad’s Victory, a tantalising metaphysical fiction which is also a psychological thriller, a tragic romance and a subversive commentary on Edwardian values. Heyst lives by a philosophy taught him by his father, a Swedish aristocrat who viewed the human world as a place of pain and illusion. Under the influence of this view of things – a version of the philosophy of the 19th-century German pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer – Heyst aims to drift through life in solitude. He believes that as long as he remains without any human ties, he can avoid being defeated by the world.

Heyst’s wanderings take him to the Far East, where he meets a sea captain who has been framed by the Portuguese authorities and risks losing his boat. Heyst saves him from ruin. In an act of gratitude, the captain sets up a company on the island of Samburan with Heyst as manager; but the firm fails, and Heyst lives on in a derelict compound with only a Chinese servant for company. He strays from his life of non-involvement for a second time when he meets a frightened young Englishwoman, Lena, who is working in the orchestra at a ­Javan hotel, whose proprietor, Schomberg, is infatuated by her. Moved again by pity but also by desire, Heyst helps Lena to escape and takes her back with him to Samburan, where they live together. Neither is entirely happy – Heyst because he regrets that he has formed a human tie, Lena because she is not sure that he is fully committed to her. Yet their lives pass peacefully together.

This tranquil life is disrupted by the arrival of three armed desperados who have heard from Schomberg – now a mortal enemy of Heyst’s – that the Swedish recluse has amassed a fortune which he keeps with him on the island. Suspecting Lena is in danger, Heyst keeps her presence secret from the group; but one of the men knows she is on the island and goes to the bungalow where she is hiding. Heyst persuades the leader of the group, Gentleman Jones, that there is no treasure to be found and tells him of his accomplice’s designs on Lena.

The two men go the bungalow, where Lena, struggling with the accomplice, seizes his knife. Jones, who loathes women and thinks that his accomplice has betrayed him, fires a shot that grazes the accomplice but fatally wounds Lena. Thinking she has saved his life, Lena hands Heyst the knife. Heyst, however, thinks she has betrayed him; but then, finding her hit by the bullet, he realises she is dying. Still wedded to his philosophy of detachment, he cannot give her the declaration of love for which she asks; yet when he takes her in his arms she dies triumphant, feeling that Heyst had responded to her plea. Asking to be left alone, he sets fire to the bungalow. He is found dead next to Lena’s body.

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The story ends with a friendly sea captain, who had made a practice of looking in on the island to see if Heyst was well, describing what he had found to a colonial official and concluding: “There was nothing to be done there . . . Nothing!” The last words of the novel may be a reference to the closing lines of Schopenhauer’s main philosophical treatise, The World As Will and Idea:


“. . . to those in whom the world has turned and denied itself, this world of ours, real as it is, with all its suns and galaxies, is – nothing.”

Like many writers of his time, Conrad read and admired Schopenhauer. He also shared something of Schopenhauer’s pessimism. Yet nothing would be more mistaken than to see this multilayered novel as the mere working out of a philosophical idea. Conrad was a sceptic of the most profound kind; but his sceptical doubts had very little to do with the distinction, made by Schopenhauer and other philosophers, between appearance and reality in the universe at large. The sceptical doubt that infuses Conrad’s work has to do with the human world, which he believed was moved by illusions. However, these illusions, this incomparably subtle and self-reflexive text suggests, may be the very source of what is most valuable in human life.

First published as a book in 1915, Victory is Conrad’s last great novel. Born in 1857 into the Polish aristocracy in what was then (and is again now) Russian-ruled Ukraine, he spent part of his childhood in the Russian province of Vologda after his father, whom he describes as having “a terrible gift for irony”, was exiled for taking part in anti-Russian activities. It seems to have been in 1872 that Conrad decided on a seafaring life, to the horror of the kindly uncle who was by then his guardian. Two years later he was in Marseilles, a seaman in the French and then the British merchant navies. After being a cabin-boy and for a time (by his own account) a gunrunner, he qualified as a master mariner in 1886. Among other commissions, he went on to command a steamer in ­the Congo, where he witnessed the genocide inflicted on its peoples under the rule of Léopold of Belgium – a traumatic experience whose impact Conrad hinted at when he said, “Before the Congo I was a mere animal.”

He took up his career as a writer in 1894 when, as if by chance, he found himself out of a job in London. His first novel, Almayer’s Folly, which he had worked on intermittently towards the end of his years as a sailor, was published a year later. All of the work for which Conrad is famous was written in English, his third language, French being the second (as it was for many educated Poles at the time). He spent the rest of his life in England, a country he loved, without ever becoming remotely English, often suffering from writer’s block and usually in debt, becoming an admired figure in the Edwardian literary establishment and yet choosing to decline the offer of a knighthood. He died in 1924.

In a letter of 1903, Conrad wrote: “Homo duplex has in my case more than one meaning.” He lived beyond the borderlines that are marked out by socially fixed identities and the familiar uses of language, a vantage point that equipped him to deploy his most distinctive literary technique – the frequent use of shifts of perspective. Ambiguity and uncertainty are integral to his work, producing a Rashomon-like effect that is particularly powerful in Victory. Critics have recognised Conrad’s use of this technique as an innovation in literary method, but it is more than that. An expression of his suspicion that human beings may lack the capacity to understand each other or themselves, this shifting view of things expresses his sense of the unreadable obscurity of human events.

Describing Axel Heyst as he considers helping Lena to escape from the hotel, the narrator writes:

“Formerly, in solitude and in silence, he had been used to think clearly, and sometimes even profoundly, seeing life outside the flattering optical illusion of everlasting hope . . . of an ever-expected happiness. But now he was troubled; a light veil seemed to hang before his mental vision; the awakening of a tenderness, indistinct and confused as yet, towards an unknown woman . . .

He paced there to and fro for a long time, a calm, meditative ghost in his white drill-suit, revolving in his head thoughts absolutely novel, disquieting, and seductive; accustoming his mind to the contemplation of his purpose, in order that by being faced steadily it should appear praiseworthy and wise. For the use of reason is to justify the obscure desires that move our conduct . . .”

If there is any theme that runs throughout Conrad’s work, this is it. Human beings seek solidarity with one another in love and work. In fact, they live alone, moved by insubstantial images of themselves and those around them. Yet it may be these very illusions that give meaning to their lives.

Many of the figures that are central in Conrad’s fiction have become isolated in the course of their lives – Almayer in Almayer’s Folly, Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, Jim in Lord Jim. Heyst is also isolated but his solitude seems to be the result of a deliberate choice: he believes he can make himself immune to the pains of the human world by cutting himself off from its passions and delusions. In Victory, Conrad questions whether such a life is possible or desirable for human beings. A life of disillusion may itself be founded on illusion, and the dream of invulnerability may be more deceptive than the passions by which ordinary human beings are driven. As Heyst exclaims towards the end: “. . . woe to the man whose heart has not learned while young to hope, to love – and to put its trust in life!”

The last word may be “Nothing!” yet it is Lena who gives the novel its title. If there is a victory here, it belongs to her. She is the pivot of the tale, invulnerable at the end because she is not moved by mistrust or doubt, and it is Heyst who is finally defeated. Whether he could have avoided this fate is left uncertain, one of many unanswerable questions posed in this inexhaustibly rich book.

Victory by Joseph Conrad is published in a new edition by Penguin Classics (£7.99)

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This article appears in the 07 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis