Under Western Eyes (1911)
by Joseph Conrad
Overall rating: 5 out of 5 stars
By his comrades at the St. Petersburg University, Kirylo Sidorovitch Razumov, third year’s student in philosophy, was looked upon as a strong nature—an altogether trustworthy man. This, in a country where an opinion may be a legal crime visited by death or sometimes by a fate worse than mere death, meant that he was worthy of being trusted with forbidden opinions.
Forbidden opinions…those are precisely what Razumov wishes to avoid. An illegitimate son of a Russian nobleman, Razumov lives alone and has no expectations in the world, nothing except what he can earn through persevering work. Content with his life, he tries to ignore the revolutionists on campus and instead turns his energy towards earning “the silver medal”, by which he can better his academic standing. But one day, he comes home to find an assassin hiding in his rooms, expecting aid in escape. Razumov’s reaction ruins his life as he knows it, and drives him to insanity with his own hatred, fear, and conscience.
At a glance, one would say that Under Western Eyes is about secret agents and the Russian revolution, but taken as a whole, that’s not quite the focus of the book. It is much more a ghost story than a story about revolution. And the actual, intended point of the book seems to be to portray how Russians and Westerners perceived things–namely life and politics–during the times this was written. As such, and with the characters’ abstract style of speaking, it’s not really written for 21st-century readers. You’d at least have to know the Russian history concerning that time to fully appreciate this illustration; and as of now, I don’t know enough about the subject to say whether it’s an authentic portrayal or not.
But intriguing, fascinating? I’d say so. As I’ve mentioned before, nobody writes about psychology/human nature like Conrad; and it’s through human nature–something that makes us all related–that he did a great job depicting different viewpoints.
Personally, I could hardly put the book down. Conrad has the power all writers wish for–of pulling you along breathlessly through the story, even if it’s during an excruciatingly long dialogue between two rather boring characters. His use of phrases, remarks, and word choice to achieve subtle but powerful effects is, I think, at its height here as well.
But to me, the greatest strength of Conrad’s style is all condensed in his protagonist, Razumov. Razumov has the heart of a hero and the head of a villain; he is, in a sense, the worst and best character of the book. More importantly, he’s human. And not like the self-deceived characters of many novels, whose human-ness is usually unrepentant vice, self-justified and glorified by society. But rather, Razumov is an honest human; whatever he does, good or bad, he is inwardly honest about it…there’s even an ironic sense of honesty in him when he’s up to his neck in lies. His last journal entry (or confession, if you will) has got to contain some of the most brilliant and heartbreaking paragraphs in literature. Spoilers in white: As wretched as he is, I think he’s ultimately a hero. There’s that verse about “the wicked shall prosper”; and, sure enough, Razumov had a chance at earthly happiness after all his deceit, hatred, and evil intentions. But in the end, he chooses to repent. Again he loses everything; but he accepts his punishment and miserable future. While other fictional characters would give up, for even lesser reasons, Razumov did the right thing, and that takes real bravery.
The plot is secondary to everything else in the book, but it’s still interesting and rather complex. The first part follows Razumov, the second and third a young lady named Nathalie Haldin, and the last part ties everything together. As for the minor characters, half of them are boring and the other half are the ghosts in the ghost story, resulting in some very chilling scenes. Nobody thinks of Conrad as famous for his characters; but certainly, each one has their own voice and makes an impression on you.
The ending isn’t exactly what I’d call a happy one–“pure misery” was my mental note. Yet it was also strangely excellent. There was the very good and the very bad, all wound up together in a sort of poetic justice; and it left me convinced that, however depressing it seemed, there couldn’t have been a better ending written for it.