Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Under Western Eyes

My summer reading continues. I have just crossed Joseph conrad's 'Under Western Eyes' off my list.

A curious work- very unusual in its narrative structure, but it is handled with mastery- which tells the story of a student in Czarist Russia who is caught up against his will in a violent conspiracy, tries and fails to extricate himself, becomes an exile, and is forced to assume, and finally reject, his role in the movement. It is told through the memoirs of Razumov, the young man, but indirectly, through a series of multi-layered narrators, and it is always, ultimately, Western eyes that try to see and understand circumstances, motivations and actions which, we are repeatedly told, only a Russian can understand.

It inevitably reminds you of Dostoievski, as the story of a man caught up in events beyond his control, partially digested by a system which had no interest in him, but had picked him up like a grain of sand in a clam and had to find the right way of spitting him out. Or perhaps he was more like a fly which you have accidentally let into your bedroom. It makes no difference to you if it flies out of the window before you can swat it, as long as it ceases to annoy you. Or again, like a leaf caught in the gears of a printing press, some way must be found of working  it through, by pulling, scraping, pushing, charring, releasing, different levers and parts, until it can no longer damage the working of the machine or the quality of the product. Or … insert metaphor of choice here…

But, though he has some luck, and makes mistakes at the beginning, he does try to take control of his new situation from the very start. And he is quite successful, shrewdly manipulating everyone to his advantage, which at first is merely to avoid association with the event, then to stay alive, but later to exploit those who have come to believe in him. It would perhaps be wrong to describe him as cynical. He is a man of limited and weakly-held morality, interested mainly in his studies and some personal idea of his own well-being. He is forced to become something he has no wish to be and he finds that to do that he must in fact become something else again, until in the end he effectively chooses to give in to the fate that he has come to believe he cannot escape.

Having said roughly the same thing in three different ways, I think it’s time to stop. I enjoyed it. You probably will, too.


Vincent said...

Thanks, Ingram C, I did indeed enjoy, and wrote about it here: http://perpetual-lab.blogspot.co.uk/2007/12/under-western-eyes_12.html

CIngram said...

Very interesting review, Vincent, which I hadn't seen before. Thanks for the link.

I don't see Razumov as a hero of any kind, though, except perhaps in his own eyes. The way the narrative structure brings out his indifference to the society and people around him, and his detached cunning in working out the best way to survive, is one of the things I found most interesting about the book. And when he dies try to act for a motive that those around him might consider morally sound, it all goes horribly wrong.

James Higham said...

had picked him up like a grain of sand in a clam and had to find the right way of spitting him out

Used the device too without realizing it was Dostoyevski.

CIngram said...

I suppose you could also think of Gogol or Kafka, but to me that kind of thing always suggests Dostoievski. His narrators seem more conscious of how the characters are being manipulated to destruction and the horror of it all.