Conrad Once More

By Pritchard, William H. | The Hudson Review, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

Conrad Once More


Pritchard, William H., The Hudson Review


Conrad Once More

IT IS JUST OVER 100 YEARS AGO THAT JOSEPH CONRAD published Victory (1915), his last significant novel. At that time, and largely due to the surprisingly good sales of his immediately previous novel, Chance (1914), his reputation took an upswing. Chance had elicited from Henry James some impenetrable pages in which he admired Conrad's "method": "It places Mr. Conrad absolutely alone as a votary of the way to do a thing that shall make it undergo most doing." The paragraphs on the novel, and on Conrad's approach generally, are gaseous enough to make Conrad's response to it understandable: he wrote in a letter two years afterwards that James had "airily condemned" his method in comparison with the work of two younger authors. (Conrad said it was the only time a criticism affected him painfully.) In fact in a letter to Edith Wharton, James saluted Chance as a welcome relief from what he called but did not specify Conrad's "last three or four impossibilities." Could those have included Nostromo (1904), The Secret Agent (1907), and Under Western Eyes (1910)? One wonders how carefully The Master perused such "impossibilities." At any rate, although Victory (1915) has a respectably complicated narrative structure, it's a relatively easy and much more satisfying novel than Chance, the book that for James had undergone the most "doing" on Conrad's part.

The occasion for thinking about Victory once more is its appearance in the Cambridge edition of Conrad's works.1 Almost all of those works have already appeared in that edition, and although I haven't checked out each one, I would guess that the new one takes the prize for pages (928) and for "apparatus." This last includes three hundred pages of emendations and variations, not exactly designed for an actual reader's convenience but imposing in its textual and explanatory notes, maps, and deletions (30 pages worth). In an excellent introduction by Richard Niland, the word "problematic" crops up immediately in describing how critics have responded to the novel's "fusion of romance, melodrama, and realism." This is a fair judgment to make considering the number of Conrad's critics who judge Victory to be overwritten, sentimental, and a falling away from "great" Conrad. In the Autumn 1954 issue of this magazine, Marvin Mudrick chastised Conrad for too often falling prey to portentous images and symbolic gestures, causing the narrative to become "a contrived exemplum, and the characters bogus-heroic gestures or dispensable emblems, of the author's foggy self-sustaining metaphysic." Although he referred to it only in passing, the first title Mudrick censured was Victory, where Conrad's characters were reduced to "a single symbol and function," in a narrative whose "outrageous coincidences" spoiled any attempt at plausibility. Mudrick's critique of Victory was extended and substantiated by Albert Guerard's usually sound book on the writer: "One of the worst novels for which high claims have ever been made by critics of standing: an awkward popular romance" offering "pleasing materials to the adolescent mind . .. very badly written and very roughly imagined."2 How many readers have read it since adolescence, Guerard aggressively asked, dismissing the novel as nothing more than a boys' book. (Interesting to imagine a boy in 2017 making his way through the novel!)

Having recendy taught Victory again, I have evidently, according to Mudrick, Guerard and others, been taken in by a sentimental and pretentious narrative whose bogosity I failed to detect. Negative opinion of the novel is not universal. F. R. Leavis gave it some pages in The Great Tradition, finding it among Conrad's works that represent his claim to "classical standing." And Graham Greene, rather offhandedly in his collected essays, linked it with James's The Spoils ofPoynton as two of the great English novels from the past fifty years (Green was writing in the 1930s). It's obvious that I share Greene's opinion, but also interesting- if only to me-that in my list of "great" Conrad novels it shares first place with a very different one, The Secret Agent. …

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