Category Archives: Under Western Eyes

Under Western Eyes: Read from October 28 to November 08, 2014

Oh how I had hoped this would be so much more than it is.

I have to admit total confusion as to what Conrad hoped to achieve with this novel. What starts off as insight into how precarious and arbitrary life in Russia under the government was at the time of the novel, ends with the (almost) humiliation of the people who sought to revolt against it. Everyone comes out as a loser in the end. Was Conrad trying to say everything in Russia is bad, even the people trying to change Russia? Was he really that cynical?

Then again, seeing as how events turned out in the years after the novel was published (the rise of Communism) then maybe Conrad really was onto something. Yet the book never really attempts to address the broader issues of Russian social and political reform because its focus is only on a few characters, nearly all of whom are either misguided, manipulative, or are outright fools. I kept getting the impression Conrad wanted to damn all of Russia, past, present, and every possible future.

What I found most interesting, however, was the character of Haldin. Here was a young man who, though a terrorist (and murderer), understood whom he was fighting so well as to ruin the life of a perfectly innocent person long after he himself had been executed. He wanted to light a fire under the ass of the comfortable middle class who had gladly allowed themselves to be ruled over for just a few pieces of silver at a time. Haldin saw how it wasn’t those in power who were the most dangerous, but those complicit in keeping them in power. The same could be said of our own times in our capitalist society that gladly allows the business class to rule over the rest of us. We just want our creature comforts and give them all the power. Never does it occur to us to start throwing bombs around to enact real change even though the situation probably calls for it at this point.

And that’s the way I thought this novel was going to go. I assumed Razumov would wind up being forced into becoming a terrorist, too, that he would be ‘woken up’ and would defect from his comforts to fight a oppressive system. I assumed we would see the development of a character whose terrorist actions (like Haldin’s) would be explored and sympathized with. Haldin was a total mystery to us and so it’s easy to denounce him as a wicked terrorist, but to have followed Razumov’s path that would lead him down the same road as Haldin’s, to end the book where it began but with another character, would have been rather thrilling.

But where this book goes is instead to neutral Switzerland where Russian expats live comfortably and foolishly as they plot against the Russian government. These people are not heroic freedom fighters, but just a bunch of fools who will never change anything. Why Razumov would even be needed to spy on them seems like a total waste of time to me. In fact as the book went on I was not surprised Razumov grew more and more to dislike these people and that he was was glad to help out the Russian officials. But then we get another shift where he changes sides (too late) and winds up a cripple. I didn’t buy any of it, to be honest.

I have to admit I was thoroughly lost by the end of all this. I have no idea what Conrad was trying to really say and can only really recommended the book on the strength of the characters and the overall story it does wind up telling. Granted, it’s a cynical and depressing affair, but it feels realistic. The only thing going against it is that only a few years after the book was published another young man, Gavrilo Princip, managed to shake the entire world up with his own actions. I don’t believe Conrad would have thought it possible that so much could actually change at the hands of just one individual and so real history seems to work against the point the novel was trying to make about everyone being ineffectual.

So I’ll have to put this one down as my least favorite Conrad novel. I found half of it thrilling and well written, and the other half to be boring and limited of insight. Overall it is well written like all of Conrad’s work and the language is always a joy to tangle with, but I just never got the feeling that this was a book with a solid foundation or plan.

87% done with Under Western Eyes

I find the scenes with Razumov in St Petersburg to be much more interesting than the scenes with the narrator. There is more going on, more menace, and more story in Russia than in Zurich where a lot of the time it’s all just talk. Even now that we know Razumov’s intention I don’t find there to be much interesting: he never seems in peril for getting found out, he just seems bored and angry.

75% done with Under Western Eyes

What’s strange is that we get such a negative view always of the revolutionaries when, in fact, they were trying to fight against how terrible Russia was at the time. Yet here Razumov, our ‘hero’ holds everything and everyone he sees with such contempt that it’s hard to really care about any of these characters. What are we supposed to take away from all thus? That fighting oppression is the work of idiots only? Odd

68% done with Under Western Eyes

So how did he get away from Russia? He’s got to be working for the state, there is no way he was just going to be allowed to leave.

The real revolutionaries just want a fair shake in life. Their problems are no different than our problems. They work for no money, have no real prospects, have no security :they are still slaves. No wonder it always goes so badly.

62% done with Under Western Eyes

I’m glad at least that what this book is about is interesting because it can be uneven.

I’m now wondering if perhaps what Haldin did was to “light a fire” under the ass of a regular bourgeois? Is this the only way to affect change? To take away everything from the middle class before they will fight back?

Less than a decade later an assassination did a whole lot more damage and harm.

31% done with Under Western Eyes

This part reminds me a lot of Crime and Punishment, however, the interrogation is of a man who feels somehow compelled to confess to something of that which he is not guilty. He can feel that no matter what he answered or does he will be seen as ever more guilty solely by the act of being questioned. Once a suspect, always guilty.

The narrator plays a larger role than I would have thought in with Haldin’s family.

22% done with Under Western Eyes

I can see this turning into a case where just by Haldin having associated himself with Razumov he’s ensured there will be created a new revolutionary because what choice will he have? Haldin took advantage of the state’s suspicious nature and of Razumov’s bourgeois inclination for conservatism. Haldin makes everyone revolt, his ‘engine’ was more than the bomb, he used his whole body to start a revolution. Fascinating

13% done with Under Western Eyes

One of the reasons why I love Conrad, other than his use of language, is how slow his novels are. A character walking down the street is turned into pages and pages of inner turmoil, paranoia, self doubt, jealousy, suspicion, and revelation. The plot is simple; the inner life is complex.

This book, so far, personifies the dangers of revolution. Razumov is, simply, the people, and Haldin is a Lenin forced upon them

6% done with Under Western Eyes

My favorite author writing about my favorite location? Yes, please!

I love Conrad’s narrators, they are always obscure, usually unreliable, and are always in possession of the posterity of the main character. It’s as if his narrators are trying to defend the hero before humanity? truth? God? The main characters never seem able to speak for themselves, are oddly mute and are at the mercy of other’s observations.