This was a difficult book for me to read because of how personal it is. I felt myself identifying far too much to the main character, Axel, than I was comfortable with. Yet the very fact this book exists and was written a hundred years ago also tells me how I felt is not so uncommon – and in some ways that made it even more difficult.
The issue at heart here is isolation and insulation. Axel has nearly given up on the whole of humanity and has isolated himself from everyone believing himself to be safe that way. Yet this only made it easier for a man like Schomberg to spread lies and incite others against him. And so the very things Axel wanted to escape from causes greedy, vile men to come after him.
The entire book is filled with characters who have false impressions about everyone around them; nobody knows anyone in this book and all their troubles are caused by these misunderstandings. This is very much part of the human experience, however, it’s even keener here since the book was written on the very eve of WW1 where whole nations, not just individuals, who all mistrusted each other, resented each other, and did not understand each other at all decided to kill each other in staggering quantities.
And so when I fully related to the isolation of Axel and began to feel a little depressed that I could identify such a trait in myself, I could also take at least a little comfort in knowing what I feel is not unique. Nobody really can know anyone else and we can either make up what we want about others (as Schomberg does and, to a different degree, Lena does), or we can try to hide away and hope nobody comes looking for some treasure we don’t even possess.
Conrad goes even deeper by exploring the point of art itself as a means to bridge the gap between people when he shows the scene of Axel reading his father’s book: “The son read, shrinking into himself, composing his face as if under the author’s eye”. Conrad is showing us that even art, even with the author himself staring over our shoulder, will not help us at all know one other person any better than we could if we stranded ourselves on a lonely, volcanic island in the South Pacific.
And there is nothing very optimistic here, either. The final word of the novel is “nothing”, the absolute negation (and very unlike Ulysses whose final work is “yes”, the ultimate affirmation in life). But the irony is that by writing this book, by telling and showing us how we can never know another person Conrad manages to soothe us somewhat by letting us know we all have this loneliness in common. He may be saying there is nothing to be done about this condition, but he shows us it’s not uncommon and in a way this knowledge makes us feel a little less lonely.
Victory is a Möbius strip of the human condition, of sorts.
And what of the title, “Victory”. Why that word when the last word of the novel is “nothing” and all the characters float about like shadows ready to evaporate into the heat of noon? What is the victory over? Lena for sure finds her strength and her purpose as her victory but on top of that the victory is in achieving an understanding of something we all share in common as human beings but can’t do anything about. Just the fact that we know we are all alone is enough to bring us together.
Of course the other issue here is misunderstanding. In place of actually getting to know each other, how often do we just make assumptions about another person’s behavior? How often do we look at a person who is distant and aloof and assume they are hiding something or that they disdain us or think they are better than us? Why do we make these assumptions instead of asking ourselves if there is something we can do for that person because they may have been hurt, or are shy, or have any number of issues that have nothing to do with us? Instead of always thinking the world is against us, maybe the problem is just that we don’t see the world correctly because we are too wrapped up in ourselves? That seems to be very much the problem for all the characters in this book until Lena figures out what she wants – she is not guilty of not having loved.
This is a very complex book even if the story is incredibly simple. Very little happens over the course of the novel in terms of action but there is so much “going on” here. I feel you could spend a lifetime unfolding this novel (and I use the term unfold rather than the more typical term unpack because it feels more appropriate when dealing with Conrad). The novel also leaves me with a lot of competing emotions, so much so it took me nearly a week just to write this review because I had a hard time wrapping my brain around what I had just read.
If only every novel could be this good.