ON SEPTEMBER 1, 2001, I landed in Nairobi, Kenya. I planned to stay in the country for a year, building a church, a couple of preschools, and several fences for a Salesian mission in the foothills of Mount Kenya. Ten days later, in New York, the twin towers fell.
From my point of view, 9/11 occurred, oddly, not in the morning but during the night. For nine days, I had been under the illusion that I was far from home, but home can actually find you very quickly. All the vectors lined up with amazing speed: a satellite feed from France interrupted the local Kenyan news; soon enough, an Indian priest came out to where I was staying. Home found me with enough time to watch the second tower fall.
Shortly thereafter, I read Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim and found I could suddenly relate to the novel. Unlike Jim, I hadn’t traveled to Kenya to flee a shameful past, and yet, the mysterious mechanisms of connectivity that run the world arrived, as they always do in Conrad, to make sure that I remained part of the world I thought I had left behind. No matter how remote Conrad’s characters attempt to go, circumstance always closes in on them. Conrad’s view is uniformly pessimistic: circumstance strikes down the smart and the dumb, the humble and the proud alike.
I didn’t recognize the full significance of this, however, until I read, years later, Conrad’s late novel Victory (1915), recently republished by Penguin Classics with a new introduction by John Gray. Once I left Africa, I felt distant enough to examine the particular moral calculus of a Westerner “helping” or simply living, in a position of privilege in another country (far after we should have learned our lesson). My ideas of progress and charity collapsed into the always gruesome reality of mixed results and motivations. I came up against the Conrad conundrum, as though naturally, as though it was the basic truth of the world. What I was as an individual — all my petty strivings and cobbled-together beliefs — were inevitably implicated in and chewed up by a global tournament beyond my control. I was hard pressed to justify the sinister mechanisms of the West even to myself, why had I spread them to Kenya?
Literary lists and syllabi never include Victory, which is easily supplanted by Conrad’s other great novels: by Heart of Darkness (1899), Lord Jim (1900), The Secret Agent (1907). Works like The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ (1897), Typhoon (1902), and Nostromo (1904) are less widely read but still heavily studied. Victory requires a more geeky taste, and yet the novel is capable of eliciting passionate literary love. In an interview with The Paris Review, Joan Didion said that she doesn’t begin a project of great length without rereading Victory. Later, in Vanity Fair, she added that it is Victory’s main character, Axel Heyst, who attracts her. He “does something so impossibly brave that he can only be doing it because he has passed entirely beyond concern for himself.” Jack London also had an enthusiastic recommendation: “I am glad that I am alive, if, for no other reason, because of the joy of reading this book.” When I first purchased Victory, the owner of the bookstore gave me a distinctive insider’s wink, as though I somehow knew a secret literary handshake: “Wait till you get a load of Heyst.”
It seemed to me that in many of Conrad’s novels, even when life is at its most twisted and inscrutable, individual characters emerge to be observed and studied. Through them, the reader can glimpse the larger systems of the globe. Axel Heyst, the protagonist in Victory, however, is an exception. Heyst already knows the world is rigged (he learned this from his father, a disappointed and cynical intellectual). Those who live earnestly have little chance of achieving anything more than those who take up life as a matter of fate and chance.
Heyst is not Kurtz from Heart of Darkness; from what we know, he has never been compelled by any belief in Enlightenment progress or divine ordination. He has never undertaken a “great” task. He is both skeptical of progress and disillusioned by the typical ways people choose to live their lives. Heyst has no interest in money or jealousy or anything that would link him to another human being. He takes Conrad’s deterministic, mechanical universe as a given. Thus, Victory becomes a sort of test for how to live in that universe. Initially, Heyst chooses complete avoidance; he will not be implicated in the game at all.
Appropriately, Conrad places Heyst in a remote corner of the world — the islands of Java long before they supported resorts on Bali — but the location, in a sense, doesn’t seem to matter. Heyst’s relationship to Java is like a swimmer’s relationship with the walls of the pool, he makes contact only because he must sometimes stop somewhere. Heyst routinely goes missing for months or years on end, though he remains just as inscrutable and aloof when he is present as when he is absent: this is his “solitary achievement, accomplished by […] a system of restless wandering, by the detachment of an impermanent dweller amongst changing scenes.” Heyst’s scheme is only to have a “means of passing through life without suffering and almost without a single care in world.”
The story, if told in a linear way, (which you will never get from Conrad), is simple. The book opens on Heyst extending a no-strings-attached loan to a man named Morrison. The loan is granted so casually it seems like an outright gift. In exchange, Morrison gives Heyst a stake in a short-lived colonial coal operation. Once the business fails and Morrison dies, Heyst becomes the center of speculation and rumor in Java. Wilhelm Schomberg, a hotelkeeper on the island, who is not just notoriously unreliable but a known liar, manipulates the plot. Heyst and Schomberg soon find them themselves bound by more than gossip when Heyst casually decides to rescue a young showgirl named Lena, who is being tormented by Schomberg. Heyst takes her to his island, and eventually becomes her lover. Schomberg’s revenge ends the novel; he convinces three scoundrels that Heyst would be an easy and worthy victim to rob, thus barreling the third act toward inevitable tragedy.
It’s difficult to understand the appeal of this story. Victory is far from a smooth or easy book to read. Points of view shift suddenly, often with a jerk; long passages of dialogue set up exposition that could have been revealed a little sooner. Though Heyst turns out to be one of literature’s most fascinating characters, the book actually doesn’t pay much attention to him. Instead we spend a lot of time with Schomberg and the three scoundrels, two of whom are some of the least complex characters in the Conrad canon.
Famously tough Conrad sentences are waiting for you at every turn. I can easily quote the climactic moment of Victory verbatim, without risking any spoilers: “Behold the simple Acis kissing the sandals of the nymph, on the way to her lips, all forgetful, while the menacing fife of Polyphemus already sounds close at hand […]” The idea of any human being, at any age, victim to even the stuffiest educational system, uttering such a line is unlikely to say the least. Conrad, on the other hand, drops it right at the moment of urgency and resolution in the novel, as if using an elaborate metaphor comes as naturally as drinking as glass of water.
And yet, Victory deepens despite these difficulties, further illuminating how Conrad thinks about human life. Schomberg may be the central villain of the novel, but in a classic play of Conrad ironies, he is basically an ordinary man living according to the norms of the day. Schomberg and his actions can all be explained; he is even banal in his own way, compelled by familiar human vices, like jealousy and lust. When he stalks and harasses Lena, the reader can see his motivations openly: he is unhappy with his marriage, he has nothing in his life but petty power plays and small-time gambles. He games Lena out of petty dissatisfaction and unquenched desire.
It is against the background of Schomberg and his banalities that Heyst reveals himself as particularly strange character in the Conrad canon. It is also through Schomberg that Heyst eventually gains an attachment, becoming implicated in the world despite his better judgment, going against the set of rational criteria he has set for himself. When Lena pleads with Heyst to help her, he finds “he could not defend himself from compassion.”
This is where Victory gets interesting for the contemporary reader, and why it has proven to be so compelling for so many. Paradoxically, Heyst’s drifting eventually leads to action. Though Heyst is fortified against the most well oiled of human pursuits, like money and power, he’s taken with Lena. Furthermore, Heyst, in his knowledge of the world, knows what is ahead of him. He’s aware of the reprisal that will inevitably follow his choice. There is a noble despair (a recurring Conrad virtue) in his choice of Lena and his decision to take her back to his island. According to his life philosophy, he has made precisely the wrong choice and he knows it. Victory, then, can be understood in two ways: choosing Lena is the story, and how Heyst chooses Lena is the novel. Love, as a singular ideal, is a genuine enigma in an otherwise determined world. It is something that cannot be chosen yet must be chosen. In Victory, we find this paradox on the far side of the world, in a man who is, or was, attached to nothing.
As Terry Eagleton has observed, in Conrad “ideals are as necessary as they are death-dealing,” and there is no clearer confirmation of that than Victory. Eagleton has also articulated a kind of dictum for Conrad’s work: “to know one is deluded is the nearest one can get to clear-sightedness.” We may find a connection there between Conrad and his fan, Didion, who famously wrote about “the stories we tell ourselves to live.” A hero, then, is a person who acts, despite knowing they are doomed.
The ending of Victory tests this precept. I won’t tell you how the book ends, but I will say this: there is no relief in Conrad’s world. When there’s hope, when we proceed with confidence, Conrad always lies in wait. The world will find us, no matter how far we go.
Ed Schad is a writer and curator living in Los Angeles. He writes for Art Review, Art Slant, and The Brooklyn Rail, among other publications. Most of his writing can be found on his blog, www.icallitoranges.blogspot.com.