The Great Tradition, by F. R. Leavis, chapter IV, "Joseph Conrad", 1948, 54 pages)
|Conrad at age six|
I recently obtained a copy of The Great Tradition by F. R. Leavis (Cambridge-1895 to 1978). Leavis was born in Cambridge, went to school there and then became a professor and never left, other than the period he served as an ambulance driver during WWI. He was subjected to a poison gas attack and never fully recovered. He married one of his students, Queen Roth, who was also a well known writer of literary criticism. In addition to the introduction there are chapters on George Elliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad. I wanted to read the work of Leavis so I could have an idea what was taught in English Literature classes at Cambridge in the much of the first half of the 20th century. Leavis says Conrad is at his best is one of the greatest novelists. He says Conrad's greatness primarily rests on Secret Agent, Heart of Darkness, Nostromo (this is his choice for Conrad's master work), Shadowline, and Typhoon. He explicitly rules Lord Jim out of this list. He devotes twenty pages to Secret Agent, which he totally loves.
The Secret Agent is set in London in 1886. The central character is Mr. Verloc who lives with his wife Winnie, his mother in law, and his brother-in-law, Stevie. Stevie is mentally disabled (possibly he has autism) and he needs the support of his Mr. Verloc to live. The marriage of the Verlocs is brilliantly portrayed and we see the love Winnie has for Stevie pushed her to marry Mr. Verloc who she knew would provide for Stevie. One of the things I think Conrad is really brilliant at is letting us see how limited perceptions of other people can shape and limit our world.
Mr. Verloc (the physical description of him is simply brilliant) owns and runs a shop where he sells odds and ends and pornography. His real business is his work as a spy, a terrorist and an agent provocateur. He is in theory an Anarchist but really he is just a married man with a job, a wife, and mother-in-law and a brother-in-law depending on him. One of the other characters jokes that it is a contradiction in terms for an Anarchist to be married.
Leavis says the opening chapter of Secret Agent, set in a foreign embassy in London, is one of the best done first chapters in the English novel. Mr. Verloc is getting his instructions from a sinister personage in the embassy. We do not learn for sure whose embassy it is but we think it is the Russian embassy. His employer is not following Czarist policy but the agenda of his organization. The conversations between Mr Verloc and the man from the embassy are just marvelous. Each one looks down on the other and each fails to see the contradictions in their own lives.
I think one of the best parts of the book is in Conrad's depiction of the marriage of the Verloc's and of the character of the wife and her devotion to her handicapped brother and her mother. It is one of the great ironies of literature that Mr. Verloc can see through centuries of hypocrisy and cant in society but he does not understand the foundation of his own marriage to a woman he loves very much.
The Secret Agent is very much a book for the 21th century. Make a few changes in the players and it could be about the terrorists that dominate our headlines and much of the political thinking of the world's leaders.
Almost all of Conrad's fiction can be found at Manybook, a great source for free books in most formats including Kindles.
My next Conrad will be his short story "Amy Foster". I have placed all of works Leavis recommended as the best of Conrad on my TBR list, hopefully I will get to some of them in 2012.
Conrad is, to me, a writer to slow down for, something not always easy for me! Conrad can see into darker places than most other writers. I think most people who give Conrad a fair chance will learn somethings about themselves from reading his work.
There are a lot of negative tending posts and comments on Conrad in the book blog world. He is not a happy let us jump up and down and clap for joy at the world kind of writer. Some people complain that there is no one "likable" in his work. There is really no one we can be in true sympathy with in The Secret Agent, maybe some will feel sympathy for Winnie but that is a reach considering what she ends up doing.
Do you have a favorite Conrad? Did you try him and hate him and why?