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Old 05-20-2014, 06:32 PM   #16
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Thanks for that Belle. I wasn't imagining it after all! The other thing that I omitted to say in terms of reminding me of Crime and Punishment was the violence, for example where Razumov beat the drunken peasant.

(I should also confess that I hated Crime and Punishment and only stuck with it because it was a set text. So it sounds as if I'm in sympathy with Conrad, at least about Dostoievsky.)
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Old 05-20-2014, 07:26 PM   #17
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I'm also seeing the link between Crime and Punishment and Under Western Eyes. I was thinking how wonderfully Russian Conrad is as a writer.

That's why I was also a bit surprised that I wasn't taking to the book more. I really like Dostoyevsky's works and have started developing an interest in Russian writers. So I can't quite work out why this novel isn't appealing to me more.
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Old 05-25-2014, 06:53 AM   #18
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OK - I finished this today. Unfortunately, due to reasons of general tiredness every time I picked up my Kindle this week, I found it hard to get into the writing or story. However, that doesn't mean I didn't find it interesting.

Actually, I was going to go on and on about a Russian story in the eyes of a Westerner, but it looks like Conrad was basically Russian and his father was a revolutionary. So he had a much stronger perspective than I had originally thought.

Anyone want to take a stab at what he was saying in this book?
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Old 05-25-2014, 09:51 AM   #19
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I struggled with this book for quite a while, but about half way through I began to enjoy it. The only other Conrad I've read is The Heart of Darkness and that was many years ago. My recollection is that Conrad was much more concise in that book. The themes were important and mainly dealt with attitudes related to colonialism. The plot was straight forward.

I found this book meandered a lot. I didn't like the way it was narrated from The Professor of Languages, but I guess that was the point; viewing the story from western eyes. In that regard I think that Conrad's criticisms of the Russian regime was actually quite measured and not quite as "western" as I had expected. He seemed equally critical of the revolutionaries, which caught me off guard. Frankly, when they weren't just plain violent and murderous they were bumbling fools. I thought they'd inspire more hope. Perhaps I just missed something.

I think what I liked ultimately was that Conrad successfully made me see the murderous Haldin, who I hated at first, as a true hero. Razumov, lily white at the beginning with me firmly in his corner, eventually bugs me. I think we're to feel the same way about Haldin as revolutionaries in general similarly Razumov represents the regime of the day. I know that's obvious and rather simple, but for me, it worked.

And again, I was really surprised at how balanced and evenhandedly Conrad chooses to portray a view "under western eyes."
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Old 05-25-2014, 12:56 PM   #20
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I'm at the 50% point where the Professor of Languages and Razumov meet for the first time so it is too early for me to draw many conclusions.

I recommend the Wikipedia article on Joseph Conrad. It is quite comprehensive and describes his personal experiences that shaped his world view as well as his writing influences. He was a Russian citizen, but his national identity was Polish. When he was about 11 he moved to Austria-held Poland which had more freedoms. He was 16 when he moved to France to start his maritime career and then ultimately moved to England and became a subject of Queen Victoria. I think it's an interesting contrast that his father's revolutionary activities and exile influenced Conrad's fate whereas Razumov's apparent lack of family ties shaped his fate.

I also think that it's interesting that Conrad didn't learn English until he was in his 20s yet he chose to write his novels in this adopted language because it seemed natural. However his mastery of English prose was tinted by his foreign upbringing and sensibilities. He drew upon his personal experiences and historic events & people rather than invent completely original plots. The assassination at the beginning of Under Western Eyes is modeled after the real assassination of a Russian official in 1904. The revolutionists and the salon of Chateau Berol are also modeled after real people and places. Some of his works were considered by critics on the fringe of plagiarism. The annotated version that I am reading helps to point out the many allusions to other works & ideas of the time that I would have glossed right over without the footnotes.
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Old 05-26-2014, 11:53 AM   #21
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I found this book meandered a lot. I didn't like the way it was narrated from The Professor of Languages, but I guess that was the point; viewing the story from western eyes.
Apparently you had a lot of company in disliking the use of The Professor of Languages. I didn't quite get the point, either. Conrad wrote the following in a 1920 forward that is included in the Penguin edition:

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What I was concerned with mainly was the aspect, the character, and the fate of the individuals as they appeared to the Western Eyes of the old teacher of languages. He himself has been much criticized; but I will not at this late hour undertake to justify his existence. He was useful to me, and therefore I think that he must be useful to the reader both in the way of comment and by the part he plays in the development of the story. In my desire to produce the effect of actuality it seemed to me indispensable to have an eye-witness of the transactions in Geneva. I needed also a sympathetic friend for Miss Haldin, who otherwise would have been too much alone and unsupported to be perfectly credible. [Conrad, Joseph (2007-08-02). Under Western Eyes (Penguin Classics) (Kindle Locations 6207-6211). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.]
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In that regard I think that Conrad's criticisms of the Russian regime was actually quite measured and not quite as "western" as I had expected. He seemed equally critical of the revolutionaries, which caught me off guard. Frankly, when they weren't just plain violent and murderous they were bumbling fools. I thought they'd inspire more hope. Perhaps I just missed something.
In the same 1920 preface, Conrad writes this:

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The most terrifying reflection (I am speaking now for myself) is that all these people are not the products of the exceptional but of the general— of the normality of their place, and time, and race. The ferocity and imbecility of an autocratic rule rejecting all legality and, in fact, basing itself upon complete moral anarchism provokes the no less imbecile and atrocious answer of a purely Utopian revolutionism encompassing destruction by the first means to hand, in the strange conviction that a fundamental change of hearts must follow the downfall of any given human institutions. These people are unable to see that all they can effect is merely a change of names . The oppressors and the oppressed are all Russians together; and the world is brought once more face to face with the truth of the saying that the tiger cannot change his stripes nor the leopard his spots. (Kindle Locations 6221-6227).
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And again, I was really surprised at how balanced and evenhandedly Conrad chooses to portray a view "under western eyes."
From the same preface:

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My greatest anxiety was in being able to strike and sustain the note of scrupulous impartiality. The obligation of absolute fairness was imposed on me historically and hereditarily , by the peculiar experience of race and family, in addition to my primary conviction that truth alone is the justification of any fiction which makes the least claim to the quality of art or may hope to take its place in the culture of men and women of its time.(Kindle Locations 6197-6201).
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Old 05-26-2014, 01:56 PM   #22
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Interesting. I'd like to read the whole preface. I have the Duke Classics version I obtained from overdrive. I'll be at my local library tomorrow so I'll be sure to pick up the Penguin and read the preface.

Frankly, Conrad's rationale for the narration still seems pretty weak.
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Old 05-26-2014, 06:51 PM   #23
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I just finished the book last night. I found it a bit of a slog, truth to tell, maybe because I found it hard to feel sympathy for Razumov from the beginning. At the same time, what really put me off him - his violence with the drunken peasant - rang true. He was violent because he was terrified of what would happen to him because Haldin had implicated him in the assassination. They lived in a violent and despotic society, and of course that begets violence and injustice at every level of that society.

The oddness of the revolutionists, as Conrad calls them, made them interesting and I was pleased that there didn't seem to be any heroic figures among them.

My only real area of disbelief was at the end, where in order to round out the story of Razumov, Conrad had the revolutionists visiting Razumov when he was back in Russia, so we could learn what happened to him. That seemed to me to be pretty far-fetched.
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Old 05-27-2014, 07:29 AM   #24
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My only real area of disbelief was at the end, where in order to round out the story of Razumov, Conrad had the revolutionists visiting Razumov when he was back in Russia, so we could learn what happened to him. That seemed to me to be pretty far-fetched.
Actually, I thought there were a few "would you like a cup of tea?" moments that didn't quite ring true.

I didn't mind Razumov. I liked the fact that he was just trying to get ahead and then in came some stranger into his room and turned his life upside down. The fact that in the Russia of the novel, he's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't help Haldin. As soon as the criminal enters his rooms, he's "toast". I mean how would such a character behave? It's hard to imagine that he's got much to lose - and so he rails against everyone. He offloads Haldin, but finds that it hasn't really helped him - and so he tries to exact a revenge on a movement he credits with his own demise.

Another thing I found - outside of what Conrad perhaps intended - is that Razumov seems to demonstrate why regimes can retain power. He has no particular love of the autocracy of Russia (that I noticed), but he just wants to play by the rules to find his own way to progress and gain comfort. He contemptuously argues on several occasions that revolutionaries can achieve nothing - that the battle is already lost. His own fear perhaps leads him to opt out early only to be dragged into the mess later.

Further, I found it interesting that love is what undid him in the end. This is a man who'd probably walk barefoot across St Petersburg for a paternal embrace if his encounters with Prince K- are anything to go by. This is a man who has been systematically starved of affection. It took some time for the love of a woman to seep through his barriers, but in the end it did and it gave him enough courage (or shame) to confess.

In many ways, I found Rasumov to be the most interesting character in the novel. On the other hand, I tended to disengage quite a bit from his self-torment. Unfortunately, what should possibly have been a fascinating psychological study became a bit of a drag.
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Old 05-28-2014, 03:03 AM   #25
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Yes, I think you have made some good points there Caleb, especially the way in which a regime can continue in power because most people just want to get by rather than stand up to it. And I doubt that I personally would have the courage to stand up to the Russian regime, then or now.

I think all the way through Razumov was wanting to confess what he had done - he kept going to the brink of doing so and then pulling back. (Again, the echo of Crime and Punishment) and he could not bear to continue the lie any longer in the face of Natalia's trust of him as her brother's supposed friend.

I was disappointed that I found it all a bit turgid. But still, I'm glad that we chose it as there are interesting themes to think about.
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Old 05-28-2014, 11:17 AM   #26
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I am 70% complete now. I will be curious to hear how this book compares to A Secret Agent when issybird chimes in.
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Old 06-01-2014, 10:05 AM   #27
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I've been holding back because I haven't been quite sure what I thought. I was alternately engrossed and put off; there were times when the prose swept me away and times when I wanted Conrad just to get on with it. My thoughts are still scattershot and haven't coalesced, but I'll say that ultimately, I think Conrad's taking on Dostoevsky was a losing proposition and the book would have been better without

The narrator didn't work for me, either. What I took most from him was the message that Westerners can't understand Russia. There's the English narrator from a country whose Civil War was a brief hiatus in the status quo, and the setting in a tiny republic surrounded by mountains which Conrad I thought rather obviously contrasted with the limitless horizons of Russia.

I too felt sorry for Razumov until his histrionics put me off. And really, I think the character as originally presented would have been at peace with his decision. He owed nothing to Haldin who in fact was a murderer and didn't share his poiltics. Whyever shouldn't he turn him in? And Haldin, I think, presents that problem where we only see a character through others' eyes and don't get a chance to empathize with him the way we do with a character whose thoughts and actions we know first-hand.

The best bits for me were the revolutionaries, largely corrupt and seeking power for themselves; Conrad evoked the machinations of a whole movement through that one small cell. And I thought the individual characters were very well drawn. Tekla in particular, as someone whom the revolution ate up and spat out, was symbolic of women's general fate in revolutions, where their role is more to serve the revolutionaries than the oppressed. I inwardly cheered at her assuming control of her destiny on her own terms and wondered at how successfully Natalia would maintain her own integrity.

I thought this was good but The Secret Agent was far better. The London setting was very specific and grounded in its geography where St. Petersburg and Geneva, I thought, were merely suggested. More importantly, both the sense of menace and the explication of the global mechanics of revolution were heightened by the stateless aspect of the revolutionaries.
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Old 06-01-2014, 05:40 PM   #28
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I finished the book last night. An interesting observation is that we seem to have similar opinions when typically our opinions are more varied and extreme. I alternated between like and dislike. Razumov's histrionics were a real slog, but they would be followed by periods of suspenseful, fast-paced text. The book turned for me at 50% when the revolutionary characters were added to liven up the plot. In the end I'm glad I read it. It's clearly not his greatest work so I will give some of his other books a try someday.

One of the reasons I nominated the book was because I am interested to understand the Zeitgeist of the early 20th-century leading up to World War I and the Russian Revolution. The book accomplished that for me. Conrad believed in the early 20s that his book became irrelevant after the Russian Revolution occurred. I do wonder what he would think now in the context of Russian & world history 100 years later. Here we are new readers still discussing it! I also wonder if we in the Western world today are unable to fully understand the title or have different expectations of its portrayal. What was the true meaning of Western? Clearly the definition of liberty was different between European democracy and the Russian revolutionary ideas. But perhaps our own notions of freedom now make it difficult to understand Western freedoms then?

I think Conrad was balanced in his critique of both the Russian autocracy and the revolutionists - a difficult task considering his personal history. I didn't like Razumov in the beginning, especially after his violent beating of Ziemianitch. However I strongly felt the helplessness at the fate of his situation (damned if you do or don't) and the paranoia of being watched even though he was a conservative. In his world benign associations and patriotic actions can be made subversive and turned against you to suit the government's purposes. Even your thoughts don't feel like your own. Mikulin takes advantage of this fear to recruit Razumov as a political spy. I liked Razumov better in the second half of the book as he grappled with being thrust into this dissembling role. I also liked how Razumov transitioned from the betrayer to the betrayed by his own self-remorse and feelings of love for Miss Haldin, the crime and the punishment playing out.

To add to issybird's comments about the female revolutionists, I read that this was the first book that Conrad wrote that had strong female characters. He also included them in future books. Previously his works were thought of as books for men and didn't have popular, mass appeal to women.

None of us seem enthused about his narration choice. Perhaps because it was too inconsistent. Conrad abandons it at convenience and switches into third person omniscient. The Professor of Languages knows too much about other characters. He starts out detached providing events translated from Razumov's journal, and then he becomes more involved by witnessing events from his point of view. He also developed sympathetic affections for Miss Haldin.

I read that to complete the book was a complex task. He worked on it for two years while writing other books at the same time. He first produced the book in longhand, then pages were typed up, and then he corrected them by hand. These stages took place simultaneously. Even after that he made huge cuts and changes for serialization. The English and American editions also contain differences. I also read that he wanted to call the book Razumov, but he was forced to choose a different title after Gertrude Atherton published a book called Rezanov in 1906.

Certainly reading an annotated edition enhanced my likability of the book. I wish that I was familiar with Crime and Punishment to understand those parallels better.
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Old 06-01-2014, 07:22 PM   #29
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Thanks for these two posts, issybird and Bookworm_Girl - both interesting to read. It does sound as if the annotated edition really helped to enrich the experience of reading the book.

I think it was an interesting choice, BG, and I'm glad I read it. When I can find the time, I must read The Secret Agent.
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Old 06-01-2014, 08:01 PM   #30
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Originally Posted by Bookpossum View Post
Thanks for these two posts, issybird and Bookworm_Girl - both interesting to read. It does sound as if the annotated edition really helped to enrich the experience of reading the book.
I think it was an interesting choice, BG, and I'm glad I read it. When I can find the time, I must read The Secret Agent.
I appreciated your parallels to Crime & Punishment. Thanks!
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