I have always enjoyed Joseph Conrad’s work, but have approached it rather haphazardly, catch as catch can, picking up a novel here and there, savoring it, then moving onto something else, usually a more sunny optimistic novel or book, for although I appreciated his fine characterization, psychological portraiture and his stunning rendering of the sea and exotic locales and societies, I found his fundamentally dark view of life and the human race a downer if I read too much of him at once.
While grounded in THE HEART OF DARKNESS, LORD JIM, and NOSTROMO from undergraduate studies, I chose to “browse” the rest of this great writer’s work as the spirit moved me. Last year I picked up a copy of TYPHOON and nearly flipped over Conrad’s masterful handling of the storm and his deft limning of the poor captain on the fated ship, so much so that I urged it on my husband, no litterateur by any means, but a guy who loves a rip roaring sea story. Finishing it with relish, he begged for more, but understandably choked and sputtered out when he encountered THE HEART OF DARKNESS, and that was the end of his “Conrad studies”—finis 😉
Also last year in a small fishing town in the heat of the oppressive Florida summer, I chanced on a sidewalk “library book sale” (something absolutely irresistible to me) and for five bucks added almost twenty highly desirable books to my personal library. Conrad’s VICTORY was a small victory for me in this purchase, as I’d always meant to read it, but some other book had always grabbed my interest before I got around to it.
The copy I bought at the library sale was the first Modern Library edition, one of the earlier popular American editions of the novel, and heavily marked up by what seems to have been a 1952 high school student named “M. Yate” (his name is inscribed on the fly sheet and he doodled compulsively “M.Y.” throughout the book, about every ten or twenty pages or so). Also in line with the concerns of that era, Mr. M. Yate doodled—bombs, bombs dropping from planes, something that made me sigh, shiver and congratulate mankind for having survived that particular dicey time for life on earth.
Overall, though, having found this particular copy of the novel was funny and entertaining to me because I can so easily imagine a bored adolescent boy in his English class trying to stay awake, dutifully underlining key passages and making marginal notes as his English teacher drones on about the text and the merits of Conrad’s novel. He also apparently had a typical rudimentary high schoolish vocabulary because such words as “incredulous” (which he himself no doubt was at having to spend such time and attention on a mere novel) are underlined and defined briefly in the margins next to them.
So, with the ghostly presence of the 1952 high school student M. Yate at my side, I plowed into VICTORY, sure that at the very least, in true Conrad fashion, I would get superb character development, a suspenseful story, excellent exotic atmospherics and some heavy duty despair over the meaninglessness of life and the futility of all human endeavor (hahaha–sorry, the ironic combination of these elements slays me).
I was not disappointed and, despite the hard work M. Yate had to do to reach the terminus of this masterpiece, I doubt he was either. For midway through VICTORY, M. Yate started doodling “M.Y. & C.Z” in a (gasp) heart! As the second half of VICTORY is (for Conrad) rather heavy on romance, specifically romance between the hero Heyst and an inscrutable “dance hall girl” whom he calls “Lena,” and replete with nuanced and detailed examination of the feelings of both parties, M. Yate even may have picked up a thing or two useful with his own romance with “C.Z.” Who knows? Conrad’s VICTORY romance could have been the effectual dart that Cupid sent straight through M. Yate’s little old heart for one of his classmates, the mysterious “C.Z.,” a fellow reader as well, perhaps, of VICTORY.