The Conradian: Reviews
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By Brygida Pudelko, Opole University, Poland

Viktor Borisov. Joseph Conrad v Rossii. Moscow: N.p., 1997. v+220 [In Russian].

Viktor Borisov’s valuable and detailed Joseph Conrad v Rossii focuses on the reception of Conrad’s works in Russia from the first translations published in 1898 to criticism of the 1990s. Although critics differ in their understanding and evaluation of his fiction, the interest in Conrad’s personality dates to the beginning of the twentieth century.

The study opens with a preface evaluating Conrad as a master novelist and stylist whose realism is integrally bound to a romantic conception of life. Borisov points to Conrad’s affinities with Polish romanticism, but concedes that background was only one factor shaping the writer. In Borisov’s view Conrad’s interest in the sea does limit him to being a fine sea writer, and he eludes classification as exclusively neo-romantic. Doubtless one of the most impressive features of Conrad’s writing, Borisov explains, is his affirmation of solidarity, fidelity, a sense of duty, an ideal of honour, and a concern with social injustice, despotism, and anarchy. According to Borisov, the memorable moments in Conrad’s fiction often involve the tragedy of men in hostile environments.

Conrad’s Russian reception is presented in a now standard chronological framework. The opening chapter analyses the first translations during the final years of tsarist rule. The second chapter focuses on reception in the post-Revolutionary period, from 1918 to 1957. It notes examples of the left-wing criticism that popularised official Soviet doctrine and emphasised Russian cultural uniqueness and its superiority over the West and its decadent writers, whose work reflected bourgeois decay and were irrelevant to Communist society. Borisov’s third chapter highlights critical opinion following the centenary of Conrad’s birth in 1957, and his final chapter examines criticism from 1979.

Conrad’s works have long been read and appreciated in Russia. The first translations – “Karain” and “The Lagoon” appeared in Russki Vestnik in 1898, a year after their publication in England – were followed by “Youth” in 1901. Published without the names of their translators, these failed to garner the attention of critics unlike the later translations of Conrad’s novels on Russian subjects.

Borisov points to 1908, when The Secret Agent, translated by Zinaida Vengerova (1867–1941) appeared in Vestnik Evropy, three years after the 1905 Revolution, in a period of anarchy, terrorism, and revolutionary treacheries and provocations. Married to the poet N. M. Minsky (1855–1920), Vengerova, a well-known critic and translator from English, French, and other languages and the author of works on Western literature, corresponded with Constance Garnett, Hugh Walpole, and English writers and scholars. The Secret Agent revealed Conrad’s interest in the psychological aspects of betrayal and resulted in credible, ironic portraits of revolutionaries and anarchists.

Under Western Eyes, Conrad’s second novel on Russian themes, was translated in 1912, soon after its initial appearance. Borisov concludes that Conrad’s interest in and bitterness against Russia was the result of the failed 1863 Polish Insurrection and the bootless struggle against Russian imperialism. He notes Conrad’s interest in Turgenev and his detestation of Dostoyevsky, who was “too Russian” for him, but whose The Devils and Crime and Punishment influenced Under Western Eyes.

Borisov states that although critics seriously differed in their understanding and evaluation of that novel, it has attracted serious attention since Vengerova’s appreciative essay of 1912. Borisov concludes his evaluation of Conrad’s pre-Revolution reception by quoting information about the writer’s life and work in the New Encyclopaedic Dictionary, edited by K. Arsenev (1911-16), in which Conrad’s output is treated solely in terms of the sea stories and the depiction of distant lands.

Not until the 1920s did Conrad’s life and work attract serious and extensive critical attention. As proof of this Borisov quotes a fragment of a letter of 31 October 1924 by the liberal poet Boris Pasternak to his sister Josephine, then in England, recommending her to read Hardy, Conrad (“a great contemporary writer”), Joyce, and Proust.

Borisov’s second chapter opens with Maxim Gorky, a great admirer of Conrad, whose visit to London in May 1907 led to his meeting Charles Wright (1862-1940), a publisher and expert on Russian literature, at whose home Gorky met Conrad, Hardy, Shaw, and other writers at a dinner. Borisov also mentions Gorky’s criticism of the translations of Nostromo, published in Izvestia in 1931, and of Almayer’s Folly, published in Vsemirnaya Literatura in 1923 with a brief, approving preface by K. Chukovsky, an expert on English and American literature and one of the journal’s editors.

Borisov’s second chapter also provides information about a four-volume collection of Conrad’s works that began appearing in 1924 with translations of Tales of Unrest, “Freya of the Seven Isles,” Typhoon, Under Western Eyes, and Lord Jim. The introduction by the well-known Russian critic, translator, and novelist Evgenii Lann (1896–1958) evaluates Conrad’s works highly and takes issue with the classification of Conrad as a sea writer. In Lann’s opinion, Conrad, “the finest stylist in the English language” offers a “psychological analysis of the human spirit” (25) squarely in the Slavic tradition. Under Western Eyes, which appeared in this series in 1924 in a new translation by A. Krivtsova, met with critical appreciation.

In this chapter Borisov offers interesting and insightful observations on the first translations of The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” Chance, Victory, and The Rescue (1925). The year 1926 marked the publication of a collection of Conrad’s works translated by E. Lann under the title Heart of Darkness (it also included “The End of Tether” and “Youth”) and the publication of A. Polotska’s translation of The Shadow-Line, followed by “The Informer,” “The Brute,” “The Duel,” “Freya of the Seven Isles,” Typhoon, “An Outpost of Progress,” and “The Secret Sharer.”

Borisov agrees with critic and translator I. Kashkin (1899–1963) who, analysing the first Russian translation of Nostromo (1928), draws attention to Conrad’s Tolstoyan skill of handling plot achronologically and his adeptness at switching point of view. Kashkin was especially interested in Conrad’s creation of dynamic characters à la Tolstoy who are constituted of a number of minute factors, deeds, and features that develop as the plot unfolds.

Borisov also mentions critics who describe Conrad, together with Joyce and Lawrence, as a “bourgeois decadent” abandoning “true social subjects” (46) for the exotic and subjective. He comments on the 1953 edition of the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia, which ranks Conrad among “bourgeois decadents” who escape from reality to a distant and threatening environment and notes that Conrad goes unmentioned in Professor Anikst’s The History of English Literature (1956).

The enormous differences between the Russian political and cultural situation in the 1920s and the gloomy Soviet 1950s mark criticism of the period. Cultural decline was already underway in the 1930s as the result of strict guidelines and control, but with the hardening of ideological control after the Second World War cultural connections with the West were severed, and the harsh Stalinist climate paralysed creative activity in all fields. The party line was enforced, partiinost in literature meaning that both recent and distant history could not be truthfully described. It also implied the almost complete exclusion of lyricism and satire, with literary works being obliged to deliver a positive message and featuring larger-than-life heroes. Conflict was taboo for, according to party doctrine, conflict had disappeared from Soviet society.

Conrad’s books, especially those on Russian subjects, were thus not published during this period. Artists had to deal with “typical” people and situations because “socialist realism” was not a synonym for realism, and official philosophers devoted their energies to criticising bourgeois and “revisionist” doctrine. Conrad was thus often praised as an anti-colonialist and as a critic of bourgeois society, although he was at times also accused of a “bourgeois orientation.” In the years of darkness most of the intelligentsia took a position somewhere in between, bitter experience having taught that straying too far from the official line led to repression. This explains the ambiguity that some critics expressed about Conrad’s works.

Borisov’s third chapter opens with a review of J. Kagarlitsky’s 1957 essay in Inostrannaya Literatura to mark the centennial year of Conrad’s birth. A serious attempt to understand and evaluate the Conrad canon, the essay focuses on Conrad’s romanticism, with Kagarlitsky juxtaposing Western “decadent literature” and its concern with the crisis of human ties, with Conrad’s successful attempt to overcome pessimism and his belief in human potential.

As Borisov observes, J. Kagarlitsky’s and I. Katarsky’s contribution to the third volume of The History of English Literature (1958) reflects a sincere interest in Conrad as a writer of the sea, who successfully portrayed brave seamen, praised for their endurance, friendship, and loyalty. His awareness of the crisis of bourgeois ideology and uncertain future prospects helped him to develop the idea of human isolation. The authors express their favourable opinion of Almayer’s Folly, Nostromo, and Victory, and they view Conrad as a critic of bourgeois reality and colonialism in “An Outpost of Progress,” “Heart of Darkness,” and Nostromo. They regard Under Western Eyes as Conrad’s worst novel because of its repulsive portrayal of revolutionaries and reliance on Dostoyevskian imagery and situations.

The year 1959 marked the publication of a two-volume set including Lord Jim, “Youth,” “Heart of Darkness,” Typhoon, The Shadow-Line, and “Freya of the Seven Isles” as well as the first translations into other languages of then Soviet Union. The growth of Conrad’s popularity was due to changes in the intellectual climate after the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in 1956 and gradual improvements after Stalin’s death in 1953. Slow at first, this thaw gathered momentum after 1956, to be followed by a re-freeze in the 1960s.

The literature of the thaw aimed at reducing the gulf between official slogans and reality, with propaganda discouraged and “sincerity” becoming the new watchword. At this time Conrad’s fiction received some laudatory reviews. Borisov finds notable traces of Conrad in the novels of the liberal writer Konstantin Paustovsky (1892-1968), in particular, from The Mirror of the Sea in Chernoye Morye. Borisov cites Lev Levitsky’s discussion of this, which found Conrad and Paustovsky united by a passionate love of the sea as a source of values and moral standards.

Borisov states that after the publication of Conrad’s works in 1959 a number of merely incidental, superficial, and odd commentaries appeared, but Conrad’s popularity in Russia registered a considerable growth. Socialist realism imposed certain rules on historians, philosophers, and critics who not only had to preach the party line but to cite Marx, Lenin, and Stalin as often as possible. Hence, many books and essays of the period are little more than loosely strung together quotations from the “classics.” This is true of Chuchuvadze’s essay, which declares that Conrad’s novels attack imperialism.

Borisov stresses the importance of E. Sebeshko’s 1971 essay on The Secret Agent, which exposes Conrad’s bourgeois individualism as a philosophy of life. In her opinion, scholars examined the novel as “a caricature of revolution” and failed to concentrate on its analysis of the “tragedy of human life” (104). She points to the use of irony and Conrad’s attention to detail, which helped him “to depict the truth of a repulsive existence in a monstrous world” (105). Conrad was, she believes, interested in and terrified by Russia, but never identified Russia with its despotic government. Borisov also focuses on difficulties and factual inaccuracies M. Urnov’s 1970 essay focussing on Conrad and Dostoevsky. He finds verbal echoes of Dostoyevsky and imitations of Dostoyevsky’s methods of characterization. Particularly striking is his assertion that Conrad read Dostoevsky in Russian.

Borisov’s final chapter is devoted to recent criticism, with the 1980s marking a revival of Conrad’s popularity. A new translation of Nostromo appeared in 1985, followed by a number of novels and stories, accompanied with prefaces (sometimes containing factual errors), in which, according to Borisov, Conrad is viewed as one of the best English writers, a writer of the sea and the tropics, an anti-colonialist, and a master of psychological analysis.

The chapter provides an overview of N. Anastasev’s essay in Voprosy Literatury in 1985 on Conrad’s artistic methods. It points to Conrad’s “cosmic scope of artistic ideas” in Typhoon, Lord Jim, The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” and “Heart of Darkness,” and examines Conrad as an artist who “explored mysterious phenomena and depths of the universe” (133). In Anastasev’s view, the knowledge of Russia expressed by the teacher of languages in Under Western Eyes is only “cold rhetoric about guilt, betrayal, honour, and endurance” (134). Borisov argues with this opinion finding that the portrayal of revolutionaries and of facts in Under Western Eyes is no less convincing than in Dostoyevsky.

The final chapter also focuses on Volume 8 of E. Geneva’s The History of World Literature (1994) that contains basic biographical facts and presents Conrad as a realist and romantic, the author of complex novels describing tragic human destiny. She concentrates on moral and psychological aspects, the ability to uncover human destiny, character, and individual mysteries. Geneva admits that even though traces of Dostoyevsky can be found in Conrad (the Russian subject and characterization), he was closer to Henry James in his presentational methods and moral interests. She classifies Conrad as a predecessor of existentialism and a master of extreme situations whose most notable characters are proud, isolated solitaries. As members of bourgeois society, their solitude differs from that of the classic romantic heroes.

Borisov closes with information about a three-volume collection of Conrad’s works published by Terra in 1996 after an unexpectedly long period of gestation. The volumes contain The Mirror of the Sea, The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” Almayer’s Folly, An Outcast of the Islands, The Rescue, Lord Jim, “The End of the Tether”, Victory, “Youth,” Typhoon, “Heart of Darkness,” “The Secret Sharer,” “The Black Mate,” and “The Duel.” The old translations largely fail to meet contemporary needs, and T. Prokopov’s preface, in addition to its factual errors, views Conrad as a descriptive writer of the sea, “who loved it and cursed it” (138). Nothing is said of Under Western Eyes or The Secret Agent.

Although most of Conrad’s work is known and appreciated by Russian critics, there are some evident misconceptions about it. Most critics repeat Conrad’s strongly voiced anti-colonialism and criticism of bourgeois life. Favourable reactions to Under Western Eyes testify that it was not considered an attack on Russia.

© 2005 Brygida Pudelko






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