Friday, August 26, 2011

Conrad and Powell

Anthony Powell fans who turn to Joseph Conrad's novella The Duel (one of the five novellas of that title that Melville House, in a clever gimmick, published together last week) will enjoy an amusing echo of Uncle Giles in the whinging of one of the two contestants. Conrad's tale concerns Feraud and D'Hubert, a pair of officers in Napoleon's army who, through the insane readiness of Feraud to take offense, spend more than decade of the Napoleonic Wars in an on-and-off duel. Or, rather, a perpetually on duel, one whose interstices are forced by circumstance: recovery from wounds, lack of proximity, or, in the case that calls Uncle GIles to mind, difference in rank. D'Hubert is promoted to colonel, which leaves Lieutenant Feraud unable to challenge him without rendering both men liable to court martial. Feraud, formerly a casual, even feckless soldier, felt "an urgent desire to get on" spring up in his breast. He
resolved in his mind to seize showy occasions and to court the favourable opinion of his chiefs like a mere worldling.
That in itself is not much like Uncle Giles, who didn't tend to court work or opinion of any sort. But this certainly is:
He began to make bitter allusions to "clever fellows who stick at nothing to get on." The army was full of them, he would say; you had only to look around. . . . Once he confided to an appreciative friend: "You see, I don't know how to fawn on the right sort of people. It isn't in my character."
The minute he gets his promotion, Feraud begins making the arrangements to meet D'Hubert at arms, for,
"I know my bird," he observed grimly. "If I don't look sharp he will take care to get himself promoted over the heads of a dozen men better than himself. He's got the knack for that sort of thing."
Powell was a staunch fan of Conrad, calling him "one of our greatest novelists" in a 1974 article, so it's not unreasonable to think that Feraud's cynical disdain played a part in the creation of Giles.

In a different article on Conrad, published in the Times Literary Supplement in 1947, occasioned by a two new volumes of biography, Powell draws out a couple of succinct distillations of Conrad's stance and concerns as a writer. One is constructed almost entirely from some lines from Razumov, the student from Under Western Eyes who, as Powell puts it, is "forced to play a shabby part through no particular fault of his own . . a favourite theme of Conrad's":
"As if anything could be changed!" thinsk Razumov. "In this world of men nothing can be changed--neither happiness nor misery. They can only be displaced at the cost of corrupted consciences and broken lives--a futile game for arrogant philosophers and sanguinary trifles." This was the lesson Conrad himself had learnt.
Then there's this, which fruitfully compares Conrad to Kipling (an author to whose fundamental literary and imaginative qualities Powell, with his conservative leanings, is probably a better guide than many, able to judge with relative dispassion Kipling's achievements and failures; those of us on the left can then decide where to set the balance regarding other aspects):
Indeed, his informed distrust of pretentious claims to idealism and of pursuit of power masquerading as liberalism sets him apart form the mood of his literary contemporaries. . . . In this divergence he resembles Kipling--an author personally unsympathetic to him--who shares Conrad's respect for a sense of duty, his recognition of the practical difficulties of exercising command, and also, to some degree, his satirical attitude towards officials. Conrad is more sensitive than Kipling in handling the niceties of human character, but he does not possess Kipling's dexterity nor, perhaps, his imaginative powers. On the other hand Kipling--although his dislike for Peter Ivanovitch and his [anti-Tsarist terrorist] circle would in no way have fallen short of Conrad's--could never have achieved the objectivity of Under Western Eyes.
For the best distillation of Conrad's moral sensibility, however, you'll be best off turning to Conrad himself--and if you don't have time to read the whole of Victory, where it's given its most explicit treatment, then this brief passage of scene-setting from The Duel will suffice:
No man succeeds in everything he undertakes. In that sense we are all failures. The great point is not to fail in ordering and sustaining the effort of our life. In this matter vanity is what leads us astray. It hurries us into situations from which we must come out damaged; whereas pride is our safeguard, by the reserve which it imposes on the choice of our endeavour as much as by the virtue of its sustaining power.
I suppose as a key to Conrad, that passage could be faulted for lacking an explicit reference to honor and duty, but it's at least a good start.

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