Friday, January 21, 2005

Victory by Joseph Conrad

Book review by Zinta Aistars

* Hardcover: 385 pages
* Publisher: Everyman's Library, 1998
* ISBN: 0375400478
* $20.00

Now and then, we must leave the literature of our day and delve deeper--in time and in literary style. Joseph Conrad has survived time as a classic, because his work is of classic quality. I submerged into Victory as into cool, deep water, to emerge refreshed and moved by the literary experience.

Woe, yes, to the man whose heart has not learned to hope or love (and is love without hope possible?) or trust in life. Without hope, without love, without trust, life is but a living death. Axel Heyst, Conrad's hero of Victory, is a complex man we are deeply drawn to--for he has the heart and he has the high ideals, if not the hope or trust. In his vulnerable youth, Heyst's father stripped him of these tools without which living a meaningful life is a barren if not futile prospect. Yet a man's heart is a stubborn thing in its will to beat with red blood. Even in his willful isolation, a woman's love finds the hermit. Conrad indulges in a little formula damsel-in-distress rescue, and Heyst brings Lena to his solitary island of Samburan, where they slowly develop a kind of haven.

Life has a way of being messy and intrusive, Conrad knows, and so he brings the conflict of the story to the island, undeservedly bad reputation following Heyst there in the often comic and villanous figures of Ricardo and Jones. This showcases the figures of Heyst and Lena. If Heyst's heart does indeed love, and passionately so, then Lena's heart has within it the unconditional devotion perhaps only a woman can fully express. And so woman gives life. The tragedy of Heyst is that he so rarely knows how to express his love. Perhaps the story ends, then, in the only way it can, in sacrifice.

The true victory of this novel is the gift of Conrad's writing. Characters have depth and motion; plot is not overwhelming, but enough to hold suspense; dialogue is real and revealing. Conrad does plenty of tell, not show, which writers are today admonished not to do, but I loved every moment of the skillful telling. He is a master, taking on themes and characters that have lasting value. I plan to read and reread his other works.

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