Under Western Eyes

westerneyesHere is a passage from Joseph Conrad’s book about revolutionaries of early 20th century Russia (though the book is mostly set in Geneva, a refuge for those feeling discomfort under the czar). Razumov, who has just met a fellow agitator who writes fiery prose for a magazine, walks away in a sour mood:

He was boiling with rage, as though he had been grossly insulted. He walked as if blind, following instinctively the shore of the diminutive harbor along the quay, through a pretty, dull garden, where dull people sat on chairs under trees, till, his fury abandoning him, he discovered himself in the middle of a long, broad bridge. He slowed down at once. To his right, beyond the toy-like jetties, he saw the green slopes framing the Petit Lac in all the marvelous banality of the picturesque made of painted cardboard, with the more distant stretch of water inanimate and shining like a piece of tin.

He turned his head away from that view for tourists, and walked on slowly, his eyes fixed on the ground.

Conrad’s insertion of such deprecatory thoughts about a place of beauty seems, to me, a reflection of the contradictions of his protagonist. Razumov, though reputedly a revolutionary and honored as such by his fellow subversives in Geneva, keeps secret that instead of having helped the terrorist Victor Haldin to blow up a police minister in St. Petersburg, he actually turned Haldin in to police. Mum’s the word! This is in the back of the reader’s mind as Razumov interacts with his fellow revolutionaries, creating quite a literary frisson. Conrad’s depiction of Razumov’s character and the personalities of his adopted revolutionary milieu is brilliant.

Whenever I see that news clip of an ISIS propaganda video featuring Brit fighters in Syria expressing joy at the fun life of a jihadi warrior, I think of this novel by Conrad. His book about terrorists in London, The Secret Agent, is even better.


About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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