Posted: August 26, 2015 Filed under: Commentary | Tags: Books, Classics, Fiction, Human Condition, Politics, Power
The great French novelist Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, published in 1869 is consider to be a romantic novel. In reality, it includes vivid descriptions of France’s social classes, political institutions and practices that lead to the famous 1848 social revolution and the failure of the Second Republic in his country. That event was followed by major upheavals in Europe, particularly in the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Italy, and the Austrian Empire.
Professor Edward T. Gargan of the University of Wisconsin in an essay published in the Encyclopedia of 1848 Revolutions note that Flaubert took exhaustive care to document and looked for testimonies to authenticate the novel.
Of particular interest, in today’s context of most discussed and for many admired “Spring” and other street revolutions or movements are the descriptions of the behavior of their leaders and activists once in power. Flaubert’s main character attending an assembly “..was astonished at their abominable style of talking, their pettiness, their spite, their dishonesty—all these people, after voting for the Constitution, now striving to destroy it; and they got into a state of great agitation, and launched forth manifestoes, pamphlets, and biographies.”
Herman Hesse in his famous novel The Glass Bead Game published in 1943 also touches this particular dark side of the human condition and its relation to power. In a conversation, the main character tell a friend to “consisted of an unbroken succession of rulers, leaders, bosses, and commanders who with extremely rare exceptions had all begun well and ended badly. All of them, at least so they said, had striven for power for the sake of the good; afterward they had become obsessed and numbed by power and loved it for its own sake.”
Excerpt From Flaubert, Gustave. “Sentimental Education.” Barnes&Noble, 2009-06-01. iBooks. Check out this book on the iBooks Store Link: Flaubert, Gustave. “Sentimental Education.”
Excerpt From Hermann Hesse. “The Glass Bead Game.” Henry Holt and Company. iBooks. Check out this book on the iBooks Store. Link: Hermann Hesse. “The Glass Bead Game.”
Posted: April 5, 2014 Filed under: Books | Tags: Book Reviews, Books, Classics, Joseph Conrad
Under the Western Eyes, first published in 1911, is the other remarkable novel written by Conrad dealing with the dark human aspects linked to extreme ideologies. Unfortunately this destructive power continues to be very much alive today.
In The Secret Agent, Conrad describes the “dark heart” of a bureaucrat in great detail. The First Secretary at the French Embassy in London is ready to destroy a landmark building and, if necessary, to kill innocent people in order to force the British to adopt repressive measures against their political dissidents.
In Under the Western Eyes, Conrad chooses a terrorist as another example of the “dark heart”. Haldin, the main character of this extraordinary novel, is a young Russian student who proudly identifies himself as a “destructor”, after killing the hated repressive official Mr. P— and possibly bystanders by throwing a bomb.
Following the successful terrorist act, Haldin hides in the home of Razumov, a lonely student whose acquaintance he made in university. He immediately feels that his future is threatened by Haldin’s ominous presence in his quarters. Haldin says “It was I who removed P— this morning.” trying to make his situation clear, and goes on in a challenging tone: ”Men like me are necessary to make room for self-contained, thinking men like you”, demeaning his colleague, who now becomes an unintentional accomplice. “All I want you to do is to help me to vanish”. With these words Haldin starts to set the stage for a series of events which radically changed Razumov’s life as revealed in his diary “…I, who love my country—who have nothing but that to love and put my faith in—am I to have my future, perhaps my usefulness, ruined by this sanguinary fanatic?”
From here the story unfolds a full range of unexpected developments, showing Conrad’s unique talent as a storyteller with details of the ominous symptoms of the time in pre-revolution Russia. In the story, Conrad uses quotes from a journal that Razumov keeps after his encounter with the terrorist to demonstrate his internal conflicts, family background and the painful awakening path that connects him with extremists and revolutionaries as well as with rich powerful individuals in both Russia and the West.
The plot uses Razumov’s internal tribulations stated in his diary and the interesting conversations taking place in Geneva about the brewing Russian revolution and the incapability of the western world to comprehend it. As this emigre in Geneva explains to her English professor, “You think it is a class conflict, or a conflict of interests, as social contests are with you in Europe. But it is not that at all. It is something quite different”. The professor, who seems to be Conrad’s own mouthpiece, replies to his Russian interlocutor “A violent revolution falls into the hands of narrow-minded fanatics and of tyrannical hypocrites at first.” The professor goes further in his negative views on revolutions: “The scrupulous and the just, the noble, humane, and devoted natures; the unselfish and the intelligent may begin a movement—but it passes away from them. They are not the leaders of a revolution. They are its victims: the victims of disgust, of disenchantment—often of remorse.” Clearly here Conrad anticipates with great lucidity the future of the Soviet Revolution five years later. Actually his comments are still valid taking a look at the negative results of the Orange revolution in Ukraine and the Spring revolutions in the Middle East.
Among other characters living in Geneva, Under the Western Eyes also includes an influential Russian writer who advocates radical feminists ideas, and Madame de S—, a rich lady with an aristocratic family background, famous for hosting “soirees” in her chateau with Russians and political conspirators. The character of Madame de S seems to have been inspired by Mme de Staël, the 19th century French political writer, who also lived near Geneva in a chateau and was famous for her “salon” style gatherings, attended by refugees and political thinkers in the Napoleonic era
This year is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the World War I in which millions lost their lives. That war was triggered by the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, three years after Under the Western Eyes was published.
There are remarkable resemblances between the fictional events of this novella and the actual occurrences which bring about historic implications. In Conrad’s novel, Mr. P—, Haldin’s target, survives during the terrorist attack while driven in a two-horse uncovered sleigh with a coachman who gets killed instead whereas in real life Archduke Franz Ferdinand was riding in an open-topped car when a terrorist threw two grenades that missed the royal member but wounded the officers badly in the car behind. In both cases, the assassination plot is completed by a second terrorist: in the novel, Haldin throws a bomb that kills the standstill target whereas in history, after the first failed attempt, Princip, the assassin, fired two shots to an almost motionless car killing the Archduke in Sarajevo and resulting in World War I.
These similarities that could be considered premonitions were again repeated 90 years later with the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, 1963. Moreover, terrorist acts that target buildings as in The Secret Agent (mentioned in Part I of this article) turned into tragic reality on September 11, 2001 with the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, igniting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Reading Under the Western Eyes and The Secret Agent certainly helps readers to better understand what Joseph Conrad meant by “Heart of Darkness” the title of one of his best well-known novels.
Excerpt From Joseph Conrad’s Under the Western Eyes, 1911.
Posted: March 25, 2014 Filed under: Books | Tags: Book Reviews, Books, Classics, Joseph Conrad, London, Secret Agent
Joseph Conrad is considered one of the most important writers in the 20th century. He was Born in 1857 in Berdichev, a region of Poland which today belongs to Ukraine. He became a British national at the age of 29, using English as his writing language.
Conrad is a prolific author who wrote dozens of short stories, novels, and travel journals. He excelled at the subject of adventures, including colonial undertakings in Africa. He is less known for his prophetical novels on the political intrigues and conflicts in Europe which reveal his profound knowledge and insight of these complicated issues.
Some situations portrayed in his political novels Under the Western Eyes and The Secret Agent could still be easily identified in the present time. Even if these extraordinary novels are fictional, both contain rich descriptions of certain terrorist plots or activities of the “agent provocateurs” and spies paid by foreign governments.
The main purpose of hiring these kind of agents is to warn their recruiting governments about the potentially dangerous activities of the radical groups. Governments that pay for this kind of “dark agents” also attempt to spread their influences in other countries.
The Secret Agent, written in 1907, is the story of Mr. Verloc, an agent employed by the French Government to report about the activities and plans of socialists, anarchists and other underground political figures living in London. These type of personalities would gather late in the evening in Mr. Verloc’s small shop which, on the surface, sells “obscure newspapers, badly printed, with titles like ‘The Torch’,‘The Gong’—rousing titles” with windows displaying “photographs of more or less undressed dancing girls”. Mr. Verloc was also one of the Vice-Presidents of an organization named “The Future of the Proletariat”
Despite all these links, Mr. Verloc enjoys a comfortable bourgeois double life with his family until he receives a “peremptory letter” summoning him to the French Embassy in the daytime, an unprecedented and unpleasant situation that can damage his image with his comrades.
He is received with some contempt by a new First Secretary, who says “I have here some of your reports” mocking Verloc’s accounts as useless and expensive. “In the time of Baron Stott-Wartenheim (the previous French Ambassador) we had a lot of soft-headed people running this Embassy.” And he continues, “What is required at present is not writing.. now we want facts…”
To convey what he means by “facts” and what Mr. Verloc is required to do to continue getting paid, the French diplomat explains that his government considers it “dangerous” that England has an absurd “sentimental regard for individual liberty position” opposing to tougher measures to combat political dissidents, soon to be discussed in an international meeting on security issues. “What we want is to administer a tonic to the Conference in Milan,” he says, “..its deliberations upon international action for the suppression of political crime don’t seem to get anywhere. England lags.“, the bureaucrat claims.
The First Secretary carries on his monologue outlining his plan to “induce” England to accept new repressive policies. He orders Mr. Verloc to organise a series of terrorist acts to be “executed here in this country; not only planned here”. That will shock and scare the middle class, turning them in favour of measures to make them feel secure. These acts, he says “…must be sufficiently startling—effective. Let them be directed against buildings…the fetish of the hour that all the bourgeoisie recognise…”.
Almost as an anticipated ominous warning, 94 years after this novel was published, the U.S. suffered a series of well-planned terrorist attacks in 2001, mainly targeted at buildings, killing more that 3,000 people and destroying the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, one of the most famous Manhatan landmarks.
In this classical novel, Joseph Conrad demonstrates his deep understanding of the radical minds of his time behind convulsive political intrigues that created tensions and serious conflicts, ending with the First World War.
It is clear that Conrad was aware of the destructive nature of radical ideologies that tended to justify violence and terrorism, disregarding innocent human lives for the sake of an abstract cause. In The Secret Agent and Under the Western Eyes he explores the so-called “Heart of Darkness”, a metaphor of dark spirit, as used in the book title of one of his most famous novels.
These two works, written more than 100 years ago, are not the only classic novels that deal with these current complex political and social topics. Dostoyevsky, some 30 years before Conrad, wrote The Possessed, a.k.a. Devils or Demons, which also tackles terrorism, a topic that regrettably continues to be very much alive today.