Jeffrey Meyers

Injustice and Violence

A Set of Six, Joseph Conrad (Ed. Allan Simmons et al), Cambridge UP, 2021, 517 pp, £85.

A Set of Six (1908) contains six stories but is not a set.  “Gaspar Ruiz” recalls Nostromo (1904), “The Informer” echoes The Secret Agent (1907).  The stories include the destruction of a woman and a ship in “The Brute”; a man unjustly sent to a penal colony in “The Anarchist”; a terrorized invalid in “Il Conde”; the betrayal of friends by a London anarchist in “The Informer”; the sacrificial death of a man in “Gaspar Ruiz”; and absurdly protracted violence in “The Duel.”

Conrad needed real sources to inspire him but said that he “still had to imagine the motives of actions, the various states of people’s minds and the personal characters of all  the persons involved in the tale.”  He uses narrators, like Marlow in Heart of Darkness, to make the stories more realistic.  One of them insists, “just you listen.”  Since Conrad was in debt and paid by the word, the frame stories are dragged out and lack concision.

This edition has a handsome black cloth binding with a red spine label and Conrad’s flowing signature on the front cover.  But it is tightly bound and must be held fast while reading; it has distracting numbered lines on the pages instead of asterisks to indicate the endnotes.  The editors, assuming the correct cringe in the Acknowledgments, absurdly thank 24 university administrators who had no significant connection to Conrad.  Anyone interested in the minutiae of textual variants will find them in the 137 mind-numbing  pages of textual notes.  Typos appear in malocchio (liii) and amour propre (506), and Conrad misspells “Esteban” (15).  The Introduction is long-winded and repetitive (Origins and Sources are overlapping categories), but the tiny-print footnotes and endnotes are excellent.  (These notes should be the model for the Cambridge edition of Hemingway’s Letters which, with pedantic overkill, tediously googles masses of easily obtainable information and pours it straight into the notes.)

In “Il Conde” a foreign count is robbed in a pleasant outdoor café by an Italian who belongs to the Camorra and threatens him with a long stiletto.  Though the count is robbed of very little money and a cheap watch, and keeps his sentimentally valued rings, he’s still shocked and humiliated.  The life-threatening attack, accompanied by the rolling eyes and gnashing teeth of the operatic villain, terrifies the old invalid and drives him out of Naples, the only climate that enables him to survive.  Conrad gives an ironic twist to the Italian proverb used as the epigraph—Vedi Napoli e poi muori—that was popularized by Goethe’s Italian Journey (1816).  Instead of  meaning “see Naples and die content,” here it means, “see Naples and now you must die.” 

In “The Informer” Conrad states that “Anarchists have no families.”  When Verloc marries and breaks that rule in The Secret Agent his family is destroyed.  The volatile Professor in that novel, who threatens to blow up many people, reappears in this story when another Professor is secretly “engaged in perfecting some new detonators.”  Though Conrad revered his father as a Polish patriot, he hated his father’s anarchist activities that destroyed his family during their harsh Russian exile.  “The Informer” expresses Conrad’s bitter ironic wit.  A respectable young girl tracks printers’ errors in fiery anarchist newspapers.  Her young colleague is also “absolutely in the dark about everything in the world.”  A talented disillusioned engraver “began by being revolutionary in his art and ended by becoming a revolutionist, after his wife and child had died in want and misery.”  Other anarchists simply foam at the mouth and snarl at each other.  With subtle irony Conrad also introduces two religious phrases (missed by the editors) that the anarchists use to justify both the atrocities and the Informer’s insistence that he has betrayed his comrades from high-minded “conviction.”  Conrad’s statement that explosions were the Professor’s “faith, his hope, his weapon and his shield” allude to “faith, hope and charity” in I Corinthians 13:13, and to Martin Luther’s hymn “A mighty fortress is our God. / A trusty shield and weapon.”

Gaspar Ruiz is forcibly conscripted into the revolutionary army in Chile, captured by the Royalists, retaken by the revolutionaries and condemned to death. A preternaturally strong man, he bends the prison bars to allow the water bucket to pass through.  Exposed to the fusillade of the firing squad, he pretends to be dead.  Though badly wounded from a sword slash on his neck, he survives the execution.  He saves Erminia, who has sheltered and protected him, from an earthquake and marries her.  He then approaches the revolutionaries with a plan that would redeem him and prove his loyalty.  As Gaspar’s men besiege the fort, the heavy cannons arrive but the gun-carriage falls into a precipice.  The guns are then lashed to Gaspar’s stout frame and, as the Royalist troops arrive to relieve the fort, he fires three salvoes, breaks his back and dies. The grief-stricken, operatic Erminia hands their infant to a friend, flings herself into the abyss and makes their child an orphan.  Gaspar is “a strong man who perished through his own strength: the strength of his body, of his simplicity—of his love!”  Like the biblical Samson, he makes a heroic sacrifice for a noble ideal.  In Judges, Samson carries away the gates of the city; in Conrad, Gaspar blasts them open.  In Judges 16:30 Samson dies as he “bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein.” 

The dramatic and fatal moment of personal conflict, the tension and suspense, the glamor and notoriety, the concession to atavistic impulse, the peculiar combination of the chivalric and the barbaric, the moral and sexual elements, the underlying attraction of the adversaries, the tight and concentrated form, the exciting flirtation with death, the climactic and often tragic conclusion, all make the duel a perfect subject for a short story.  Two of the greatest Russian writers wrote about duels and were killed by them: Alexander Pushkin during his fourth fight in 1837; Mikhail Lermontov, who wrote a famous elegy on Pushkin, in 1841.  The duel was also portrayed in works by Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov, and in Wyndham Lewis’ Tarr, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Vladimir Nabokov’s “An Affair of Honor.”

Two of Conrad’s ancestors were officers in Napoleon’s army, and he was a lifelong student of the Napoleonic era.  Combatants claimed the violence of the duel was necessary to defend personal honor and demonstrate courage.  Though their careers would be ruined, their wounds would weaken their ability to fight in battle and their colonel might lose a valuable officer, two historical figures actually fought a series of twenty duels extending over nineteen years.  “The Duel” portrays with irony the absurd heroism that reflects the romantic spirit of the Napoleonic age.  Since the Emperor disapproved of dueling, the officers who fought risked being broken and disgraced, but D’Hubert and Feraud neither fear the consequences nor feel remorse.  After a trivial provocation—the restrained northerner D’Hubert disturbs the fiery southern Feraud while he is talking to a lady—the duelist is forced to accept the challenge to avoid a social stigma.  It‘s hard to believe they could fight so many serious duels without a fatal wound, especially when weakened by marching 1,800 miles in the retreat from Moscow to Paris.  But Feraud is like a bulldog that bites and won’t let go, and they seem to be putting on a long-running show for the amusement of their regiments.  Honorable men would rather risk a bullet in the heart than tolerate a rude remark or slap in the face.

They engage in a meaningless series of duels with swords, sabers and pistols, on foot and on horseback.  The duels cover their campaigns in France through Germany to Russia and back; parallel their promotions from lieutenant to general; coincide with the rise and fall of Napoleon; and last through the Restoration of the monarchy.  After the first four duels end with inconclusive wounds, the quarrel can be settled only by death.  During the fifth duel Feraud misses both shots. The Royalist D’Hubert—who had for years been exasperated by Feraud’s ferocity, but had gallantly protected his enemy from political reprisals after the fall of Napoleon—refuses to kill him.  But Feraud will not be reconciled and his life loses its meaning once the combat is concluded.  D’Hubert, by contrast, is ecstatic when his fiancée proves her love for him by running two miles to see if he’s survived.

These six stories, written at the height of his career and between his two of his greatest novels, attempt to reach a popular audience and are not Conrad’s best.  He adds color to his prose by using many nautical terms in “The Brute”; numerous Italian words in “Il Conde,” Spanish words in “Gaspar Ruiz,” and French words, with many gallicisms and some awkward phrases, in “The Duel.”  He effectively portrays the themes of betrayal and injustice, terror and violence, and has occasional flashes of brilliance.  He writes that “to loot a pair of breeches from a frozen corpse is not so easy. . . . But the dead don’t mind that.  They don’t mind anything.”  He slips in a sexual allusion to Gaspar’s idealized wife, who straps on a man’s sword and “loved to feel it beating upon her thigh as a perpetual reminder. . . . She was insatiable.”

Words by Jeffrey Meyers

Jeffrey Meyers, FRSL, has published a biography of Conrad and four introductions to his works.

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