I remembered reading somewhere that Joan Didion loved Joseph Conrad's Victory so much she reread it every time she embarked on a novel. That stuck with me, I guess because I didn't know anything about Victory and thought of it, if at all, as pretty far down the prioritized list of Conrad classics that I had been vaguely working my way through over a lifetime. (Having read Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, and The Secret Agent, I was left with, hmmm, Nostromo next?) I didn't remember what she liked about it, but just the fact that she liked it and looked at it as a model was enough for me, and I finally read it last week when I was on an island elsewhere in the Pacific.
It turns out what she likes about it is the "fantastic distancing of the narrative": that it feels immediate and dramatic, but is told thirdhand. Isn't that the case with most of Conrad's fiction, told through layers of narrators as sailor's yarns often are? I know it is with Heart of Darkness; I think of that style as Conradian and felt very comfortable to be reminded of it when I started Victory.
And I certainly like its effect too: so subtle and skillful, and difficult, I know, to achieve. But what I found I really loved about Victory, and also found very useful in a way that could make me want to read it before writing a novel too, was something else. Perhaps this is a commonplace observation about the book, but what is really dramatic to me (within the often melodramatic events that pile up, or are at least threatened, throughout the book) is that again and again it is the story of passive people, whose nature and comfort is to observe without involvement, suddenly taking action. Certainly Heyst, the aloof Swede at the center of the book, whose disengagement is a matter of philosophy until he's drawn into action by his connection with the woman he calls Lena. But also Lena herself, adrift too until she chooses Heyst, and whose scheming toward her final, victorious action works as an undercurrent beneath her apparent submission. And the "wooden" Mrs. Schomberg, with untold depths of guile behind her facade, as well as the laughably "inscrutable" Wang, dutiful until he decides not to be, and very much his own man. By contrast, there's the malign and preposterous "secretary," who at least by his own account is nothing but action but who accomplishes, well, spoiler alert.
And then there's Davidson, the hilariously placid steamer captain who is the somewhat clumsily deployed catalyst for much of the story's action and whom many students of Conrad apparently hold in contempt as a second-rate narrator, at least compared to the wonderful complexity of the Marlow of the great novels. I adore Davidson, largely because Conrad seems to as well: he has such fun with Davidson's fat, sly laziness that it approaches the comedy of the dumb-like-a-fox sheriff in Jim Thompson's great Pop. 1280:
He sat placidly there, content to be disregarded and hoping for some chance word to turn up. I shouldn't wonder if the good fellow hadn't been dozing. It's difficult to give you an idea of Davidson's placidity.
It's such a simple mechanism--the avoider of action finally making his or her move--and it's repeated throughout the book and, in the case of Heyst, theoretically worked over at such length that one might be inclined to say, okay, I get it already. Unless of course, the question of how an avoider of action actually does make his or her move is the central dilemma of one's own fiction (how on earth am I going to get these made-up people to actually do anything?) and indeed of one's own life, in which case seeing the basic setup reworked from nearly every conceivable angle within a single narrative is both instructive and inspiring. At least it was for me.