Monday, September 21, 2009

Two wronged husbands

Just back from a week in Languedoc, where in between cheese, wine and the sea I read two books. By coincidence both contained husbands whose wives betray them to a greater or lesser degree, and both in their despair express the bitter thought, 'If only she'd died instead' – no scandal that way. Ah, the nineteenth century!

The first was Conrad's The Return, one of those shorter and less well known pieces by major authors which Hesperus Press specialises in. It concerns one night in the house and mind of a well-to-do London gentleman whose wife leaves him for another man, but comes back again.

In his foreword Colm Toibin writes that 'The Return is Conrad at his most exotic territory: a house in London, not a boat in sight, utterly free of the Orient.' While this is true enough, I think it is based on Conrad's life experiences – what Alvan Hervey goes through psychologically is recognisably similar to what, for example, the narrator of 'Youth' goes through on his ship. The Return isn't spuriously exotic like The Secret Agent, where not only the setting but also the experiences which the characters undergo seem appropriated from outside Conrad's own knowledge.

It's also chock-a-block with Conrad's outrageously over-multiplied and -modified abstractions (a flaw which approaches the status of a winning trademark, and perhaps even a flaw which makes possible something greater, but a flaw nevertheless); for example: 'It was anguish naked and unashamed, the bare pain of existence let loose upon the world in the fleeting unreserve of a look that had in it an immensity of fatigue, the scornful sincerity, the black impudence of an extorted confession.' What would one say to a fellow writer or student who produced that sentence? 'Think you can narrow it down, Joe? And maybe find a way to show all that?' (I'm quoting selectively of course, and the context earns a lot of it – but still...)

The other book was Stendhal's The Red and the Black, which I'll have more to say about in the next day or so.


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