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I'm an independent bookseller, so please forgive me if I chatter about books. They're almost all I have.

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Conrad and the Fox

There is a scene seventy pages into the new Melville House edition of Joseph Conrad’s novella The Duel—at about the book’s midpoint—where a strange thing happens. Conrad, until this point, and indeed for the rest of the work beyond, gives us a story of pride, obstinance and ferocity, a serialized work studded with repeated duels and woundings between two men, both Napoleonic dragoons. They fight over a trifle and then, because the ponderous honor of one and fiery recklessness of the other will not permit them to stand down, they fight again and again over the span of long military careers, near battlefields across Europe. The book is dismissive of the duels, but, in the nature of all action stories, must necessarily glorify them, too. The book is exciting and silly in turn, and, because this is Conrad after all, studded with small rewarding moments of insight and humanity. At one point D’Hubert our protagonist, the more noble of the duelists, is awake all night before a fight. He walks down to a kitchen and drinks water in his socks. He has found love and does not want to die. These small humilities stand out all the more in a string of mannered exchanges and near caricature—not bad, the latter, just very Dickensian. 

But this scene, the moment I’d like to talk about, this page seventy: here Conrad outwrites himself. He builds to a scene, really not so consequential as far as the book goes. It may even have been cut from the rather good film version, Ridley Scott’s first feature. Conrad’s D’Hubert grows more rigid with cartoonish honor in the lead-up to this page. Conrad’s very sentences gnarl and warp, threatening to pry loose punctuation, spring violently free. Suddenly all is roccoco villainy. 

General Baron D’Hubert was shown in suddenly without preliminaries. In the dusk of the Minister’s cabinet, behind the forms of writing-desk, chairs, and tables, between two bunches of wax candles blazing in sconces, he beheld a figure in a gorgeous coat posturing before a tall mirror. The old conventional Fouche, Senator of the Empire, traitor to every man, to every principal and motive of human conduct. Duke of Otranto, and the wily artisan of the second Restoration, was trying the fit of a court suit in which his young and accomplished fiancee had declared her intention to have his portrait painted on porcelain… . that man, often compared to a fox, but whose ethical side could be worthily compared to nothing less emphatic than a skunk, was as much possessed by his love as General D’Hubert himself. 

A fox! A skunk! and D’Hubert has caught him preening. Our General is in this office to ask this ‘traitor to every man’, Minister of the Police, to spare the life of his mortal rival, a rabid and unfortunately vocal Bonapartist who assisted the emperor during his Hundred Days return from exile. 

But then that strange thing happens. Conrad, so grandiloquent in disparaging the man’s perfidy, exhausts himself. He writes up a monster of complexity, a man whose moral ambiguity is anathema to the honor of D’Hubert, that same honor being both lampooned and celebrated by the book. He builds a man of politics, a man seen to be quite literally duplicitous, in a mirror, and he gilds him. Even more complex, Fouche is embarrassed at being seen to be vain, or rather, would not be seen to be embarrassed, and so continues with his display of vanity before the mirror, leaving D’Hubert “ill at ease, as if one of his own little weaknesses had been exposed”. The mounting complexity of this, a scene where Fouche, a creature of moral ambiguity, embarrasses the paragon of rectitude who was until now one of the book’s primary objects of compassionate ridicule grows too much for Conrad and his characters both, and so collapses under its own weight. What’s more, it does not collapse to the book’s previous quietly mirthful voice, full of curlicues and measured breaths. It falls farther. It falls to a still moment of observation. It cannot bear the sight of this too-honest skunk, and so Conrad hides him, swathes him in shadow. 

"Yes, General," he said, walking away into the dark part of the vast room, and throwing himself into a deep armchair that all but swallowed him up, all but the soft gleam of embroideries and the pallid patch of face—"yes, General. Take this chair here."

And they talk. Conrad struggles with himself. Fouche, like our Author, is a voice out of the dark. He alone mentions what the book has always been about: politics rather than honor, history rather than nostalgia. And he points out to Conrad and to us why the book has been so pleasant and why it must inevitably, later, give way to Conrad’s masterpieces. Conrad has endeavored to make these men unique. But in battles, in history, for all their ferocity, they are grist. Conrad names him “cynical” and an “arch-master in the arts of intrigue and betrayal” but leaves (gives) the man his voice. And the entire work, rising away on both sides from this dark corner, is stilled by it.

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  1. towirr posted this