Conrad, Bennett, James et al.

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/January, 1912

THE real objection to melodrama, when everything has been said, is not that its effects are too staggering but that its causes are too puny. The melodramatist, for all his exuberance of fancy, seldom shows us a downright impossible act; what he does constantly show us is an inadequate and in consequence a logically impossible motive.

Basil Montmorency, the tall, saturnine gentleman in the elegant dress suit with the shiny patent leather shoes and the cushions of gray above his ears— Basil Montmorency, that exquisite, that accursed fellow, binds the shrieking Lottie Sweeney to the rails, with the Cannon Ball Express bearing down at ninety miles an hour. Why? The melodramatist offers two reasons, the first being that Basil is Satan plus Don Juan, and the second being that Lottie has resisted his morganatic advances. We laugh thereat—laugh because our eyes reveal to us that Basil is far more the floorwalker, the head barber, the Knight of Pythias than the Satan or Don Juan—laugh because our experience of life teaches us that men do not bind women to railroad tracks for any such silly reason.

But women are undoubtedly done to death in that way—not every day, perhaps, but now and then. Men bind them, trains run over them; newspapers discuss the crime, the pursuit of the felon, the ensuing jousting of the juris consults. Why, then, do men bind them? The true answer, when it is forthcoming at all, is always much more complex than the melodramatist’s answer. It may be so enormously complex, indeed, as to transcend all the normal laws of cause and effect—an answer made up largely, or even wholly, of the fantastic, the astounding, the unearthly reasons of lunacy. And that is the chief, if not the only difference between melodrama and reality. The events, the effects of the two may be, and often are identical. It is only in their underlying causes that they are dissimilar and incommensurate.

By all of which it appears that the selfsame incident or series of incidents in a work of fiction may bear either one of two diametrically opposite aspects. If it is properly prepared for and accounted for, if it comes at the end of a chain of connected and comprehensible though perhaps amazing and unprecedented causes, then it has reality in it and be longs of a right in any serious study of man and his ways. But if it is unprepared and unaccountable, a bolt from the psychological blue, an incident in vacuo, then it misses reality altogether and is fit only for melodrama.

Here you have, in brief, the point of distinction between the great stories of Joseph Conrad, a supreme artist in fiction, and the trashy best sellers of the literary artisans. Conrad, like the artisans, has a liking for the spectacular, the nerve-racking event. His tales are full of assaults, batteries, assassinations. He takes us through shipwrecks, revolutions, anarchist plottings, uproars of all imaginable sorts. But always his events have elaborate and plausible causes behind them—always he tries to show us, not only the thing done, but also the why of it and the wherefore. His “Nostromo,” in its externals, is merely a tale of South American turmoil, and not unrelated to “Soldiers of Fortune.” But what great differences between the methods, the points of view, the psychological materials of the two stories! Davis is content to show us the overt act; Conrad goes behind it for the motive, the process of mind. The one achieves an agreeable romance, and an agreeable romance only; the other achieves an extraordinarily incisive study of the Latin-American temperament—a study of the ideals and passions which lead presumably sane men to pursue each other like wolves, and of the reaction of that incessant pursuit upon the men themselves. I do not say that Conrad is always accurate. I do not know, in point of fact, whether he is or isn’t. But I do say that he is wholly convincing, that the men he sets into his scene hang together; that the explanations he offers for their acts are at least plausible; that the effects of those acts, upon actors and immediate spectators alike, are such as might be reasonably expected to follow; that the final impression is one of almost uncanny reality.

Such is his manner in all of his great stories. Sometimes, as in “The Point of Honor” and “The End of the Tether,” his chief concern is with the obscure genesis, in human emotion or ideation, of an extraordinary event; at other times, as in “Typhoon” and “Youth,” his main endeavor is to determine the effect of such an event upon the mind and soul of man; at still other times, as in “Almayer’s Folly” and “Lord Jim,” he makes his slow way from one event to another through a maze of mingled consequences and causes. But always it is the process of mind rather than the actual act that interests him; always he is trying to account for the thing visible to the eye; always he is trying to penetrate the actor’s mask and interpret the actor’s frenzy. That is what makes him a literary artist of the first calibre, whatever his occasional failings in mere craftsmanship. And that is what gives importance and distinction and high quality to the latest of his books, “Under Western Eyes” (Harpers), for all its irritating ritardandos, its circumlocutions, its infelicities of phrase. Conrad, though he writes in English, is a Pole. I have been told that he knew no English until he was at the end of his ‘teens; that when he came to write he was a long time deciding between English, French and some third language, probably Polish or Russian. The result of his multilingual thinking is often visible in his prose. He fishes patiently, laboriously for the right phrase; it may be, when he finds it, a French phrase or a Polish phrase, clumsy when done into English. And his whole manner is extraordinarily deliberate; he hangs over an idea until he has made it plain, however slight its relative importance, however damaging the delay to the dramatic rhythm of the narrative. But if you accept all this as a necessary concession to a great artist’s faults, if you take him as he stands, in finitely painstaking, infinitely analytical, you must grant him, in the end, the virtue of accomplishing something magnificent by all that assiduity. The first time I read “Lord Jim” it exasperated me, the second time it fascinated me, the third time it staggered me. It is, in a sense, unique in English fiction. It is Dumas and Stevenson raised to the dignity of Athenian tragedy.

“Under Western Eyes” lacks something of that fine perfection. It suffers, to begin with, from the general defect of being less interesting than “Lord Jim.” Its events are less goldenly romantic, less heroic; its personages, despite a plentiful picturesqueness, have none of the barbaric exaltation and glamour of Jim himself, of Dain Waris, Doramin, Tamb’ Itam and the Rajah Allang, of Stein, Cornelius and Cornelius’s Jewel. Moreover, its central situation comes perilously near to banality. Even in the best sellers the hero who finds his true love among the womenfolk of his enemy has long gone stale. But with all of these demerits vividly in mind, the story yet produces an effect of powerful drama, of undoubted actuality. It is the general effect rather than the special effect, the background rather than the incident, that enlists Conrad’s attention. He is trying to set before us, not so much the story of one man as a study of the Russian national character, with all its queer, mingling of Western astuteness and Oriental fogginess, its crazy tendency to go shooting off into the interstellar spaces of an incomprehensible mysticism, its general transcendence of all that we Celts and Saxons and Latins hold to be true of human motive and human act. Russia is a world apart: that is the sum and substance of the tale. “It is unthinkable”—I quote from Page 24—“that any young Englishman (or American, or Dane, or Spaniard, for that matter) should find himself in Razumov’s situation. . . . He would not think as Razumov thought at this crisis of his fate. . . . By an act of mental extravagance he might imagine himself arbitrarily thrown into prison; but it would never occur to him, unless he were delirious (and perhaps not even then) that he could be beaten with whips as a practical measure either of investigation or of punishment.”

This Razumov, then, is a young Russian, a student at the University of St. Petersburg; a pushing, hard reading, ambitious fellow; the illegitimate and unacknowledged son of a great personage. He is too busy to have much concern with the Utopia making of his fellows; he knows vaguely what they are about and he is polite to them, but no definite group, whether of action or of mere fustian, has him on its roll. His dream is of some safe professorship and the fame of a pundit. His secret sympathy is with the existing order, as becomes a man of good blood. Into the room of this rather colorless young man there bursts one evening a disheveled brother student, Victor Victorovitch Haldin by name, with a startling appeal for help. M. de P—, the Minister President, chief recruiting office for Siberia and the gallows, has been done to death on the street. “It was I,” says Haldin deliberately, proudly, “who removed De P—.” But why come to Razumov? Why ask help of the one man least likely to give it with enthusiasm? “Because,” says Haldin, “you are the last that could be suspected—should I get caught. . . . And it occurred to me that you—you have no one belonging to you—no ties, no one to suffer if this came out. . . . There have been enough ruined Russian homes as it is.”

So the problem faces poor Razumov—to save Haldin, or to betray him? He decides, weakly dubious, upon the first course. There is a drunken sledge driver, one Ziemianitch, to be sought out and instructed. Ziemianitch is to wait for Haldin at a certain street corner, half an hour after midnight. Razumov starts out to find the fellow: Ziemianitch is dead drunk, resistant to blows and bawling. Razumov wanders about the streets, half crazed with doubts and dreads. On the one hand, there is his chivalrous duty to Haldin, the only human being in all the world who has ever put trust in him; on the other hand there is that mirage of a professorship and a long life of ease, and a chance, perhaps, to do a real service to Russia. He is won over, in the end, by the professorship. He goes to Prince K—, boldly asserting, though not in words, the tie of blood; and he and Prince K— go to General T—, a magnifico above and beyond all mere police. Then he returns to his room and tells the waiting Haldin that Ziemianitch will be in readiness. Haldin, at midnight, slinks out into the bitter cold. . . . Four days later he is hanged.

And now we plunge headlong into the dark depths of the Russian character. Razumov has done something for God and the Czar, but the reward of such services, in Russia, is not the frank one of the West. General T—, inscrutable behind his beard, mingles ever so discreet questions with his spoken thanks. Councilor Mikulin, a famous searcher of hearts, a master of delicate cross-examinations, is called upon to help. Why did Haldin go to Razumov’s room? On what pretext did Razumov induce him to stay there three hours? Razumov has said nothing about the visit to Ziemianitch, nothing about his uncertainty; his story makes him a betrayer from beginning to end. But the eternal suspiciousness of the men in uniform, if it does not actually penetrate that deception, at least comes close to it, jostles it, marks out its outlines. The test, finally, is put to poor Razumov. He is offered the greatest of all payment for his night’s work—a chance to serve the Czar again. The old comrades of Haldin know only that he sheltered the fugitive; the betrayal is laid at other doors. The ideal man for police work of the highest sort! The ideal man to “flee” from Russia, closely “pursued” by Mikulin’s men—to invade Geneva and the colony of exiles there, and send back news by way of a safe agent in Vienna!

And so the end approaches. Razumov, cornered, is forced to accept the commission, with all its torturing difficulties and shames. In Geneva are Haldin’s mother and sister, tragic figures in that parliament of frauds and fools. Around them revolve the “thinkers “ and “leaders” of the revolution—writers for obscure, forbidden newspapers, planners of diableries for lesser spirits to carry out, attitudinizers and platitudinarians—ten charlatans to one honest man. Razumov, thrown into this rabble, turns to the brave and sorrowing Nathalie quite naturally, and is in love with her before he knows it—but let us stay our snickers! It is not because he falls in love with Nathalie that he makes his staggering confession—not primarily, at any rate. One somehow feels that. The confession was foreordained, Nathalie or no Nathalie, as the logical climax of the emotional hurricane through which he has passed. His life has gone to pieces; his dream of a sedate professorship, of an old age full of ease and honor, is done; henceforth he is to be the slave of Mikulin; for his lamented service to the Czar he must bear forever his share of the heavy burden of the Czar. So there is no true surprise, at the end, when he stalks into the meeting of maniacs and mountebanks and there invites destruction. Nor is there any surprise when that destruction takes a fantastic and horrible, an essentially Russian form—Nikita, the “police killer,” springing forward like a tiger, Razumov’s head in his hairy hands, Razumov’s eardrums broken, his legs yanked out of joint by main strength, his senseless form thrown out into the street, for a streetcar crew to blunder upon in the gray dawn—and Nikita cackling over the business: “He’ll never be any use for a spy to any one! . . . I have burst the drums of his ears. Oh, you may trust me! I know the trick. He, he, he! I know the trick!”

If you know Conrad, you also know, of course, that all this is not the story of “Under Western Eyes,” but only the gross framework of that story. The real concern of the author is with the genesis and conflict of ideas in the mind of Razumov. What he is always trying to make clear is that Razumov is essentially a Russian, that his ideation follows routes unfamiliar, and often almost impassable, to the man of the West. The thing, in brief, is a study in national or rather in racial psychology. Its aim is to give us more or less clearly a notion of the processes of thought which eventuate in the astounding Russian act—the elaborately planned, artistically perfect, wholly savage assassination; the piling up of spy upon spy, of spy upon the spy of spy; the childlike following of false and motley leaders; the sudden appearance of the Tartar chieftain, fresh from the steppes, in the frock coat of the bespectacled doctor of philosophy. The characters of the tale, for all their bizarrerie, never lose plausibility. Razumov’s slow progress, through doubt and terror, to what must be accepted, perhaps, as actual insanity, has the convincing flow of an equation. And the impostors at Geneva, conscious and unconscious, are sketched with almost Molieresque brilliancy. It is not, to be sure, Conrad at his greatest; as I have said, “Lord Jim” is a far more arresting piece of work. But it is certainly Conrad at a level of achievement which not many other men of the day ever reach. If by any chance you don’t know this extraordinary Pole, now is the time to subscribe. “Under Western Eyes” represents him fairly enough. Along with “Nostromo,” “The Secret Agent,” and his own share of “Romance,” it may stand for the average Conrad, the Conradic mean. Above and beyond tower the heights—“Youth,” “Heart of Darkness,” “Typhoon,” “The End of the Tether,” “Falk” and “Lord Jim”—a series shaming all praise. If I had to choose four stories of Conrad and let all the rest go, I should choose “Youth,” “Heart of Darkness,” “Typhoon” and “Falk.” If I had to choose four stories among all written in English since 1888 and let the rest go, “Youth “ and “ Falk” would be two of them.

“Hilda Lessways,” by Arnold Bennett (Dutton), is our old friend, the sequel (Dost remember, young grandma, the sequels to “The Duchess” and “Dora Thorne”?) in an unprecedented form. Hilda, as you know, flits dimly and tantalizingly through the pages of “Clayhanger”—through all the pages, that is, after page 230, on which Charlie Orgreave, alias The Sunday, lowers his voice “to a scarce audible, confidential whisper” and tells Edwin Clayhanger that a fine girl is staying at the Orgreave home. “Who is she?” asks Edwin. “Hilda Lessways her name is,” says Charlie. “I don’t know much of her myself.” And the reader of “Clayhanger,” when the tale is done, knows little more. He sees Hilda and Edwin fall in love; he sees them plight their troth; he sees them locked in each other’s arms in Edwin’s stuffy office—but then Hilda is suddenly called from the Five Towns to Brighton, and there as suddenly marries her incredible Mr. Cannon, and straightway disappears from the chronicle. Even when she returns, years later, and Edwin succumbs to her again and she tells of Cannon’s bigamy, we learn but little about her. We never learn who she is. We never learn why she married Cannon. She remains to the end an apparition rather than a person. She is always mysterious, even a bit sinister. Well, in “Hilda Lessways” some of her mystery is blown away. Some—but not all. We hear a lot about her early life; we see her meeting with Cannon; we behold her running away with him and then swiftly lamenting it; we see her make the appalling discovery, three days after confessing her love for Edwin Clayhanger, that she is about to become the mother of Cannon’s child, and we learn the manner of her introduction to boardinghouse keeping at Brighton—but there the revelation ceases. “Clayhanger” goes on for years further—in fact, down to the reunion of Hilda and Edwin. How was the unspeakable Cannon landed in jail? What events accompanied and followed the birth of his and Hilda’s son? What were Hilda’s adventures as landlady? What the actual manner of her release from Cannon? These events are postponed for yet a space. We shall be among them, perhaps, in the third volume of the trilogy.

If you have not read “Clayhanger,” you will probably find “Hilda Lessways” a bit puzzling; but if you have—and who hasn’t?—you will hang to it to the end, if only to see the familiar transactions of the earlier book through Hilda’s eyes. The idea of so presenting them, so far as I know, is original with Mr. Bennett. The world is filled with sequels, but such a parallel sequel is a novelty. Imagine “ Henry Esmond” re told as “Madame Beatrix”! Imagine that marvelous procession of wits and lovely ladies seen anew, as its loveliest lady saw it! Imagine a Penelopiad following the Odyssey, a “Torvald Helmer” following “A Doll’s House,” a “Jim” following “Huckleberry Finn”! That is what we have here, and the experiment was plainly worth the sweating and the ink; but I am bound to say that “Hilda Lessways,” otherwise considered, is not a work to detain us long. In it, indeed, the inconsequentiality of Bennett often becomes painfully evident. Perhaps “triviality” would be a better word—or “superficiality.” It is not so much that his scenes lack form and sequence as that they lack importance. And that lack of importance lies, not so much in his characters themselves—for every human being, in one way or another, is important enough for fiction—as in his discussion of those characters. In brief, Bennett is always stupendous as a reporter, but often unconvincing as an interpreter—and it is precisely by his skill as an interpreter that a serious novelist must be estimated. A novel, be it remembered, is a good deal more than a piece of reporting. Its aim is not merely to tell a story, but also to expound that story; not merely to describe human acts, but also to explore the motives behind those acts. The trouble with Bennett, as I see it, is that he falls short in that department. As a reporter he is beyond all praise, but as an interpreter of character he too often wobbles between the obvious and the incredible.

Far be it from me, of course, to raise quibbles against this enormously talented and entertaining Englishman, who is having today, for sound enough merit, his glorious day in court. When all that can be said in dispraise of him has been said, the indubitable fact remains that “The Old Wives’ Tale,” in more than one place, shows superlatively excellent writing, as does “Clayhanger,” too, not to mention “Whom God Hath Joined,” the best, in some ways, of all the Bennett books. For all I know, he may be trying to give us, not novels at all, but mere tales, mere volumes of reports, human documents in the rough; or, again, he may define the novel as the rest of us define the tale, denying it all save the most superficial interpretive function. But if he does not— if, on the contrary, he accepts the orthodox definition—then it may be said of him with justice that his novels, as novels, fall short of the levels reached by Conrad and Moore, Meredith and Hardy, or, to bring in a direct rival, H. G. Wells.

If you want to understand clearly how Bennett and Wells differ, you can do no better than study, not the novels, but the more openly expository tracts of the two men. Compare, for example, Bennett’s “How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day” with Wells’s “First and Last Things. “ The one reveals a philosophy which may be set down, without unfairness, as chiefly platitudinarian; the other discloses the alert, electric, searching philosophy of a man who has thought things out for himself, and who has brought to the thinking a mind stored with knowledge and swift and unfettered in its processes. The difference here visible is carried over into the imaginative work of the two men. “The History of Mr. Polly,” to take Wells at his lightest, is illumined, for all its mirth, by a perfectly serious purpose. That purpose is not merely to describe Mr. Polly but also to account for him, to show plausibly the causes underlying his stupidity and inefficiency, to study him as a common type of Englishman. But what purpose is there in Bennett’s “Denry the Audacious,” a book exactly similar to “Mr. Polly” in all its externals? I can find none at all. It is an amusing story, a clever story—but when that has been said, there is nothing more to say for it.

Henry James—good old Henry! Here he is with another of his fugues: “The Outcry” (Harpers), the tale of a belted earl who proposes to sell certain incomparable hand-painted oil paintings, heirlooms of his belted race, to Mr. Breckenridge Bender, an American art wolf, and thereby provokes, from the patriot gullets of his countrymen, the outcry aforesaid. The Jacobin syntax was never more complex, never more baroque. To find its like, in all the realm of artistic endeavor, you must go to that passage in “Ein Heldenleben” which ties twenty-four themes in a knot, or to the facades of Polish churches in mining towns. Don’t ask me to expound it, defend it! There would be a job for the Doctor Subtilissimus himself. But let me assure you meanwhile that “The Outcry,” for all the cruel cacophony of its style, is yet a story with curiously interesting people in it, and a number of incisive observations upon them, and with the wind of wit blowing through it from end to end.

Which recalls the fact that a Jacobin primer, presenting the Jacobin syntax in small doses for the use of those who shrink from the full draught, has lately appeared. It is called “The Henry James Year Book” (Badger), and the three hundred and sixty-five selections were made by Evelyn Garnaut Smalley, with the applause of William Dean Howells and of Mr. James himself. The book is very pretty; it has a fine portrait of Mr. James for frontispiece and is well printed and bound. Buy it and go through it. You may find in it perchance that fatal first drink which will fasten the habit upon you and send you eventually upon prolonged and glorious debauches of parts of speech.

(Source: Hathitrust.org, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?view=plaintext;size=100;id=njp.32101076380466;page=root;seq=177;num=153)

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