Conrad and His Victory
Conrad said that he tried to grasp at more "life stuff" in Victory than in anything he had yet written. Is it not reasonable to suppose that his own "life stuff" furnished much of the content of this, his last great novel?
The circumstances of Conrad's birth destined him to sadness. His parents, a pair of dedicated Polish patriots, were condemned to exile by the Russians when Joseph was five. The rigors of prison life killed his mother three years later. At the age of twelve, Conrad lost his father and the gifted boy was left to relatives who reared and educated him.
Doubly orphaned by Russian cruelty, Conrad was marked in his youth by that grief and melancholy which permeates all his writings. Conrad was, himself, a withdrawn person who masked his aloofness under a courteous exterior. His novel, Victory, more than any of his other writings, revealed his own self knowledge and regret for those circumstances of his life which fostered detachment.
His romantic nature and perception of beauty fitted him for warmth and close human relationship, but the paralyzing hand of mistrust had touched him early and withered a vital and delicate element within him. He did not marry until he was almost forty. He promised the parents of his bride, Jessie, that she would never have children. Nature, however, to Jessie's great satisfaction, took a hand in Conrad's affairs and two sons were born to them.
Children have seldom appeared in Conrad's writings, and in spite of skill in craftsmanship and the esthetic beauty of his work, it has suffered by the omission.
In the character of Axel Heyst, Conrad has shown his own regret over his lack of capacity for normal and deeply affectionate attachment. Perhaps the author's chief purpose was to warn all people that the ability to love is the essence of life. From such "life stuff' Conrad produced Victory.
Conrad wrote Victory between October 1912 and May 1914. It was published just after the outbreak of World War I. For a time, Conrad hesitated to call the book Victory because, as he said, the title "appeared too great, too august, to stand at the head of a mere novel." Yet so intricately was the title interwoven into the fabric of the book that Conrad could not bring himself to change it. Thanks to the success of Chance, Conrad's agent was able to sell serial rights on Victory for a thousand pounds with an advance of eight-hundred-fifty pounds on the book rights.
Victory contained more concentrated symbolism than any of his previous work, and critics have regarded Axel Heyst as the most complex of all Conrad's characters. He was fond of the book, and on the only occasion when he read aloud from his own work in public, he chose to read the chapter describing Lena's death.
In his Author's Note, Conrad explained that he drew his characters from real life. Heyst was, in truth, a mysterious Swede whose identity Conrad has concealed. Gentleman Jones he met in a hotel on the island of St. Thomas in the West Indies. Conrad discovered Ricardo among the passengers on a schooner in the Gulf of Mexico. Pedro Conrad encountered in a roadside shack where he went to ask for a bottle of lemonade. In haste to escape the creature's bestial ferocity, Conrad escaped through the nearest exit — the wall. Lena was a member of a band of musicians playing at a small cafe in the south of France, and the conductor of that orchestra became the Zangiacomo of Victory. Schomberg was a real hotelkeeper in Bangkok. From such wide geographical points and varied adventures, Conrad assembled the cast of characters for this book, his thirty-sixth work of fiction and his last great novel.
Victory was written at the height of Conrad's powers as a novelist. His skill in suggesting more than is written was fully employed, and also that elusive element which has always caused Conrad's readers to suspect that Conrad was as puzzled by his characters as they.