JOSEPH CONRAD – Victory: An Island Tale. Doubleday Page & Co., 1915. First Edition (shown immediately below). Reprinted many times, in both hardcover and soft.

joseph conrad vICTORY

   Men of a tormented conscience, or of a criminal imagination, are aware of much that minds of a peaceful, resigned cast do not even suspect. It is not poets alone who dare descend into the abyss of infernal regions, or even who dream of such of a descent. The most inexpressive of human beings must have said to himself, at one time or another: “Anything but this.”

   We all have our instants of clairvoyance. They are not very helpful. The character of the scheme does not permit that or anything else to be helpful. Properly speaking the character judged by the standards established by its victims, is infamous. It excuses every violence of protest and at the same time never fails to crush it, just as it crushes the blindest assent. The so-called wickedness must be, like the so called virtue, it’s own reward …

joseph conrad vICTORY

    Victory was the first of Conrad’s great works and his first popular success. It is also in many ways a crime novel that might well have come from Dashiell Hammett or out of Black Mask magazine.

   We tend to think of Conrad in terms of serious literature and forget that he wrote adventure stories (Lord Jim, The Arrow of Gold, and Nostromo), spy novels (The Secret Agent) political novels (Under Western Eyes), science fiction (The Inheritors with Ford Madox Ford), historical fiction (Romance again with Ford), and even domestic drama (Chance).

joseph conrad vICTORY

    Victory , set in the islands of the Malay Archipelago is the story of Axel Heyst, a mysterious and solitary Swede (“…Heyst, the wanderer of the Archipelago, had a taste for silence …”) who sets the actions of a tragedy in motion when he saves a young English woman from her predatory employer, the German hotelier Schomberg.

   Heyst retreats to his home on remote Samburan with the girl, and Schomberg’s wrath, is brought to a head by the arrival of the mysterious Mr. Jones, his “secretary,” the violent Martin Ricardo, and Pedro the brutish animal like Portuguese half cast alligator hunter from Columbia.

joseph conrad vICTORY

   It is to these three that Schomberg entrusts his mission of revenge against Heyst and the woman with rumors of the riches the mysterious Heyst is alleged to have hidden on his remote island.

   It’s hard to read the novel today without visions of The Maltese Falcon and Gasper Gutman. Joel, Cairo, and Wilbur. There are hints of something unwholesome and perverse between Jones and Ricardo, and a suggestion of crimes unspoken. “Wickedness for it’s own reward.”

   Jones is virtually the model for the suave educated villains we have seen in a thousand books and films, but with something both decadent and perverse in his genteel shabbiness. Ricardo, his violent nature barely repressed, is another familiar figure.

   When Jones and his team arrive on Samburan the events of the tragedy, the plots of the criminals and the personal drama between Heyst and the woman plunge toward a violent bloodbath (“… there are more dead in this affair — more white people, I mean — than have been killed in many of the battles of the last Achin war.”).

joseph conrad vICTORY

   Victory isn’t a thriller by any means, or a crime novel. It is dense and character driven, and by no means a quick or simple read, but it does present a fascinating portrait of evil and in Heyst and the woman he loves almost noirish prototypes.

   And yet though the fate of Heyst and the woman are tragic, the fact that they find love and finally come together makes the novels title true rather than ironic.

   Ultimately they triumph over both the villains and themselves. Their human triumph over the forces of crime and brutality is a victory.

   The 1940 John Cromwell film of Victory is not available on VHS or DVD, but should be. Frederic March and Betty Field play Heyst and the woman, and Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Jerome Cowan, and Sig Ruman Jones, Ricardo, and Schomberg. Hardwicke and Cowan are especially chilling. It was also filmed in 1919 and 1930 (as Dangerous Passage).