If I believed in an active Providence,” Razumov said to himself, amused grimly, “I would see here the working of an ironical finger. To have a Julius Laspara put in my way as if expressly to remind me of my purpose is— Write, he had said. I must write—I must, indeed! I shall write—never fear. Certainly. That’s why I am here. And for the future I shall have something to write about.”Conrad's work in general, and Under Western Eyes in particular, is a fine specimen of what Deleuze called "minor literature": a work written in a major language by someone who is in some way other to it, and thus in a sense estranges it from itself. The occasional Slavic traces left in Conrad's prose by his convoluted biography--one character, for instance, is referred to as "caressingly, Natalia," which is simply a way of denoting the diminutive--are not imperfections. Especially here, they are weapons of a sort, and they work together with Conrad's meta-reflections and interpolated narratives to produce what is in essence an indictment. Everywhere, the reader is reminded that she is not taking in a neutral text, a dispassionately presented account of events: the lenses through which the narrative is seen have a well-defined and explicit tint.
He was exciting himself by this mental soliloquy. But the idea of writing evoked the thought of a place to write in, of shelter, of privacy, and naturally of his lodgings, mingled with a distaste for the necessary exertion of getting there, with a mistrust as of some hostile influence awaiting him within those odious four walls. ...
He went back heavily to a garden seat, dropped into it. This was the place for making a beginning of that writing which had to be done. The materials he had on him. “I shall always come here,” he said to himself, and afterwards sat for quite a long time motionless, without thought and sight and hearing, almost without life. He sat long enough for the declining sun to dip behind the roofs of the town at his back, and throw the shadow of the houses on the lake front over the islet, before he pulled out of his pocket a fountain pen, opened a small notebook on his knee, and began to write quickly, raising his eyes now and then at the connecting arm of the bridge. These glances were needless; the people crossing over in the distance seemed unwilling even to look at the islet where the exiled effigy of the author of the Social Contract sat enthroned above the bowed head of Razumov in the sombre immobility of bronze. After finishing his scribbling, Razumov, with a sort of feverish haste, put away the pen, then rammed the notebook into his pocket, first tearing out the written pages with an almost convulsive brusqueness. But the folding of the flimsy batch on his knee was executed with thoughtful nicety. That done, he leaned back in his seat and remained motionless, the papers holding in his left hand. The twilight had deepened. He got up and began to pace to and fro slowly under the trees.
- Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes
In a long and sympathetic discussion of Conrad, H. L. Mencken said of Under Western Eyes:
Here ... we also have an amazingly meticulous and illuminating study of the Russian character, with all its confused mingling of Western realism and Oriental fogginess, its crazy tendency to go shooting off into the spaces of an incomprehensible metaphysic, 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.But is it really? Mencken's insistence on seeing "the Russian character" here is precisely the tendency that Conrad militates against. The very name of the book is one indication: the narrator is a Westerner, and it is through his eyes that we see the events in Russia unfold. "What's going on with us is of no importance," the protagonist sneers, "a mere sensational story to amuse the readers of the papers - the superior contemptuous readers of Europe." The delusion of Mencken and nearly every commentator on the "mysterious Russian soul" is that they're getting the Russian "world apart" straight from the horse's mouth--like a travelogue from an exotic country that only confirms the prejudices of the audience.
Writing, for Conrad, is never an act that simply reveals the world. The act of writing and the act of reading both create a kind of complicity: by accepting what she reads, the reader willingly or unwillingly colludes in the writer's generalized deception. Even the plot of the novel describes this same arc. The protagonist, Razumov, has committed an act of betrayal against a revolutionary comrade; he escapes to Switzerland, where everyone knows of him only through his comrade's old effusive letters--and so he can survive only by exploiting the gap between word and world. So the Russia that emerges from the pen of the narrator (a Western tutor of foreign languages) is a Russia already contaminated by ideology. And the Russian characters themselves cannot escape this process: they do not write as Russians, but as the actors of an ideological drama.
It is for this reason that the "Russian character" is actually a void. The only character here that fits Mencken's ideological image of the Russian soul is Razumov himself. But Razumov only exists through writing; note the clever twist involved in sitting down to write in front of the statue of the archetypal writer of confesssions. Razumov creates and develops his subjectivity when he writes--a diary, a political creed, a confession, a police report--and all we know of him, we know through his written work. The mysteriousness, the exhilirating contradictions, of his Russian soul are thus nothing more than the delusive product of the fundamental lie of writing. There's no there there.