Books: a book that changed me

JULIAN RATHBONE on Conrad's 'Victory' 'Vanity Fair'
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The Independent Culture
When did you first read it? In 1956, at Cambridge. I had read a lot of Conrad in the previous six years, but not Victory.

Why did it strike you so much? The multi-layered, irony-laden narrative was already familiar and right from the first page I relished the way Marlow buttonholes you, and then plunges you into a wonderful realisation of Heyst's situation, past history, his self-sufficiency, self-containment. And then it's a love story, a real, copper-bottomed, no-messing love story about two people totally committed to each other in a relationship where sex (never explicit of course, but very much there) is a vehicle - a means of involvement, discovery, wonder, gratitude - all the things about love which writers, especially novelists, now seem to find embarrassing or at least feel they have to qualify.

What else? The bad guys - Mr Jones, Ricardo, Pedro. Well, one had met them before, under different aliases, as Mr Brown etc in Lord Jim, and knew they were bad news. The knockers criticise them for being stereotypes, but they stand up, you can walk round them: fairy-tale ogres maybe, but human embodiments too of greed, cruelty, lust, utter cynicism, all the things which destroy what is good, noble.

There is such a breadth of humanity from the despicable Schomberg, the feckless Morrison, inscrutable Wang, through to Lena and Heyst, the re- creation of those tropical seas and islands, and always that distancing irony which is finally broken like a window between the reader and the tragedy of it all. Finally, the way it asserts the prerogative of art and literature in particular, to show us things as they really are and guide us through the moral maze.

Do you recommend it or is it a private passion? As a good read, sure, but also as an antidote to the lack of moral certainty one finds almost everywhere, the acceptance of cynicism, manipulation, both in books and public life. Don't get me wrong - I'm very far indeed from being a puritan or a prude - the morality of Victory is a simple affair, the assertion that kindness in its widest sense is a possibility we must accept and live for. Maybe it didn't change me but it clarified what was already felt but not realised, made the way ahead, back in my very early twenties, that bit clearer.

Julian Rathbone's latest novel is 'The Last English King' published by Abacus at pounds 16.99.