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Reviews of A set of six (1908/09) by Anonymous and William Morton Payne

Review of A set of six

from The spectator, The Athenæum, The dial (1908/09)

by Anonymous and William Morton Payne

from The Spectator, Vol. CI (1908-aug-15), p. 237



This collection of six stories must be regarded as an interim dividend on Mr. Conrad's genius. It is right good Conrad, but it is not very fresh Conrad. One point interests us particularly, and that is the way in which Mr. Conrad's mind has evidently been revolving Anarchism and the working of all subterranean brotherhoods. Invisible human machinery was the theme in The Secret Agent, and in two stories in this volume--"The Informer" and "An Anarchist"--Mr. Conrad returns to it. But, intentionally no doubt, he has left the motive power of Anarchism alone; the mere machinery, as we have just called it, with all its personal intriguing and scheming, is what has caught his interest. The most terrific politics in life presents itself to him as above all petty and sordid; and though the pettiness alongside the gigantic agencies employed may appear a paradox at first sight, we are sure that it is really the truth. All human organizations which work underground are mentally defective and intellectually sordid by consequence. But may not Mr. Conrad delve deeper in this subject? Anarchism, of course, is too anarchic, if we may put it so, to yield typical characters or even a manageable philosophy; yet the psychology of it, as the cant term is, may engage Mr. Conrad's brain if his attention does not wander elsewhere. The following passage give a clue to the direction of his thought:--

  "But indeed, I don't understand anarchists. Does a man of that--of that--persuasion still remain an anarchist when alone, quite alone and going to bed, for instance? Does he lay his head on the pillow, pull his bedclothes over him, and go to sleep with the necessity of the chambardement général, as the French slang has it, of the general blow-up, always present to his mind? And if so, how can he? I am sure that if such a faith (or such a fanaticism) once mastered my thoughts I would never be able to compose myself sufficiently to sleep or eat or perform any of the routine acts of daily life."

  The scene of the first story, "Gaspar Ruiz," is the downfall of Spanish power in Peru, and the narrative is a study of gigantic physical strength in a man, allied with an unusual docility. The story is of endless peril and of great ideals, mingled with hopeless offences against humanity; it is a true setting for motives which are intensely human, and not (as most writers would have made them) conventionally heroic--heroic in virtue as well as heroic in atrocity. Gaspar Ruiz, the strong man, is a "deserter" from the Republicans simply because he was lassoed and led captive into the Royalist camp. Once in the Royalist army he fires off his musket mechanically at his old friends because he dares not do otherwise, though he dislikes his job. When he is recaptured by the Republicans he is tortured and condemned to death. Escaping death by a miracle of good fortune he rejoins the Royalists and becomes, like Attila, a "scourge" to the Republican territory. His tempestuous recklessness, which might have been attributed to bitterness and rancorous memories, is, by a beautiful example of Mr. Conrad's skill, not made inconsistent with his elephantine docility, as it is implicitly set forth as a kind of higher power of docility to a woman's will. Although this is a finely subtle reading of a man's heart and character which scarcely any one but Mr. Conrad could have written. The second story, "The Informer," is described as "an ironic tale." In this we find a certain confusion of method. How difficult a thing is irony to handle! If only rules were a safe enough guide we should not catch an artist like Mr. Conrad transgressing them. But even an artist may "escape his own notice" in this matter and fail without knowing it. Irony is like tact. Only the looker-on can judge it. We have already given a quotation from this story, and it is clearly a reflection which is perfectly serious in substance. After once using that key, Mr. Conrad cannot transpose his story into another--which is the ironic key--without unsettling the whole attitude of his reader. In this respect we happen to have an exact point of comparison with another writer, as Stevenson did give us an artistically sustained piece of irony in The Dynamiter. In "The Brute," Mr. Conrad may well trap the reader, like one of the characters in story, into believing, a first, that he is reading the murderous record of a desperately bad woman's life. Really it is all the description of a ship which could never do right,--such is the anthropomorphic habit with which experienced men of the sea think of their ships. The fourth story, to which we have already referred, is called "An Anarchist." The fifth, "The Duel," is a highly ingenious rendering of the French legend of the two officers who fought one another again and again on the duelling-field whenever there was a lull in the tremendous operations of Napoleon's grand army. The reader's sense of the implacability of the fearless but capricious butcher who challenges his enemy without remission and without remorse grows, as it should, unchecked to the culmination of the duel in the wood, which is the most thrilling piece of writing in the book. Incidentally we may remark that Mr. Conrad's handling of the rumours which make each duel in its turn necessary on "a point of honour" happens really to be a better achievement in irony than the tale which is purposely labelled "ironic." The last story is a mere sketch (called "pathetic," but verging, as pathos so often does, on the humorous) introducing as a motif the idea of "See Naples and die." The respectable principal character, who has the misfortune to fall foul of a Neapolitan apache, has to flee Naples in order not to die. We venture to make positively only one suggestion as to how Mr. Conrad might increase the reality of his delicate and particular explorations into character, and that is that he might often put into narrative what he actually puts into dialogue. There is frequently no reason that we can discover for the choice of dialogue as his vehicle, and the manner certainly is less well suited to it than to narrative.

* A Set of Six. By Joseph Conrad. London : Methuen and Co. [6s.]


from The Athenæum No. 4218 (1908-aug-29), p. 237


A Set of Six. By Joseph Conrad. (Methuen.)--Now that Mr. Meredith and Mr. Hardy no longer produce novels, it is probable that no other writer gives so much pleasure as Mr. Conrad to those who appreciate fine craftsmanship in fiction. His mastery of English prose is remarkable, and every page he writes has real distinction. The six tales gathered here, romantic, ironic, indignant, desperate, military, and pathetic--to adopt the author's adjectives--have most of them, or possibly all of them, been published in magazines; but Mr. Conrad is not the kind of author whose one is content to meet only in fugitive form; it is too studiously chiselled and hammered-out for that; it is to be read and re-read. Upon the whole, we do not think that the short story represents Mr. Conrad's true métier. He is in this matter rather a law unto himself. His work is pungent, but not terse; severely concentrated, yet too analytic to be remarkable for its brevity. Its vividness is due to a steady, cumulative effect rather than a series of flashes. With a few exceptions, such as, perhaps, "Il Conde," the last story in this "set," Mr. Conrad's shorter tales are as much novels as his longer books. His is not at all the impressionistic method. His effects are studiously wrought, although--such is his mastery of literary art--they produce a swift and penetrating impression. The one ship story her, "The Brute," makes us regret that he does not give us more of the sea in his work. The long military tale, which reminds one strongly of Tourguénieff, is full of the deftest characterization. The whimsical pathos of the concluding story leaves us ready to express gratitude for any theme Mr. Conrad may choose, either of land or sea, since its delicate workmanship is a sufficient guarantee that he will never betray our confidence by the writing of unworthy stuff.


"Recent fiction" by William Morton Payne
from The Dial V. XLVI (1909-apr-16), p. 263


  Mr. Conrad works upon a small canvas in "The Point of Honor," and the product more than justifies the self-imposed limitation. His longer books are often hard to read because of their diffuseness and over-indulgence in analysis, but this one offers no such impediment to the reader's sustained satisfaction. It is a tale of the Napoleonic wars, which, however, form only a background for the single personal relation which is the substance of the narrative. Two minor French officers get into a quarrel over a trivial matter, and a duel results. During the following years, their paths diverge and come together many times, and each time of renewed contact sees a renewal of the quarrel, and another duel. They advance in grade and become generals, then, after the Restoration, they live on as grizzled veterans, and still the feud persists. It has become a tradition in military circles, although no one seems to know the fons et origo of this animosity. The original quarrel, forced by a hot-headed and envious soldier upon his generous rival, is kept alive by the unreasonable attitude of the former, and the latter, despite his abhorrence of the situation, finds a point of honor is accepting the challenges that come from year to year. In their last duel, however, the challenger is at his rival's mercy, and his life is forfeit according to the code. He is spared under these humiliating conditions, and for the rest of his life can do nothing more serious than vent his spleen by grumbling. Meanwhile, as a disgraced Bonapartist, he is in sore straits, but his rival finds a way of supporting him without his suspecting the source of supply. The story is crisply told, with much acute comment and humorous observation. It is in reality a grave comedy of cross-purposes keyed to a certain moderate pitch of dramatic intensity which is hardly changed from beginning to end.


(Prepared by Andrea Davies)