One Perfect Sentence #4
by Nicholas Rombes
From Under Western Eyes, by Joseph Conrad, 1911:
Razumov looked slowly all round the walls as if to select a spot to dash his head against.
Conrad’s “Russian novel” is narrated by an unnamed English professor of languages who has translated and is recounting what he discovered in the private journal of a student at St. Petersburg named Rasumov. The journal isn’t a journal exactly, but rather “something in the nature of a journal, a diary, yet not exactly that in its actual form.” Throughout the novel, the narrator openly muses and sometimes laments his task: how to get at the truth only obliquely conveyed in Razumov’s diary? The truth, he decides, is not as important as “the rendering . . . of the moral conditions” which cannot be discovered in the mere “limits of a story.”
And so: Rasumov, having sheltered the idealistic, revolutionary assassin Victor Haldin, is wracked by guilt, fear, and paranoia. When, after finally betraying Haldin, Rasumov receives a letter summoning him to the police, he believes that he is done for, that he will be punished for being a fellow revolutionary, which he is not.
The summons arrives, and: “Razumov looked slowly all round the walls as if to select a spot to dash his head against.” It’s seems like such a bold, direct sentence, and yet there’s that as if. “As if to select . . .” The whole of the novel–the whole of Conrad’s work maybe–was always about how the process of getting to the truth is more fascinating than the banal facts of truth itself. All stories exist within the frames of their telling, and in turn these frames are also in frames, and so on. The narrator’s rendering of how he thinks Razumov must have felt upon receiving the letter (desperate enough to consider dashing his head against a wall) is, for us, as real as if Razumov had actually written those words in his journal.
I first read Under Western Eyes as a graduate student in English at Penn State University in a terrible seminar called simply “Woolf and Conrad,” the point of which, it turned out, was to demonstrate the true narrative genius of Conrad against the shallow stream-of-consciousness gimmickry of Woolf.
This backfired. The seminar rebelled and devolved into something bitter (a young woman with red hair named Sarah even brought to class a period arrow from a Renaissance Fair that was happening on campus and wielded it as a weapon during a heated exchange) but with a silver lining, for in defending our positions so passionately the novels became real battlegrounds for us.
I recently came across the packed away books from that class and re-read Under Western Eyes and fell under its spell it a way I couldn’t back in grad school. “Razumov looked slowly all round the walls as if to select a spot to dash his head against” is the fissure through which I fell back into this novel and into bliss. I think of Sarah now in that moment in the sun in that seminar room with its enormous pocked oak table and leaded glass windows and she there clutching her wooden arrow, standing, her arm raised, ready to break the frame.
About the Author:
Nicholas Rombes is author of the novel The Absolution of Robert Acestes Laing (Two Dollar Radio), Ramones, from the 33 1/3 series (Bloomsbury) and Cinema in the Digital Age (Columbia UP). His film The Removals was released in 2016. Rombes is a columnist and contributing editor at Filmmaker Magazine, and teaches in Detroit, Michigan.
Each week Rombes will comment on a “perfect” sentence from a novel or short story he’s reading. He encourages you to submit your perfect sentence and comment via Twitter @Requiem102.