Victory

I’d had the old Joseph Conrad novel Victory on my to-be-read shelf for more than a year. I had read it once before, years before, many years before apparently, but I barely remembered anything of the story or characters. All I could specifically recall was the description of a group of musicians who were “murdering the silence.” I liked that image, and it stuck with me. The only other thing I remembered from the novel was a reference to Black Diamond Bay. But those two references (and my period of youthful infatuation with Conrad novels) were enough to convince me that I truly had read it once before.

Some months ago I took the novel off the shelf and put it on my bedside table. I began reading it only to be interrupted by some Dostoyevsky demands (the reading group I’m in has taken on the gloomy Russians). So I could only move through Victory in small bits. But with my gloomier responsibilities temporarily addressed, I found sufficient free time to plow through Conrad.

And yet, I could be persuaded that I had never read this novel before. None of it was familiar. Okay, the missing revolver struck a chord. And the inscrutable Chinese man. But I didn’t remember the plot at all. Nor the gloomy characters. Nor the gloomy ending. (Winter gloom!)

Somewhere in an ancient journal I have no doubt written the date that I finished reading Victory the first time. (I keep a written record of every book I’ve read, and I’m sure someday someone will point to that list and be able to say “And this explains everything, your Honor!”) Yet if I didn’t have that list, I might not have believed I’d read the novel. I came to it nearly completely fresh and innocent.

It makes me wonder how many other novels I have read and totally forgotten. Can you even say you’ve read a novel if you don’t remember any of it? And further, how many times must you read a novel (a serious novel anyway) before you can claim to have really read it? I’ve been through Philip Roth’s novel The Ghostwriter at least twenty times, and yet the last time through I still found things I had never noticed before. I’ve asserted that you can’t really begin to understand good fiction until you’ve read a book at least twice. And if you’ve only read a work once, can you say that you’ve read it at all?

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