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Book Review: Victory: An Island Tale #12 In My Modern Library Classics Challenge


Victory: An Island Tale by Joseph Conrad

“The islands are very quiet. One sees them lying about, clothed in their dark garments of leaves, in a great hush of silver and azure, where the sea without murmurs meets the sky in a ring of magic stillness.”

― Joseph Conrad, Victory

The Book Review

Heart of Darkness is where most folks start their journey through Joseph Conrad’s books. I read it ages ago and remember being confused and unimpressed by it. This would have been after viewing Apocalypse Now, which was inspired by Conrad’s book, and when I was likely in my early twenties. I don’t think I’d lived enough of life to understand what made the book or the movie so special to so many others.

So it was with a bit of trepidation that I approached Conrad’s  Victory, which I really knew nothing about. I honestly didn’t expect much from this book. Actually, I was half expecting to be let down by this, the last of my Modern Library Classics Challenge books.

Boy was I wrong. I’ll grant you that this book shows its age with some of the pejoratives and racial stereotypes of its 1910s colonial setting. But Conrad’s language is so expressive and so evocative that I was pulled right in.

The story is a slow burn that builds into a suspenseful psychological thriller. The setting is colonial Indonesia in the 1910s. Axel Heyst, the book’s protagonist, is an odd man, a loner and a hermit. He has rescued a young woman who he calls Lena from the sexual improprieties of the local hotel keeper, in whose hotel  she was a member of a visiting orchestra, trapped under the control of the evil orchestra conductor's wife. Together he and Lena have escaped to the island of Samburan, to  the remains of an ill-fated coal company that Heyst once managed. 

As the story unfolds, a  trio of devious characters come to Samburan in pursuit of  what they believe to be a fortune belonging to Heyst. The plot twists and turns and in the end the corpses pile up. For a book titled Victory it's hard to determine just who or what has emerged victorious.

Conrad builds strong characters with Heyst, Lena and the trio of scoundrels. The dynamics between them all, alone together on the island, are the heart of the book. Lena, who starts out as somewhat of a cypher of a character, in the end defies convention and shows self assurance and a  fierce will. Even Wang, Heyst’s Chinese “house boy” shows original life choices and an individuality that helps move the story along.

There is a lot more going on in the book. Heyst’s back story with his cold and unsentimental father is meant to help us understand his wandering spirit and hermit tendencies. I don’t think it has aged as well as the rest of the book.

Then there is the shifting narrative. At first the story is told from the perspective of a local sailor, then later through the eyes of Heyst, and still later  from the view of an omniscient narrator. 

So, I really enjoyed this book and turned out to be pleased with the last entry in my Challenge. In fact, with the exception of the autobiography of Disraeli, which I found to be just so-so, I have enjoyed all twelve of the Modern Library books I read this year. It’s easy to see why they are all considered classics. 

Classics Challenge

This is the twelfth and final book in my 2022 Modern Library Classics Challenge. I challenged myself to read at least one of my Modern Library classics each month this year. This goal is part of my overall goal to read 100 books for the year (this is book #97). 

I own over 40 Modern Library editions that I collected in my first years out of college. At the time I was buying them, I admired them more as “art” than as books. I just liked the idea of pocket sized hardcovers, which is interesting since at the time most of the books I was buying to read were trade-sized paperbacks. Treated as art on my shelf, I haven’t ever read my Modern Library editions. So, it’s about time to do so now that I’m retired.

Reviews to date:

Book 1: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Book 2: A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man by James Joyce

Book 3: The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells

Book 4: Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

Book 5: The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze by William Saroyan

Book 6: The African Queen by C.S. Forester

Book 7: Disraeli: A Picture of the Victorian Age by Andrรฉ Maurois

Book 8: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Book 9: Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand,  translated by Brian Hooker

Book 10: Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

Book 11: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

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Borrow or Purchase Victory: An Island Tale here:

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Title: Victory: An Island Tale

Author: Joseph Conrad

Original Publisher: Doubleday Page & Company

Original Publication Date: 1915

My Modern Library edition  was likely printed sometime between 1957 and 1970, based on the research found at It's hard to nail down a more exact date due to the lack of a dust jacket and any original owner marks.

Modern Library is now an imprint of Penguin Random House (PRH). The ISBN referenced in my links above are to the current Modern Library paperback edition by PenguinRandomHouse. (As of April 2020, PRH is a subsidiary of the privately held German conglomerate Bertelsmann.)