Sunday, April 25, 2010

Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent

It’s always puzzled me that, at least in some forums, Joseph Conrad is seen as an adventure story writer, as though he wrote for teenage boys. Admittedly, some of his long stories like Youth, Nigger of the Narcissus, and Typhoon have incredible scenes of high adventure and action, but even these are great works of literature. His The Secret Agent, too, with a title that suggests all the elements that go with the spy genre, will surprise, but hardly disappoint, anyone picking it up for an enjoyable read.

Joseph Conrad was born in Poland in 1857 and didn’t learn to speak English fluently until in his twenties. Like Vladimir Nabokov, for whom English was a second language as well, Conrad became one of the great master stylists in our language. Most of his novels take place on or near the high seas, with The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes being more political and European in nature.

It’s full title being The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale, the book is hardly simple in either plot or character. It is set in London, 1886, at a time of great political upheaval, when anarchists and revolutionaries were a daily presence in the newspapers. The secret agent of the title is Adolf Verloc, a shop owner who sells pornography and bric a brac, and who is secretly employed as an agent provocateur by a foreign country, probably Russia. He is evidently not the most adept in the techniques of anarchy and, at a meeting with his handler, a Mr. Vladimir, he is given one last chance to prove himself worth his fee by bombing the Greenwich Observatory.

The features of Mr. Vladimir, so well known in the best society by their humorous urbanity, beamed with cynical self-satifaction, which would have astonished the intelligent women his wit entertained so exquisitely. “Yes,” he continued, with a contemptuous smile, “The blowing up of the first meridian is bound to raise a howl of execration.”

“A difficult business,” Mr. Verloc mumbled, feeling that this was the only safe thing to say.

“What is the matter? Haven’t you the whole gang under your hand, the very pick of the basket? That old terrorist Yundt is here. I see him walking about Piccadilly in his green havelock almost every day.”


“It will cost money,” Mr. Verloc said, by a sort of instinct.

“That cock won’t fight,” Mr. Vladimir retorted, with an amazingly genuine English accent. “You’ll get your screw every month, and no more, until something happens. And if nothing happens very soon, you won’t get even that . . . . A dynamite outrage must be provoked. I give you a month.”

Verloc’s pathetic life revolves around a group of ineffectual anarchists (just referred to) who publish and distribute pamphlets called “The Future of the Proletariat”, and his family, including his wife and, most importantly, his brother-in-law Stevie who suffers from a mental disease characterized by extreme excitability.

After his meeting with Mr. Vladimir, Verloc meets with his anarchist friends, who include The Professor, who is always in possession of a powerful bomb the mere pushing of a button on which would blow him and his surroundings up. Stevie overhears their sinister conversation and is deeply disturbed. As the bomb plot progresses Verloc is unable to keep his family uninvolved in his dangerous activities.

In addition to being compelling, even thrilling at times, The Secret Agent also has a unique structure. It’s written like a linked chain, with each scene linked to the next by a single character’s perceptions, with the person changing from scene to scene. In this way, the author suggests the tenuous nature of a world in which murder and deception can infect every other aspect of life, destroying not only the intended victim, but damaging or destroying everyone else who has come into contact with both murderer and the murdered.

To reveal any more of the plot would deprive the reader, since one of the great accomplishments of the book is the manner in which each scene builds from the previous one. But, it gives nothing away to say that a bomb does go off and the consequences are devastating for all involved.

Though published in 1907, The Secret Agent reads like it was written yesterday. It’s not surprising that it is one of the novels most mentioned in connection with 9/11 and its aftermath, and the war in Iraq. As great novels always do, it takes a specific place and time, great characters and a deeply important theme, and makes of them timeless art.

Other recommended works: Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, “The Secret Sharer” (one of the most anthologized short stories ever written), Victory, and Chance.

1 comment:

ashmitasaha said...

Great post there. Conrad is one of my favorite writers. Lord Jim, his best work shows Jim is simply an incurable romantic who gave up his life for an ideal. He could not forgive himself for his momentary lapse when he jumped from the Patna and he spent the rest of his life atoning for it- in his own way...have written more about it here