'An impenetrable mystery seems destined to hang for ever over this act of madness or despair.'Mr Verloc, the secret agent, keeps a shop in London's Soho where he lives with his wife Winnie, her infirm mother, and her idiot brother, Stevie. When Verloc is reluctantly involved in an anarchist plot to blow up the Greenwich Observatory things go disastrously wrong, and what appears to be 'ASimple Tale' proves to involve politicians, policemen, foreign diplomats and London's fashionable society in the darkest and most surprising interrelations.Based on the text which Conrad's first English readers enjoyed, this new edition includes a critical introduction which describes Conrad's great London novel as the realization of a 'monstrous town', a place of idiocy, madness, criminality, and butchery.
More recently, The Secret Agent is considered to be one of Conrad's finest novels. I enjoyed it as a novel about the city of London in a "City Literaryscapes" class at the University of Chicago, while the New York Times sees it as "the most brilliant novelistic study of terrorism". It is considered to be a "prescient" view of the 20th century, foretelling the rise of terrorism, anarchism, and the augmentation of secret societies.
It's also a bit strange to see Joseph Conrad tell a story that has so little do with boats: the only water here seems to fall, interminably, from the gray London sky. It's also weird to see him, in his formal, finely tuned, way, take a decidedly ironic tone. Awful as they are, this novel's terrorists are mostly walking contradictions: for all their grand ideas, they're pitifully flawed humans, as lazy self-seeking, and comfortably bourgeois as the next guy. Conrad deals with their contradictions expertly, and while there aren't any really funny moments here, there's a lot of black comedy to be had. The book's title might refer to a specific character, but absolutely in the book seems to be living a double life, and most of them are at least dimly aware of it.
The book has other strengths, including a wonderfully detailed picture of a dreary, dirty Victorian London that may interest readers of historical fiction, but it's big weakness is its tempo. Sentence-for-sentence, Conrad might have been one of the finest authors English has ever produced, but nobody's ever accused him of taking shortcuts. While most of the book's action takes place on a single day, it seems like forever. One can see why the spy novelists that wrote after "The Secret Agent" chose to tell their stories in lean, hard-edged, colorfully profane prose: the author's verbosity, skillful as it is, drains most of the mystery and the fun out of this story. This criticism may be unfair. While his subject matter might make him an obvious inclusion in any "Boy's Own Stories" compilation, I doubt that Conrad was trying to write genre fiction. While this isn't a particularly readable book, more than a century after it was published, it remains a sharply observed and superbly written study in human weakness, political fanaticism, and basic hypocrisy.
Conrad had nothing but contempt for anarchists, and to a lesser degree for politics as a whole. He saw anarchists as parasites, people looking to tear down, but not to contribute to the daily business of getting along and getting on with life. Conrad, after all, came of age on merchant ships, a world where each man depended for his life on the other fellow doing his job all the time, and where even the most menial task could be crucial. But that level of contempt is the book's flaw, as Conrad let his antipathy run away with him, here. Consequently, the anarchists come off as mere caricatures, and the narrative loses power when they take center stage. As always, though, I am in love with Conrad's turn of a phrase and with his powers of observation.
The story is set in London in 1907. The spy Verloc is double-agent for an unspecified country, presumably Russia, and a member of a small anarchist group. As might be guessed, the characters comprising the anarchists are idiosyncratic to the point of eccentricity. Some members are merely playing, others enjoy the sound of their own voice a bit too much, and one enjoys mixing chemicals to create explosives. At bottom, these anarchists are ineffectual – much talk and little action. Verloc’s only income besides his pay as an agent provocateur comes from a sleazy little shop where he sells odds-and-ends – and pornography. Vladimir, who runs Verloc out of the unnamed embassy, threatens to cut Verloc off unless he carries out a magnificent operation.
The story alternatively centers around Verloc’s rather odd home life as much as his career as a spy. His wife has married him so that she and especially her developmentally disabled brother Stevie will have some security. When Verloc involves Stevie in the terrorist operation the tale begins its hectic and exhilarating run to the finish.
Conrad weaves an interesting tale of political intrigue and psychological insight. To my eye, the book offers only some insight into the way governments deal with terrorist threats and very little of use in understanding the nature of current threats. Reviewers who rediscovered the book after 9/11 larded the book down with rather grandiose claims of prophetic visions. In the Secret Agent, Conrad gave us a good read (probably a very good read at the time of its writing) and one that belongs on the bookshelf with other notable spy literature (like Smiley's People, Kim (Penguin Classics), Red Gold: A Novel and The Human Factor by Graham Greene to name only a few). That should be enough for anyone.
As a piece of literature, though the book is an almost surreal set of disjointed pieces. Each chapter is a different view, through a different set of eyes, and only by looking at them all in turn does the mystery unfold. Methodically, Conrad unfolds each participants thoughts in slow motion, and while he demonstrates a command of the English language that is enviable, as well as a vocabulary that would be substantial for a native speaker and even more so for a sailor whose native tongue was Polish, the slow pace demands a serious reader's attention and patience. You get a full picture in the reading, but you look at every details that unfolds.
And yet, plodding as the pace is, there are surprises. After pages of slow, deliberate character development, a sudden jolt of action with shift the plot, especially as the personal consequences of the underlying act of terror begins to turn the characters in on each other. In this regard, one sees echoes of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" or even Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" in the inescapable maelstrom that drags down all who are touched by violent men and violent actions.
Is it heavy, then? Undeniably. Worth the effort? Without question, it is an interesting and fascinating read, and Conrad's prescience, decades before the onset of the terrorism's "golden age," is itself an argument for reading "The Secret Agent."
Just don't pick it up expecting James Bond. He's not here.
Conrad's portraits and depictions of his motley group of anarchists and revolutionaries are devastating. Verloc, supposedly a ruthless terrorist but in reality is a double-agent, is motivated above all with protecting his domestic comfort but succeeds only in blowing it, along with his half-witted brother-in-law, to smithereens.
The Professor, a walking bomb filled with contempt and venom for all and sundry and forever declaiming the need to kill and destroy anything and everything, is a pathetic, lonely, bitter little man who will never do anything except fulminate and sneer.
Ossipon, seducer and swindler of women and dedicated to living off others like any other social parasite, an opportunist whose too late discovery of the ghost of a conscience leaves him fighting off incipient madness.
Michaelis, possibly the most humble and self-effacing revolutionary ever (if that's OK by you), flabby in mind and body and in effect a pacifist.
Ironically only the repressed hysteric Winnie Verloc, utterly focused since childhood on protecting and mothering the half-witted Stevie and convinced that "things do not bear looking into", proves capable of deliberately killing another human being and it is precisely that repressed hysteria which triggers the act of killing which also causes her to immediately collapse in a paralysis of terror.
Then everything changed.
The mood of the book changed drastically. The relatively lighthearted, almost superficial, story turned dark. It became intense, emotional and gripping. One passage in particular, which takes up most of the second half of the book, had me completely gripped. The situation isn't particularly dramatic, but the way in which it is recounted is extremely immersive. After reading it I felt like I'd been holding my breath for a few hours. A lot of time is spent describing a very sort passage of time, yet not a word is wasted. One of the characters is in an extremely fragile emotional state, and as they get closer and closer to the edge, I found myself dreading what would happen when they fell off it. But I had to know. I had to continue reading. Way past when I should have gone to sleep.
Concluding anything about this book is very difficult. Perhaps the start of the book was necessary for the rest of it to be so good. Maybe the contrast in mood and tone is what made the book have such an impact on me. I'm not sure whether I'd recommend it or not. I really, really didn't enjoy the first part of the book, and I'm finding it hard to describe how much I enjoyed the last part. Take from that what you will.
First there is a penetrating, scary, and yet amusing satire on the relationship between terrorists (and other criminals) and their society/target - painted in loving detail from both sides in fact.
Second there is a sort of background of Victorian manners, particularly between the Verlocs, which I suspect is more or less accurate, but sort of reads like it's still satire from today's perspective.
Finally there is something that, if the subject matter were different and there were more parties, I would characterise as bedroom farce. Unfortunately the subject matter is murder and suicide, but the misunderstandings and the like are typical of bedroom farce, although the explanations of precisely what they are is overdone to modern eyes.
However, it is an interesting take on the whole bomb-making/revolutionary/terrorist state of mind, and well worth reading for this alone.
Joseph Conrad's 1907 novel not only predicts the rise of terrorism as a global force (and analyzes its anarchistic roots with probing curiosity and pungent wit), it also more or less created the genre of the spy novel, both the high artsy type John le Carre produces and the popular sort dished out by Tom Clancy. It's an important book, at times quite a good read. At times...
As when we meet the Professor, a sinister bomb-maker who fondles in his pants pocket the rubber-bulb detonator of the explosive he has strapped to his body as he walks the crowded streets of the city, to warn off any bobby who might try and mess with him. "They depend on life...a complex, organized fact open to attack at every point, whereas I depend on death, which knows no restraint and cannot be attacked," he sneers. "My superiority is evident."
Or the mentally retarded Stevie, the man-child so sensitive to the pain of others, even a starving horse that drives his mother's cab. He wishes only for comfort and joy for all, like the kind he knows when his loving sister tucks him into bed. "To be taken into a bed of compassion was the supreme remedy, with the only one disadvantage of being difficult of application on a large scale."
There's some humor and much wisdom in Conrad's novel. Conrad was a great writer, capable of capturing in often-meandering sentences some very difficult concepts about the world we live in and the complex psychology of those around us. At his best, he's brilliant. But "The Secret Agent" is more than a little windy, with a rambling narrative that introduces a bevy of characters but doesn't do very much with them and one key moment of action that happens outside the unnecessarily shifting narrative.
Some reviewers here have made mention of the fact those of us who don't appreciate Conrad here are guilty of being members of the MTV generation and so on. Yes, it's true, I have seen a music video, a Duran Duran one. I remember someone flipping a table... But the problem here isn't with modern readers' short-attention spans.
When Conrad was being discursive in "Lord Jim," it was for the sake of delving into the many layers of a conflicted central character, filling a broad canvas with the stuff of a vast world at sea which threatened to drown Jim's overarching sense of self-importance if he didn't keep escaping into something else. There was a point to its narrative time shifts and here-and-gone secondary characters. In "The Secret Agent," one gets a sense of a slight yarn, no more than a short story really, being tricked up and lathered with unnecessary detail. The central character is a dull slug and a poser, his wife, the only mildly sympathetic character, is little better, a Stepford Wife without the nice house.
Conrad's book starts off well, but then takes a sharp left turn after the central act of terror, petering out in a series of elliptical conversations, of little or no importance to the final resolution, where Conrad commentates on every unspoken thought and nuance of expression. The narrative becomes very slow and dull, to the point when we finally are given an act of on-screen violence, it's so lethargically rendered that the victim barely cries out before expiring. Some point about pointlessness is being made, for the 456th time.
That Conrad created here a genre that has served us well is beyond question. But it's only an okay book, not the best by Conrad or the best spy fiction by a long chalk. It's not even the best story about an unprincipled man named Verloc who causes a London bombing, as Alfred Hitchcock reworked this book into his 1936 film "Sabatoge." That's a classic work of art, something not to be missed. Conrad's novel is but a dry run in comparison, sometimes very dry.
The centathlete’s temperament is not so serious and his attention span not so vast. He’s content to buzz and flit from sill to counter, from crumb to pane. Hopefully this stop on the centathlon will only appear haphazard, as a fly’s life-journey does to an irritated occupant of a one-bedroom apartment but not to itself.
In The Secret Agent TV lovers might be surprised to find an autopsy critical to a police investigation’s advancement. The book anticipates the “CSI effect” by revealing clues on a corpse almost too quickly and easily.
Punk-rock moshers might be surprised to read about their anarchistic forebears. There are different types of anarchists and subversives in this book; Conrad’s blending of labels serves his own artistic ends rather than political accuracy. The most formidable is The Professor, described as “the perfect anarchist” and “the perfect detonator,” who disparages the goals and commitment of his anti-establishment comrades by equating them with the society they attack:
“The terrorist and the policeman both come from the same basket. Revolution, legality—counter moves in the same game, forms of idleness at bottom identical…I’ve got the grit to work alone, quite alone, absolutely alone.”
The centathlete thinks of another lone wolf, a more recent, now elder “anarchist,” John Lydon, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols. He refuses to be lumped into a political movement and to this day insists on being “an original”:
“Well, it's like this: Look, a true Anarchist doesn't need a uniform. In fact, a uniform would be a contradiction. And a lot of people who think of themselves as being Anarchistic are really anachronistic. Because they're still wearing the punk cliché outfit. Times move on. Situations change. And you've always got to keep ahead of the herd.”
In dramatizing terrorism and its consequences, Conrad was certainly ahead of the herd. The Secret Agent meditates on the necessary symbolism of terrorists’ targets, in this case the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, location of the Prime Meridian and the acknowledged center of measured time. An actual failed bombing of the building in 1894 may have inspired this fictitious account.
The centathlete recalls a concert by Billy Bragg in 2000 in Battery Park, Manhattan’s “prow.” During one of his habitual, verbose monologues between songs, the singer-activist looked up at The World Trade Center and remarked wryly about playing in the shadows of Global Corporate-Capitalism (his exact words have been forgotten.) The next year the towers were attacked for their symbolism. There is an enormous gap between calling attention to the publicly acknowledged import of a building and attacking it with the intention to perpetrate mass murder—and this distinction is played out and argued on several levels on several occasions in The Secret Agent. After that concert, standing next to his tour bus, Bragg chatted with fans, took out his wallet, and proudly displayed photos of his family. A genuine man of the people…
Conrad’s anarchists and terrorists despise the people. They uphold destruction as a moral force. The Professor says, “First the great multitude of the weak must go, then the only relatively strong.” This statement exemplifies Martin Seymour-Smith’s argument that:
“The Professor's Nietzscheanism, if it is that—and there is every reason to suppose that to many of Conrad's readers in 1907 it was—is perverse, a distortion of Nietzsche's writings about the 'master and the slave morality'; but Conrad employs it as an evidently sincere, if terrible, example of extremism.”
In another introduction to The Secret Agent, Frederick Karl points out the philosophical differences between Conrad, who had, “a distaste for radical political action and [a] recognition that politics, whatever else it does, ravages,” and Friedrich Nietzsche, who advocated a radical revision of morality and society (among many other things, with a breadth and complexity beyond the centathlete’s faculty) which had made modern man weak:
“Instead of man creating his own valuations of "good" and "evil," the "herd" gives them to him, denying man of his individuality. Therefore, man becomes a ‘function of the herd.’”
There’s that “herd” mentality John Lydon so despises.
Nietzsche (boy, it stinks typing that name) was famous and infamous for his concept of the Übermensch, or “Overman.” American comic books have thrust this ideal into our current mythology through superheroes like Batman. In reexamining 2005’s Batman Begins, the centathlete finds many echoes of Nietzsche—and Conrad.
The flick’s arch villain, Ra’s al Ghul, mentors Bruce Wayne with Nietzschean exhortations such as:
“You must have the will to act.”
“You fear your own power. You fear your anger, the drive to do great or terrible things.”
Director Christopher Nolan (a fan of Nietzsche?) and screenwriter David Goyer have, as Seymour-Smith said of Conrad, reduced and distorted the philosophy for artistic purposes. Nolan himself said about Ghul:
“Well, in the comic books, Ra's al Ghul is often described as a terrorist. I would put him down as an extremist. What was important to me in creating an incredible frightening villain is that everything he says is true and at some level reasonable that also makes sense. The extremes to which he is prepared to go; to achieve what he believes is very threatening and very frightening.”
What Ghul and The League of Shadows believe is that modern life, as demonstrated in Gotham City, is corrupt and worthless, as he says, “…only a cynical man would call what these people have, lives… Crime, despair—this is not how man was supposed to live.” This assessment is comparable to Conrad’s bleak portrayal of London, as well as The Professor’s view that, “The world is limp, mediocre, without force.”
In The Antichrist (Johnny Rotten “rhymed” antichrist with anarchist), Nietzsche elaborated on his indictment of modernity:
“…I understand rottenness in the sense of decadence: my argument is that all the values on which mankind now fixes its highest aspirations are decadence-values.”
In parallel, Ghul explains his reason for destroying Gotham City, “Every time a civilization reaches its pinnacle of decadence, we return to restore the balance.” Balance (ex. Between the Apollonian and Dionysian) is another Nietzschean concept, visible here in, again, reduced, perverted form.
As Ghul believes that his army of the few, the truly strong, must inflict itself on the world out of duty, “Nietzsche believed himself the only person of the new nobility in the age of decadence,” according to John Muraski Jr.
Ghul schemes to end decadence by unleashing hysteria-causing neurotoxin and make the world, “…watch Gotham tear itself apart through fear.” He also says, “When a forest grows too wild, a purging fire is inevitable and natural.” His evil plan recalls the ultimate depiction of The Professor as, “… “terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world.”
In The Secret Agent and Batman Begins, one distortedly Nietzschean anarchist belongs to London; the other to Gotham City. Inspector Heat combats The Professor while tolerating his freedom, within limits. Batman combats Ghul while sharing his drive for extremely delivered justice. Conrad’s ironic view of the symbiosis between such opposing forces still packs a punch.
In both works the conflict between “revolution” and “legality,” between “terrorist” and “policeman,” are contained in one city in the Western World. Today, the conflict is not so culturally contained, though Hollywood is reluctant to express this reality, as articulated by Bridget Johnson of The Wall Street Journal. The artificiality, the non-reality of comic books will prove ever fertile ground for Really Bad Guys in the movies.
In confronting his own adopted city and culture, Conrad was prophetic in many respects. The Professor may not resemble a jihadist but he does resemble (and may even have influenced) the Unabomber.
The Secret Agent actually condemns terrorism. The characters of Winnie Verloc and Inspector Heat attempt to battle enveloping destructive forces, the way Batman fights corruption, crime by crime. How Conrad would have dramatized this subject in this millennium we’ll never know, but we can guess he would have been solemn about it.
Having flown as a bat, the centathlete metamorphoses back into a fly and thinks of a bovine herd beset by winged pests. In the pasture most flies are tolerated; some are tail-swatted. Buzzzzz.
This novel is said to be the precursor of the espionage thriller. While it was very subdued compared to the modern thriller, I found it to be pretty engrossing. It was interesting to see the motivations the characters had for their actions and the how the unforeseen affects of the bombing played out in so many lives.
A beautifully narrated story. Conrad has a style of mixing comedy and serious events in the story.
Re-reading it now I was struck by how contemporary it seems, even though it was originally published as long ago as 1908, during a period in which Britain seemed all to gruesomely concerned with the menace of imminent war with Germany.
The various revolutionaries and anarchists have their own well defined networks, but so, too, do the police who struggle pot keep tabs on the various foreign nationals of ill repute.
Conrad even delves into the depths of political dispute, introducing an unnamed Home Secretary who is daily attacked in the Commons and lambasted in the popular press.
All together this is an impressive journal capturing the suspicious and pessimistic zeitgeist of the time, lovingly rendered in Conrad's characteristically flawless prose.
An absolute treat - I just wish I had re-read it far sooner.
As I was reading this, I kept having the sensation of deja vu. I knew that I had never read this before, but certain aspects were extremely familiar to me and in one important part I knew in advance what was coming. Finally I realized that Alfred Hitchcock had based one of his early movies - Sabotage - on this book! I am a big fan of Hitchcock (and have seen Sabotage more than once), but although his movie is quite exciting (even more thrills than the book), it doesn't capture Conrad's characters and has a completely different (and more conventional) ending. The book features complex characters and motivations which are perhaps slower and less exciting but will stay with me longer.
Just when I was preparing to dismiss this book, I made it to the last three chapters. If the whole book was as psychologically profound and tense as these chapters, Conrad would have had something!
In the end, it was too little too late. I can't recommend reading this book. I can't even understand why it made it into the ranks of Everyman's Library.