The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad

Conrad Secret Agent

It’s more than half a century since I was given this book for my birthday, the edition pictured, except that mine was 2s dearer (see the price in the top RH corner). The bearded man is Conrad, not the secret agent, from an engraving by Walter Tittle. I’ve always rather admired the anarchist/bomber at the centre of this story and it was only on relistening recently that I realised Conrad despised him.

The Secret Agent (1907) was Conrad’s tenth novel, written in a few days, in contrast with the long and ambitious Nostromo (1904), which required “a two years period of intense absorption”. Conrad discusses this in an Author’s Note dated 1920 and goes on to explain how he heard about the attempted bombing of the Greenwich Observatory in 1894, on which the novel is based, and how he felt about its futility.

Even the purely artistic purpose, that of applying an ironic method to a subject of that kind, was formulated with deliberation and in the earnest belief that ironic treatment alone would enable me to say all I felt I would have to say in scorn as well as in pity.

Slowly, he says, he realised that he would write the story around Winnie Verloc’s – the secret agent’s wife – maternal passion for her simple brother. “Personally I have never had any doubt of the reality of Mrs Verloc’s story, but it had to be disengaged from its obscurity … it had to be made credible.”

Conrad was born in 1857 in Russian-controlled Poland. He seems to me now, as the author of this book, to be almost the stereotypical Eastern European anti-socialist. But, as I say, it took me a long time to notice.

Verloc is a hefty man, approaching middle age, of French and English parentage, who has served some time in the French Army. When he takes a room in Winnie’s mother’s off-Belgravia boarding house he has the appearance of being a prosperous commercial traveller, although he stays out very late, and comes home hoarse. “His work was in a way political, he told Winnie once.” But when Winnie marries him and she and her mother and brother go to live with him, it is to the residence of a squalid little shop in Soho selling faded ‘dirty’ pictures and back issues of political newspapers.

The first chapter begins: “Mr Verloc, going out in the morning, left his shop nominally in the charge of his brother-in-law” but then digresses into Verloc’s back-story without any further action, so it is only in the second chapter, after we have looked about London under a sun shining reddish through the smog, that we find our hero, smartly brushed and combed, on his way to see his master, the First Secretary of a foreign embassy, a Mr Vladimir, a name from which we may infer his nationality.

It appears Vladimir, new in the post, believes Verloc has been doing too little to justify the stipend he has received for many years from Vladimir’s predecessor. He demands of Verloc a bomb outrage that will shock the English parliament into winding back its ridiculous freedoms. The bombing of churches, the assassination of heads of state has become commonplace. What is needed is an attack on science and learning. Verloc has one month to organise and carry out the bombing of the Royal Observatory Greenwich.

Verloc is intensely unhappy, he is a gatherer and seller of information. He has spent years in becoming accepted as an important figure in English revolutionary organisations. He is a man of immense indolence, yet if he fails the First Secretary, in just one month he will lose his only reliable source of income.

For a while he falls back on the routines of his shop and home which Conrad describes in some detail, and yet Winnie barely, or only slowly, emerges from the shadows. She has taken this marriage for the sake of her brother and increasingly infirm mother, and she bears it stoically.

Mr Verloc extended as much recognition to Stevie [Winnie’s brother] as a man not particularly fond of animals may give to his wife’s beloved cat .. Both women admitted to themselves not much more could be reasonably expected. It was enough to earn for Mr Verloc the old woman’s reverential gratitude.

And yet Mr Verloc now begins to take Stevie with him when he goes out for walks.

Stevie is disturbed by the violent imagery used at a meeting of Verloc’s anarchist friends.

Two of the friends meet in a cafe. One of them has seen a report of a man blown to bits in Greenwich Park. The other, ‘the terrorist’ who, carries a small bomb in his pocket in case of arrest, appears to confirm he gave Verloc some explosives and instructions on how to use them.

Chief Inspector Heat thought he had a handle on all the anarchist activity in London. The Assistant Commissioner is not happy with him. Under pressure, Heat admits that he has been using Verloc as an informer, and protecting him from prosecution.

Winnie’s mother takes herself off to a nursing home, and Stevie is sent away to stay in the country.

The impression I get from this book and from Heart of Darkness (here) is that Conrad sets up situations not for the ‘action’ but in order to be able to look deeply into men’s motivations. The action moves slowly, and once a scene is set almost all the description is of thoughts and conversations.

It’s Heat’s duty to tell Winnie that the bomber who’s blown himself up was wearing a coat with a label bearing the address of the shop. I’ll leave off there. The Secret Agent has an interesting, sad ending during which we learn a little more about Verloc and a lot more about Winnie.

 

Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent, first pub. 1907. My edition, Penguin 1965

Download the audiobook from Project Gutenberg (here)

9 thoughts on “The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad

  1. I don’t know this one.
    Interesting to see that anti-Russian sentiment is nothing new, and predates the revolution.
    (There was the Crimean War, of course, but I have no idea what that was about except that Crimea is essential to Russia as a warm water port.)

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      • Yes, but why did the English have designs on Crimea? (Other than always wanting to expand their empire, of course). Maybe as a buffer against Russian expansion into India? I need to read up on this.

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    • I’ve often wondered about whether to read this one – and I’m still not sure – but I’m glad you’ve written it up. How interesting that on this later rereading you’ve captured something about the tone regarding the protagonist that you didn’t before? It’s a challenge sometimes to know what the author is really thinking.

      What I love most about this review is the quote from the author’s notes: “the earnest belief that ironic treatment alone would enable me to say all I felt I would have to say in scorn as well as in pity.” Perfetto! Scorn and pity! Is that what we should be feeling for a certain leader!?

      BTW Why the surprise about anti-Russian sentiment, given Russia occupied Poland and repressed its culture during the 18th and 19th centuries? If Conrad was born in an occupied country wouldn’t that be reason for being anti the occupier? Or, is there something here I’m not getting. My eastern European history is not good.

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      • I’m glad Melanie commented, I had it in my head that I’d already answered you. Sorry!

        I think there was something in the reader’s tone of voice that made me read the author’s note with new eyes. It’s a very good reading if you’re tempted to take the trouble of downloading it.

        I don’t feel much pity for our uncertain leader. I feel more for Trump – a horrible, bullying, braggart who is quite clearly feeling more and more out of depth every day.

        Conrad was born in Russian occupied east Poland and educated in Austrian occupied west Poland, so he has plenty to be angry about, and in fact, apart from Vladimir, the other named diplomats are all vaguely German. Whether or not Russia was actively anti-British at the end of the C19th I don’t know. But, like Orwell, Conrad seems remarkable prescient from the C21st. Probably because we’ve once again reached that point in the endless political/economic cycle.

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  2. There is something about Conrad’s word order and diction that just do not get through to my brain. I’ve tried reading Heart of Darkness 2 or 3 times and feel immediately confused about what he’s even trying to convey. I’ve noticed that when I’m reading aloud books by Austen or Dickens, I often stumble more than with contemporary novels simply due to word order and the use of “round” instead of “around” (I don’t know why that one always gets me).

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    • I love the formality of C19th writing and sometimes attempt to write that way myself – unsuccessfully, of course. Though Conrad seems to me to be a signpost pointing towards Orwell’s much sparer style. And he moves his action forward very slowly, much more concerned with what’s going on in the protagonist’s head. Still, we all have our favourites.

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