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
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