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)

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

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Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) was Polish, a seaman, and one of the great writers of English prose. That is about what we “all” know of him. Researching, I find that he was born into the Polish intelligentsia in Russian- ruled Poland, was well-read in Polish literature, his father was if not a revolutionary, at least anti-Russian. He was mostly home-schooled, but received some formal education in western Poland which was under Austrian rule, spent four years in the French Merchant Marine, then another 15 years in the British merchant marine. He became a British subject in 1886, though shades of our own dual citizenship pollies, he was not released from Russian citizenship for another three years.

My introduction to Conrad came via The Secret Agent which I see my father inscribed for my 15th birthday in 1966 and which was the eleventh of Conrad’s 20 novels and novellas. I have always been a Conrad fan though I am not particularly knowledgeable about either the author or his work. Heart of Darkness (1899) I own, in a Bantam paperback together with Youth and Typhoon but I chose the Penguin cover above for its realistic portrayal of the river steamer at the heart of HoD. I also have a downloaded audiobook copy from Project Gutenberg, and when my cd player jammed (with 2 cds to go of a 19 cd SF space opera) this last trip, I dug out some old flash drives and re-listened to HoD (and Howard’s End).

The novel is framed as a story told by Marlowe, a captain in the merchant marine, to a group of his businessmen friends whiling away the evening on the deck of a yacht moored in the Thames estuary. This is an old-fashioned gambit now, but the writing is timeless, spare and descriptive (ie. both efficient and effective). It reminds me of the factoid I’ve quoted a couple of times recently that Murakami pares down his prose by writing first in English before rewriting in Japanese. Conrad, for whom English was his fourth or fifth language – after Polish, Russian, German and French – was probably also working from a limited – for a writer -English vocabulary.

While listening, I thought also of two other great writers who were contemporaneous with and stylistically similar to Conrad – Jack London and Henry Lawson, also self-taught, working men and who probably also worked from limited vocabularies. Conrad is described variously as being at the tail end of C19th Realism and at the beginning of C20th Modernism, and perhaps he, London and Lawson were just caught up in the zeitgeist, but I think also their similar backgrounds played a part.

The story is that Marlowe, at a loose end, and wishing to extend his considerable experience as a seaman by working as “a fresh water sailor for a bit” in Africa, applies to rellos on the Continent to gain him an introduction. This is soon achieved and after a cursory interview in a city like a “whited sepulchre” (Marseilles?) he finds himself making his way down the coast of Africa.

“I left in a French steamer, and she called in every blamed port they have out there, for, as far as I could see, the sole purpose of landing soldiers and custom-house officers. I watched the coast. Watching a coast as it slips by is like thinking about an enigma. There it is is before you – smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid or savage, and always mute with an a air of whispering, Come and find out. This one was almost featureless, as if still in the making, with an aspect of monotonous grimness.

Marlowe is landed, walks 200 miles to his station, finds his “ship” has been sunk in a shallow part of the river, spends months recovering and repairing it. Sets out on a voyage up river with various passengers to the isolated station of the famed Kurtz. Rescues Kurtz who is dying. Sails (sorry, steams) back.

The heart of the story concerns the atmosphere around Kurtz, who is believed to be favoured back home, and who is phenomenally successful at securing ivory for the Company, and so is regarded with both awe and jealousy by his colleagues. I’m not competent to add to the century of learned commentary around this great work, so this ‘review’ is just a token to say I’ve read it.

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French colonies in Pink (how counter-intuitive is that!)

The specific location is never stated, or not that I noticed anyway, but I believe is generally held to be the Congo River. My first thought was that the Congo was not then even a colony, but the personal possession of the Belgian King. However, more research shows that the French had a neighbouring colony (now Congo) which bordered the River, but only well upstream and hence the 200 mile walk.

Since writing the above I have read a learned introduction (in my 1960 Bantam edition) which states that Conrad’s intention was to expose the heartlessness of King Leopold’s rule of the Belgian Congo and that Marlowe in fact signed on in Brussels. Make of that what you will. My memory is that Marlowe talks all the time of working for the French. (Which reminds me that the one defect of the novel is that all the characters are so English in their speech).

In his initial remarks Marlowe muses on young Romans coming up the Thames to their British possessions:

They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force – nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind – as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness, The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look at it too much …

Not surprising maybe from an author whose own homeland was a colony, but heresy in the pre-War Britain of Empire.

We are made conscious all the time of the ill treatment of the locals, and of the worthlessness and casual brutality of the colonists. At one point Marlowe remarks that English villages would be deserted too if every passing party raided them for supplies and manpower. But I’m afraid that in the end I read these great works for the flow of the language, and am barely conscious – and not at all retentive -of the ideas being expressed. Not very satisfactory for a reviewer I know.

 

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, first published 1899. Available (free) for download as an audiobook from Librivox (catalogue).