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On the Fifteenth of February, 1894, an attempt was made to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. The man involved in detonating the explosive device was found later, with a hand missing and a hole in his belly. He died of his injuries. Joseph Conrad wrote ‘The Secret Agent’ in 1905 and it was first published in serial form in 1906. In the novel we meet anarchists, agent provocateurs, double agents, plodding policemen, and the crème de la crème of Edwardian society. It is dark, ironic, and one of the saddest, least forgiving novels I have read. At first sight, ‘The Secret Agent’ could be a gripping adventure novel. It affords us a glimpse into the dark world of an anarchist group, and the trials and tribulations of a ‘secret agent’. We meet characters like ‘the professor’ who carry around, at all times, a bomb, and who spend their days working on a ‘perfect detonator’. Understandably, not even the rest of our anarchist group wish to get too close to the professor. We are also given the story of a marriage, as Winnie Verloc, the wife of our protagonist, slowly comes to realise who her husband is. We are given amazing passages of narrative, and descriptive prose, as the seedy streets of London at the turn of the last century come alive, in all their gloom, occasional glitter, and secrecy. We start with M. Verloc; the ‘secret agent’ of the title. An ‘indolent sensualist’, he runs a small porn shop in the backstreets of London. Winnie, his wife, young and pretty, has traded herself to him in marriage in order to provide security for herself, her ailing mother, and half-witted brother, Stevie. She sells pornography alongside her husband. M. Verloc is an ‘anarchist’. He is also a police informer, and, as a lucrative sideline, plays catch-as-catch-can with the Russian and French Embassies. We follow his arduous career through the book, an
d it forms the backbone of the plot. I’m not going to describe the plot here; it twists and turns, all events are intertwined, and even a brief description would ‘spoil the book’. So, to the various ‘grotesques’ that we meet. Firstly, although these are satirical caricatures, Conrad’s prose is such that we can almost believe that they are ‘real’ people. We meet his anarchist group, whose numbers include Comrade Ossipon, cowardly and treacherous, making his living through the stupidity of middle-class women, and Michaelis, idealist and dreamer, rendered physically grotesque as a result of serving a long jail sentence for a crime he did not commit. Amongst their number is also the eerie professor, carrying around his bomb. He is, within the confines of this book, seen almost as the ‘status quo’. As the novel ends, we see him walk away: “frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable - and terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world. Nobody looked at him. he passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men” ( The Secret Agent: Joseph Conrad). But the corruption and anguish seen within the anarchist group is also apparant in the ‘law-abiding’ society detailed within the novel. Heap, the detective is limited and vindictive. His superiors are no better, if anything they are worse, although their weaknesses are different. We are given portraits of hapless Home secretaries and double dealing embassy staff. All are as deeply flawed as Verloc, the pornographer. There are no redeeming characters in this book. even the innocence of ‘Stevie’ is the result of a genetic chance that renders his overall goodness impotent. Michaelis, gentle and idealistic, has been rendered weak and ineffectual through a miscarriage of justice. It was no joke when I wrote earlier
that ‘The Secret Agent’ is one of the darkest books I have come across. And its ending is not happy; no surprises there. So why read it? Well, Conrad’s writing style can be difficult to read, but once you have persevered then it is well worth it. His writing is richly textured, beautiful, and incredibly descriptive, even when he describes the grubby and sordid. Bizarrely, this book is ‘funny’, not ha-ha funny, but ironic and moving. You laugh at the character, then you cry at the weakness, then despair at the ‘reality' Conrad describes. I would lie if I said I re-read ‘The Secret Agent’ on a regular basis. I find it too black a book, too depressing , and I generally read to uplift my spirits, not to make me think. However, I have two copies. I thought that I’d lost my first,and immediately went to buy another. It is brilliantly characterised, gripping, and beautifully written. That alone makes it worth reading.
I must admit that I really liked this particular book. It has a great plot and a fascinating ending. What I did find about the book is that it is a difficult one to read and I found myself consulting the dictionary on a number of occasions. The characterisation which Conrad uses throughout the book is quite skillful. If you're up for a challenging but richly rewarding read, then this is certainly the book for you. Once you start into it you will find it hard to put down.
Anarchists, plotters and secret police scheme in the shadows of Edwardian London in Conrad's novel. The placid, apathetic Verloc entered the shadowy world of secret agents as an easy living, cultivating his position with a group of Marxist activists and a foreign embassy. But a change of personnel turns him into an agent provocateur, tasked with rousing public opinion against the anarchists. The London shown is dark and gritty, foreshadowing the cynical spy thrillers of the Cold War. Anarchists stalk the street carrying explosives and pamphlets, while the establishment sits complacently. The farce of Verloc's incompetent spying turns to tragedy when he involves his slow-witted stepbrother Stevie. An attack on the Greenwich Observatory goes wrong, leading to a sequence of events which will destroy the Secret Agent and his plans. Joseph Conrad is a master of flawed characters and failed hopes. The shadowy characters that populate the book are each brought alive with their petty habits and ambitions.