He was a moral agent—that was settled in his mind.

The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale, by Joseph Conrad

Back in April I reviewed Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which I liked but didn’t love and which I found rather racist in its execution. Many of the comments challenged my interpretation (always welcome). There was enough skill in Heart, and enough enthusiasm for Conrad in the comments, that I decided to give him another go before too much time passed.

Fast forward and not too long after the BBC decided to screen an adaptation of The Secret Agent, starring the marvellous Toby Jones. I didn’t want to watch it before reading the book, and I wanted to read more Conrad, so…


For those wondering if they’re about to read another not-so-positive Conrad review, you’re not. The Secret Agent is exceptional and quite easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s claustrophobic, psychologically astute and told in a wonderfully laconic narrative style. It is, quite simply, brilliant.

Mr Verloc runs a small pornographic bookshop with the help of his wife, Winnie Verloc. He fancies that she loves him, which she does to an extent but less for himself than for the protection he can provide to her mother and to her mentally fragile younger brother Stevie. Mrs Verloc and her mother have devoted their lives to looking after Stevie, an impressionable and excitable young man who feels the pain of the world so keenly that he can’t cope with it.

Mrs Verloc is an incurious soul and never enquires how their small shop manages to supply the needs of four adults. The answer is simple. Mr Verloc has another occupation as spy for a foreign power. The difficulty is that his old employer at the embassy has retired and his replacement wants concrete results.

“A dynamite outrage must be provoked.  I give you a month.”

Verloc has spent years embedding himself in a circle of ineffectual anarchists, back-room radicals who meet regularly to discuss a revolution they do nothing to bring about. They don’t know Verloc is a traitor to them, but fortunately they do nothing worth betraying. Verloc’s new employer wishes him to provoke an outrage so as to excite public opinion into supporting new authoritarian measures and abandoning old freedoms. The anarchists Verloc knows are not the sort to act so precipitously. Matters must be forced.

I knew nothing about the plot of The Secret Agent, and if you’re very lucky neither do you. Verloc finds a means to attempt his outrage, and Conrad then examines both the precise events leading up to it and the consequences. This is no thriller; it’s an exploration of the psychology of extremist thought and act.

The Secret Agent is filled with memorable characters. Among the anarchists there’s Comrade Ossipon, a former medical student who still seems engaged in university-level debates while living off women he seduces. There’s also Michaelis, the angelic “ticket-of-leave apostle” who spent years in solitary confinement where he developed a harmless and rambling theory of bloodless and inevitable revolutionary progress. Their politics are radical but born mostly of their own dreams and failings. As the omniscient narrator dryly observes:

The way of even the most justifiable revolutions is prepared by personal impulses disguised into creeds.

The anarchists are a varied lot. Ossipon is an opportunist, Michaelis an idealist, and then there’s the aged Karl Yundt who’s simply a vicious old man full of bitterness and resentment. They are all watched closely by the police, but it’s quite clear that left to their own devices none of them will ever do anything.

More sinister than all of them is The Professor, a nihilist who despises the other anarchists for their innefectuality and the rest of humanity for what he sees as its blind weakness. He’s a physically frail man convinced of his own genius, but what intelligence he has he wastes designing bombs that he gives out freely to any who ask for them. He dreams of destruction, but has no vision of anything to build when the smoke clears over the rubble.

The Professor is genuinely dangerous, and he too is known to the police. However, they do not arrest him for they know that he goes everywhere with a suicide bomb upon his person capable of blowing up everyone near him and with the detonator permanently held in his pocket. The Professor exults in his his ability to pointlessly kill at whim. He is comforted by dreams of outrage, by imagined headlines and public panic. He is terrified that even such an extreme act would be swiftly forgotten, that the world would continue unchanged save for those whose lives he took or ruined.

On the side of law is Chief Inspector Heat, a man who holds the anarchists in utter contempt and so is amazed when an outrage finally happens. Above him is the Assistant Commissioner, “looking like the vision of a cool, reflective Don Quixote”, who takes personal control of the investigation. Yet higher up is the Home Secretary, Sir Ethelred, to whom the assistant commissioner reports between Sir Ethelred’s attempts to steer a fisheries bill through parliament. It is absurd; it is credible.

Perhaps the best character though is Conrad himself. The book is full of laconic observations and descriptions which appear sympathetic to their subjects while subtly undermining them. Some examples:

The cabman looked at the pieces of silver, which, appearing very minute in his big, grimy palm, symbolised the insignificant results which reward the ambitious courage and toil of a mankind whose day is short on this earth of evil.

Toodles was revolutionary only in politics; his social beliefs and personal feelings he wished to preserve unchanged through all the years allotted to him on this earth which, upon the whole, he believed to be a nice place to live on.

A man somewhat over forty may be excusably thrown into considerable disorder by the prospect of losing his employment, especially if the man is a secret agent of political police, dwelling secure in the consciousness of his high value and in the esteem of high personages.  He was excusable.

I could quote vastly more. I had more quotes noted for this than any other book I’ve read for a very long time.

Conrad’s prose is of its period, he’s fond of long sentences and commas, but it’s highly effective and there are some lovely moments such as when he says of a street that “It was not actually raining, but each gas lamp had a rusty little halo of mist.” That would be a very ordinary sentence, save for the addition of that one word “rusty” which lifts it suddenly into poetry.

This is an intelligent and surprisingly funny novel, and while it’s a cliché to talk about how it remains relevant it’s true all the same. What’s particularly clever is how Conrad firmly roots the political in the personal. As the Assistant Commissioner observes, “From a certain point of view we are here in the presence of a domestic drama.” Nowhere else have I seen the psychology of self-justification so well explored.

One final note. One of the smaller pleasures of the book for me was the familiarity of its locations, not least when a late chapter showed “Mr Verloc, sitting perplexed and frightened in the small parlour of the Cheshire Cheese,” a pub that’s just over the road from where I work and where I’ve drunk myself. I don’t go there often, but next time I do it will be hard not to imagine Mr Verloc tucked away in one of its many corners.

Other reviews

None I know of, probably as it’s such a classic everyone but me read it long ago.


Filed under Conrad, Joseph

23 responses to “He was a moral agent—that was settled in his mind.

  1. I really enjoyed this one (as all of Conrad). There’s a film version which was knocked by the critics but which I thought was well worth catching.

  2. This is the Conrad I most want to read, and your response to it only adds to that feeling. Mind you, I might have to leave it for a year or two because I glanced at the beginning of the BBC series and got sucked in within the first 5 minutes. As a TV drama, it was excellent, great performances all round, not just from Toby Jones (who I agree is a very fine actor), but from Vicki McClure, Stephen Graham and the guy who plays Ossipon, too. As a story it felt remarkably prescient, still very relevant in today’s political climate.

    Terrific review as ever, Max – well, that goes without saying now. 🙂

  3. I love Conrad, but this must be one of his only books I’ve not devoured. I watched the first episode of the recent BBC adaptation and realised I shouldn’t watch any further but pick up the source material instead – your review has confirmed that thought to me. What astounds me every time I read a Conrad is that he wrote in English and yet English was his third language – amazing!

  4. Excellent review Max – you’ve said all the things I probably should have said in my review! It’s a great book and I loved it so much I don’t want to watch the adaptation. I’ll take the liberty of linking to my review here: https://kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com/2013/12/10/recent-reads-the-secret-agent-by-joseph-conrad/

  5. I don’t know that Conrad ever wrote a “London” novel other than this one. That’s wonderful, to know not only the streets and parks but the pub.

  6. I read this a couple of years ago at university and didn’t love it but I think that’s possibly more to do with having to study it than the novel itself. I think you’re completely right about it being a claustrophobic novel – as soon as I read your review that was the feeling I remembered. Your review – excellent as always – has persuaded me I need to reread this book.

  7. Despite the humour that you highlight, this novel seems to me about as bleak a work as I have read. Without giving away the plot, the despair that engulfs the final chapters seems absolute: there is absolutely no ray of hope. Conrad seems to dislike all sides equally – the revolutionaries, and also the authorities.
    PS The Old Cheshire Cheese is indeed a lovely pub to drink in: I love its warren of little bars!

  8. this is one classic I’ve been intending to read for a few years but never got around to it. You’ve just persuaded me it’s time to stop procrastinating.

    Lucky you for the close proximity to the Cheahire Cheese. Sadly with the demise of Fleet Street the pub isn’t inhabited by so many characters these days but maybe the ghost of Keith Waterhouse still props up the bar.

  9. It’s tremendous Guy, and gives me more enthusiasm to read further Conrad. I don’t know the film.

    Jacqui, it’s definitely a good one, and for me a better place to start than Heart (which you may of course take to more than I did). Glad to hear the TV show is good, though I can see why having watched that you’d need to put this off a while.

    It is remarkably prescient/relevant. The whole issue of agent provocateurs instigating incidents that otherwise simply wouldn’t have happened reminded me strongly of some of the alleged incidents at the time of the anti-capitalist riots of a few years back, where there were widespread suggestions (across multiple countries) that many acts were prompted by instigators planted within revolutionary groups who otherwise did nothing but talk. The nature of the radicals also feels still relevant, the mix of the idealistic, opportunistic and nihilistic mixed in with informers and uninformed tools of those not wanting to risk their own skins felt very credible.

    Sarah, given his command of English (and nuanced English at that) that really is amazing. I hope you do read it; I’d love to see your thoughts.

  10. Kaggsy, I’m always happy for people to link to their reviews in the comments, so thank you. I’ll have a read and leave a comment at yours. I’m glad you think I captured something of it.

    Tom, not that I know but I don’t know his work well. The Cheshire Cheese is well worth getting a pint in if you’re ever down this way. It’s a Sam Smith’s brewery and I’m not the biggest fan of their beers, but it’s a wonderfully evocative place.

    Gemma, I think studying a novel kills it. I intentionally read a copy without footnotes and endnotes and enjoyed it more for that. You might miss the period significance of a particular word, but you read the book rather than pulling it slowly apart page by page.

    Obviously I’m not arguing against studying or analysing literature, not remotely, but I think when one does so the price paid is often that the book studied becomes associated with the work it took to study it.

  11. Himadri, it’s an interesting point. The end certainly is bleak, but I’m not sure the book is entirely. For me the book takes us to a, well, to a heart of darkness actually. The hope is outside these characters. It’s in the people they walk past; the passers-by that the Professor both so loathes and fears. The better world is deeply flawed, but it’s all around them. Of course, accepting that potentially means not challenging its flaws or trying to improve that world, and it does so need improvement.

    Certainly I wouldn’t call it an idealistic novel.

    Booker, there are remnants of the old Fleet Street, but only that. The Mirror building, which Goldman Sachs are now in, is absolutely lovely for example. I think this is one you might like; there’d be plenty for you to get your teeth into and the London setting might interest too as well as the continuing relevance.

  12. Tredynas Days

    I read this years ago (my battered old PMC edition has an inscription saying I bought it in Richmond in 1976), and recall finding it one of his best. I agree about the quotability: I had to search this favourite one out to get the wording right – it’s when Mr Vladimir is giving Verloc a hard time in their first scene in the novel, and he’s insisting on more action from his agent. He dismisses a number of potential targets, and concludes: ‘What do you think of having a go at astronomy?’ Fantastic. As someone above says, JC’s grasp of English idiom is admirable. The acerbic humour and cynicism here is breathtaking, and weirdly comical. Sadly the BBC version edited the line out (I’m finding it disappointingly plodding, I’m afraid). I find it one of the best in 19C lit, let alone this novel. Dipping back in to find it made me want to reread it – and the others not touched in a long time. Great review as ever, Max.

  13. I read this so long ago, but I do remember loving it…

  14. Shigekuni - Book Blog

    I always found it interesting to compare it to Henry James’ novel “The Princess Casamassima” which is roughly contemporaneous.

  15. As i said already, this is my favourite Conrad and, as the BBC adaptation showed, still relevant. A good companion piece to Dostoevsky’s Demons/Devils!

  16. Acerbic humour and cynicism, spot on Simon. Sad to hear the BBC version’s a bit plodding. The scenes with Mr Vladimir are among the best in the novel, they just didn’t lend well to quotes for this piece (though I did have some noted).

    Lollipop, books do fade with time. On the plus side, you could always reread it now and have it almost fresh again…

    Shigekuni, I’ll look that up, I don’t know it at all.

    Grant, interesting comparison. I’ve basically read no Dostoevsky (I know). The question is where next to go with Conrad, I’m really not sure.

  17. Tredynas Days

    ‘Victory’ is pretty good, and most of the short stories/novellas. Under Western Eyes, if I remember rightly, is also interesting – but it’s long ago I read it. Must return to Conrad. The Duel was made into a visually stunning early (first?) film by Ridley Scott, The Duellists – Harvey Keitel in a very strange hairdo.

  18. Thanks, I’ll check those three out. I’ve not seen The Duellists but I’ve certainly heard of it.

  19. The Duellists is a great film, Max

  20. Good-o, I’ve already got this:)

  21. Let me know what you think when you read it Lisa.

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