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