The Secret Agent

By on February 7, 2013 in Diary, Did, Literature

The work chosen from the first decade of the 20th Century by my Wednesday history & literature group this ‘semester’ was The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad.

Joseph Conrad (3.12.1857 – 3.8.1924)


As with all the works we have looked at over the years, the novel was found to be a delight for some, an ordeal for others and impenetrable for yet others. Obviously, then, a ‘suitable’ case for treatment’. I am in the first camp, finding in Conrad such a genius for sentence making as to rival my all-time favorite William Faulkner.

William Faulkner (25.9.1897 – 6.7.1962) photo by Alfred Eriss in Hollywood

Plots in novels have never been the main attraction for me, indeed it would be difficult for me to recount many plots from anything I’ve read over 60 years. The Secret Agent is recent enough in memory at the moment that I do know what happens in outline.

The historical background is hinted at here regarding the Greenwich Observatory as a target of an alleged anarchist attack. A wealth of sites for the background to anarchism as a political theory and methodology most of which would not have been available to Conrad is here and would be the subject of a quite different post were I to be inspired to write it. My own politics come closest to anarcho-syndicalism, but this did not interfere with my enjoyment of this novel.

Conrad wrote in his Author’s Note to the novel that the actual bombing and the death of the bomber Martial Bourdin was “all for nothing even remotely resembling an idea, anarchistic or other” (p.9). Some insight into Conrad’s stance towards anarchism can be gleaned from some of the quotations that follow, though most are included as brief but memorable examples of what I consider to be his literary genius. (Page references are to my rather battered Penguin Modern Classics paperback reprinted edition of 1969  bought second-hand many years ago and only just read, having resided in at least 5 houses and previously owned by Caroline Marsden. I hope she enjoyed reading it as much as I did.) The characterisation of political radicals in the novel reminded me very much of some of the characters in  The Spiral Ascent a trilogy by Edward Upward made up of In the Thirties, The Rotten Elements and No Home but the Struggle.

 Edward Upward (9.9.1903-13.2.2009)

Perhaps the first extract from The Secret Agent that stopped me in my tracks occured as Mr Verloc, shopkeeper and erstwhile anarchist, is berated by the scornful and condescending First Secretary of ‘the Embassy’- “He listened in a stillness of dread which resembled the immobility of profound attention” (p.34). It turns out that Conrad quite likes the word (or the concept of?) immobility (pp. 160, 174).

As the Assistant Commissioner of Police, appalled by the futility of office work, looks out of his office window at the rain,  to him, “..the lofty pretentions of a mankind oppressed by the miserable indignities of the weather appeared as a colossal and hopeless vanity deserving of scorn, wonder and compassion” (p.88).

Even in desribing a minor character such as a cab driver, Conrad impresses with a respectful insight into the character’s viewpoint: “..his intellect, though it had lost its pristine vivacity in the benumbing years of sedentary exposure to the weather, lacked not independence or sanity” (p.132-3). For me this just escapes the accusation of verbosity from some other members of the group.

In creating an atmosphere Conrad sometims uses inanimate objects: “ of two gas burners, which, being defective, first whistled as if astonished, and then went on purring comfortably like a cat” (p.157).

and in the final sentence of the wonderfully written chapter when Mrs. Verloc murders her husband: ” A round hat disclosed in the middle of the floor by the moving of the table rocked slightly on its crown in the wind of her flight “ (p.214).  

In the final sentences of the book, we see Conrad’s imagining of an anarchist and anarchism: “He had no future. He disdained it. He was a force. His thoughts caressed the images of ruin and destruction. He walked 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”  (p.249).

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