A Polish-British writer, Joseph Conrad (Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski) was born in Berdychiv, which is now in Ukraine. He acquired the English language in his twenties, in the course of fifteen years of employment in the British merchant navy, and later chose to write his fiction in English, becoming what Wikipedia describes as “one of the greatest novelists to write in the English language”.
The Secret Agent was first published in 1907. Set in London in 1886, it was inspired by the accidental death in 1894 of the French anarchist Bourdin (who blew himself up while apparently targetting the Greenwich Observatory). Sometimes described as an absurdist story, the novel deals with themes of terrorism and anarchism, and it presents a pessimistic (possibly nihilistic) view of the state of society.
Adolf Verloc is a shop owner, a member of an anarchist cell, and also an agent provocateur employed by the Embassy of an unnamed foreign country. But he is under-performing as a secret agent, and Vladimir (the First Secretary of the Embassy) orders him to plant a bomb to destroy the Greenwich Observatory. Things do not go to plan.
You can download a copy of the e-book from Project Gutenberg or from Standard Ebooks, and LibriVox has a number of audio readings. But any unabridged edition (paper, digital or audiobook) is fine.
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I’m only a few chapters into The Secret Agent so far, but I have to admit that I am enjoying it much more than I thought I would. My previous experiences of Joseph Conrad’s work had led me to believe that his writing was completely humourless (I blame Heart of Darkness), but nothing could be further from the truth. In the opening chapters, much of The Secret Agent is quite funny, tongue-in-cheek or downright absurd.
I was totally drawn into the comprehensive and uncomfortable dressing-down to which (initially) State Councillor Wurmt and then (more fully) First Secretary Vladimir subject Verloc, who has been sorely inadequate as a salaried secret agent. Verloc has failed to fulfil Vladimir’s expectation that “the proper business of an ‘agent provocateur’ is to provoke”, and is threatened with being dropped from the payroll if action is not taken.
There is solid entertainment in the bizarre, labyrinthine reasoning that leads Vladimir to suggest a demonstration of “absurd ferocity” against science, as science is the only target that will make it clear that the anarchists are “perfectly determined to make a clean sweep of the whole social creation”. He doesn’t want Verloc to commit an act of murder or butchery because “the attack must have all the shocking senselessness of gratuitous blasphemy”.
I wouldn’t say I laughed out loud, but I certainly smiled physically when I read: “It would be really telling if one could throw a bomb into pure mathematics. But that is impossible. […] What do you think of having a go at astronomy?”, with the subsequent reasoning that “I defy the ingenuity of journalists to persuade their public that any given member of the proletariat can have a personal grievance against astronomy.”
Thus is the stage set for Verloc, anarchist and secret agent, to commit a “dynamite outrage” at Greenwich, because “the blowing up of the first meridian is bound to raise a howl of execration”.
Last year, I watched a televised adaptation of this book, so I do know what happens later, and I’m sure the comedically absurdist atmosphere will change at some point. But for the moment, it’s a bit like reading Gogol or Kafka. (Always a good thing.)
This is somewhat a complex read for someone who’s English is a second language…
Not sure I’ll manage to pull through.
When too much deciphering is involved, it kind of grinds away at the fun one has as an expectation…
Really not as bad as Mrs Dalloway () tho.
I also have to say that I much preferred Doyle’s writing.
(I know, I sound like I’m complaining. But I’m not. )
I have just read an interesting article about Conrad’s writing (linked here) which touches on the complex language, as follows:
[…] Conrad is not a popular writer these days. Partly this is exactly to do with the sceptical, unsentimental line he tends to take, but it is also a question of the density of his writing. Coming to him for the first time, many readers find him difficult. Sometimes it is said that this is because English was his second language (actually it was his third - he learned and wrote French before he knew English, adopting Flaubert as one of his literary masters). Whatever the reason, “opaque” is a word often used to describe his style. Or an appropriately maritime metaphor is employed: “I couldn’t make headway.” Or: “A bit long-winded.”
All the best,
After a promising start, I found The Secret Agent quite hard to finish. As the book progressed, I found it more and more of a struggle to pick it up again, and found myself interspersing my Conrad sessions with lots of very light reading.
From a witty and quite amusing start, the book got bleaker and darker, increasingly feeling like a sort of moral vacuum, and certainly lacking any sort of feel-good ending.
I suppose the novel’s message may be that anarchist/establishment action/inaction always end up damaging the most vulnerable in society, and that all sides are as bad as each other:
“The terrorist and the policeman both come from the same basket. Revolution, legality—counter moves in the same game; forms of idleness at bottom identical.”
But that is a very gloomy thought.
All the best,