Few people now realise that, at the end of the 19th century Britain was experiencing regular terrorist scares. "Anarchist outrages", of the sort that were eventually to start the First World War, were one response by those who opposed the totalitarian regimes in Russia and Austria. Then as now, some of the terrorists were over here, given refuge by a liberal government, resented by the more authortarian elements, and only partly understood by our intelligence services.
This is the background to Conrad's tale. His family had personal experience of political oppression and persecution in his home country of Poland; when he came to England he was, in some ways, a refugee himself. He understands aspects of this underworld in ways no British writer could, and constructs for us an unglamorous society of double-agents, intelligence officers, idealists and extremists, vain flaneurs and fellow-travellers, which will be familiar to readers of later writers in the genre such as Graham Greene and John le Carre. If anything you read here sounds cliched, remember that when Conrad wrote he was the first; it is later writers who have borrowed his motifs and threads.
At the core of Conrad's tale is a domestic trgedy; the "simple tale" of the subtitle. It is this which lifts The Secret Agent from thriller to great novel. I won't do a spoiller if I tell you that, in this novel with hardly a sympathetic character, your sympathies will be aroused, twisted and dashed against the stones several times. Do read it; it is very original, thoroughly gripping, and ultimately surprising.
I don't know how many copies of this I have got through over the years as it is one of those stories that I just love reading, and in some aspects it always give me something new every time I read it. I was very happy to see that I could get this copy for free for my kindle. I am always surprised how people think of Conrad as one of the greatest of English writers, although he was Polish and English wasn't his native tongue, but he also arguably brought something to the English novel, a more European approach.
This tale although published in 1907 is set in London in the 1880s, and it was inspired by a true event in the 1890s. Although not that popular at the time it has since come to be regarded as a classic and a masterpiece, as it so well shows us our world, also it has some of the darkest, blackest humour of any work.
Verloc is an agent provocateur in the pay of a foreign government. Running a small stationery shop, having settled down and married, taking on his wife's retarded brother and her mother, Verloc holds meettings with his fellow aged anarchists. And that is all they do, hold meetings amongst themselves, after all they are all getting on, have all settled down to some degree to a comfortable life of freedom in England. But a spanner is about to be thrown into the works. With Verloc's chief replaced he is told in no uncertain terms that he must do something for his money. Thus begins Verloc's task of committing an outrage.
Taking in Verloc's home life, the lives of his friends and the machinations of a certain foreign power, as well as the investigation of the terrorist act and the political machinations that that involves this is the ideal read for anyone interested in politics and terrorism. To be honest I have urged many people to read this over the years, and so far everyone who has has absolutely enjoyed it, so if you want to read something that is powerful and will give you an insight into how things really are, then give this a try, you won't be disappointed.
on 27 July 2010
If most modern thrillers are like a boxing glove, showing you the force and direction, sometimes misdirection, of the punch, then this book is the inside of that glove - giving all the thoughts, feelings, assumptions and life choices that went into the punch. It's an exquisite book that combines the pulse of a good plot with a convincing understanding of what makes people tick.
Mr Verloc is a lazy spy in the pay of the Russian government in late 19th Century London. His job is to report on anarchists and revolutionaries as the tide of change and worker's rights sweeps across Europe. England's tolerant attitudes don't suit Moscow and so Verloc is asked to concoct a bombing atrocity in order to stiffen the backbone of the British Government.
So far so good, but this novel is only superficially, if stylishly, concerned with geopolitics. Conrad's real concern is driving deep into the motives and methods of Mr and Mrs Verloc and what lies behind their relationship and indeed, behind the mechanics of each of the relationships that is exposed in this novel. It transpires that Mrs Verloc has married to secure the future of her sub-normal brother Stevie, who is the real love in her life. So that in fact, whilst Mr Verloc appears to be the secretive one, his motives are transparent - money - whilst those of Mrs Verloc are deeply under cover, until Stevie is killed in the bombing, when the real action starts. Around all of this are a group of policemen, politicians and anarchists, living in each other's pockets and both needing and loathing each other.
Each encounter is played both straight, as a means of moving the plot forward, and diagnostically, as a forensic examination of the motives and objects of each participant. The action moves ahead relentlessly but the pace is like a stopped clock with every look, remark and thought chewed over to extract flavour from it. It's the same technique as Flaubert's Madame Bovary but whereas that novel seems to stretch on into infinity, here the need to move the action on through the bombing to the police investigation brings tension to the story that makes the slow pacing work with the action not against it.
All that said, this was not a great commercial success on publication, with only a few thousand copies being sold. And anyone being misled by the title to expect a spy adventure story will be very disappointed. If however you want a thriller where the action is slowed down so that why things happen is as clear as what happens, you will greatly enjoy this book.
I would love to give this book a top five stars, but ultimately I couldn't. This is a quiet, hidden gem that is skillfully written with a dark tale on the surface and sub themes underneath.
Calling it a simple tale is deliberately ironic as this is anything but that. Mr Adolph Verloc is active in communist circles whilst maintaining an image as a married shopkeeper. But all is not as it appears as we are led through further deepening revelations and twists. And some of those twists are excellently executed and change your view on the direction of the book.
Ultimately this is a tale of the choices of one man and the repercussions that has on those around him. It is often a dark tale yet also rewarding. The readability of it is difficult at first and, whilst it improves, it doesn't quite flow as others books do. That is ultimately why this falls short for me of five stars.
on 16 July 2014
I didn't think one could find such simple sentences in a Conrad novel. But then again, this was a novel of many firsts for him.
Mr Verloc is a middle-aged agent provocateur in the employment of a foreign country. He answers to the latest embassador, Mr Vladimir, who wants Verloc to conduct a terrorist attack that can be blamed on the various emigre socialist/anarchist groups that inhabited London in the 1880s. These groups are a serious problem in Mr Vladimir's native country, so he hopes that the British police will crack down on them. Mr Verloc is threatened with loss of livelihood (his cover being a shop selling obscene materials) in the strictest terms if he does not comply. He chooses to fulfil his mission at the expense of his family, although he is so callous he hardly realises what he has done.
It must be a mark of how confident Conrad, an Ukranian-born, Polish novelist felt in his maturation as a writer that he chose to set the story entirely in London. The sea is absent here. In his former novels, Conrad felt he could not compete with native British writers- but in this one he builds some of his most compelling characters.
Winnie Verloc is Mr Verloc's wife and in her we see Conrad's most believable female character he ever managed to write. She is a stoic, industrious, harmless creature that comes from a very modest background. The only person she cares for in the world is her brother and she has made serious compromises for his sake. It is hard not to sympathise with her situation and the final part of the novel is exclusively about her inner world, which is portrayed with a humanity reminiscent of Dickens.
Verloc himself is a shallow, relatively dull and totally lazy man - Conrad is mercilessly ironic towards him, although it doesn't prevent him from making Verloc totally believable. Every action Verloc takes makes sense given his character. Conrad holds negative views of all "revolutionaries" and he displays then openly in this book which is unusual for such a subtle writer. Inspector Heat calls anarchists "lazy dogs, all of them". Michaelis's views are portrayed as hopelessly naive. The Professor is an intensely misanthropic character and a very authentic one. Ossipon is reptilian up until before the end, when he is disturbed by the consequences of his actions.
Some of the episodes certainly make it Conrad's most human novel. The incident with Stevie and the cabman for example, or Mrs Verloc's mother going away to the almshouse and the brutal description of her quarters there. This may be a political novel on the surface, but underneath it, it is a novel concerned with motives very connected to the social realities of the time. Conrad paints a bleak, disturbing picture of London; I wonder if it is because he could not afford to live there.
This book is part of what I consider Conrad's three great novels which came one right after the other. Nostromo, and Under Western Eyes are the other two. All of them are difficult and inaccessible although the Secret Agent in particular is supposed to be one of Conrad's simplest novels. Dialogue in the Secret Agent is more frequent than in Conrad's other novels and the verbosity is somewhat simpler, although simple only by Conrad's standards. The paragraph-length sentences, the bombardment of adjectives, the non-linear chronology are all here. It is only a simple novel in terms of length (not very long) and story (not particularly convoluted).
I suspected that the Secret Agent started as a short story, something that I confirmed when I read the Author's Note. By the way, this edition is absolutely brilliant. It includes voluminous notes, a brilliant introduction and Conrad's notes approximately thirteen years after he wrote the book. Even the cover is fitting.
Published in 1907, one gets the feeling that the Secret Agent has created and influenced certain literary genres of the 20th century. It is my favourite of Conrad's novels (and I think it was a literary triumph for him, even bigger than Nostromo), yet its bleakness means I cannot easily go back to it. Nevertheless, if anyone wanted to start reading Conrad I would recommend starting right here.
on 15 September 2015
I've always been fascinated by Victorian society and ideals. From their rampant empire building, their obsession with engineering projects, to their puritanical streak when dealing with moral issues, the Victorians could never be accused of being dull.
The common cliché of Victorian society is a rigid hierarchy, an adherence to Christianity and a zeal for moral observance in all walks of life.
Hence, the pendulum swings from one extreme (the crusade to outlaw child labour) at home, to another abroad (the demands for the British government to implement direct rule in India after the mutiny.)
Such a society has invariably, produced a rich seam of literature. From Dracula to HG Wells, from Kipling to Conrad.
Conrad, the outsider, is well placed to present a snapshot of Victorian society. From chronicling imperialism's logical conclusion in The Heart of Darkness, to portraying the seedy underbelly of London society in The Secret Agent.
The fear of foreigners, of anarchists threatening the established order, was the Victorian's bête noir, and Conrad does an admirable job of capturing the flavour of that moral panic.
Although at times the prose may be dense (understandable as English wasn't Conrad's mother tongue) Conrad succeeds in giving us an intriguing, suspenseful story.
This is my favourite of the Great Pole's novel's and it is based on his knowing that London at the turn of the 19th Century was a hotbed of malcontents and revolutionaries not tolerated elsewhere, the London that had harboured Marx welcomed the young Stalin too and this novel is loosely based on fact, the presence of anarchists who plotted to blow up landmark buildings. At the centre of this tale are the unhappy Verloc family and their young son plays a crucial part here. An unsavoury group plots to attck the Greenwich Observatory, Time itself in a nice symbolic gesture. Whether they managed I cannot say, but watch this couple since they provide one of literature's great denouements as the plot ramifies, as they were wont to do. A striking piece from anyone, but to remember it was Conrad's 4th language is scarcely credible, let alone that he spoke and wrot it from aged 40. Remarkable novel, remarkable man..[.I wonder how he ended up in an anonymous Canterbury Cemetery when he should be in poets' Corner or Highgate].
on 24 July 2014
It is surprising how little known such an influential book is. Although it had been on my “to read” list for some time it was only shortly before I was due to start it that I found out by chance what it was about. Knowing Conrad, I was expecting a sort of former-day “Our Man in Havana”, but in fact it is set in London and is based on true events. In 1894 a French anarchist accidentally blew himself up near Greenwich Observatory, and his sister committed suicide shortly after. Conrad used these to build a fictional tragicomedy involving a circle of incompetent, verbose, would-be anarchist terrorists, a serious Nietzschean quartermaster to this group known as “The Professor” and an able police inspector who is hampered by a posh boss with a private agenda.
As I read it I was struck by the similarity in mood to Chris Morris’s film “Four Lions”. I wonder if Morris intended this? And did Terry Nation deliberately use the quote above (made by The Professor towards the end of the book) as the Daleks’ catch-phrase?
on 31 May 2011
This is an excellent novel and has many unexpected elements to it. The descriptions by the author are engaging, rather than boring, and the characters are well developed. As my first Conrad book, I will be adding him to my list of favourite authors.
on 16 November 2014
Quick delivery, reasonably priced. Book is perhaps a bit more used than I expected, the pages are yellow and the front cover has some tears. But for the price it is a very good buy. Would Recommend.