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The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale Paperback – 31 Oct 2005
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With an Introduction by Graham Stewart, author of the internationally acclaimed Burying Caesar and The History of The Times, The Murdoch Years. Joseph Conrad was a remarkable and unique phenomenon in British literature. Born in Poland in 1857, he worked as a merchant seaman before turning his hand to writing novels in English. Heart of Darkness, filmed by Francis Ford Coppola as Apocalypse Now!, Nostromo (adopted as the name of the spacecraft in the film Alien), Lord Jim and above all The Secret Agent, converted to a film by Alfred Hitchcock, penetrate to the heart of evil and the evil in the human heart. The Secret Agent (1907) is a shattering expose of the callous cast of mind behind the wave of terrorist attacks which swept Europe and America between 1892 and 1901. Its lessons are of extraordinary relevance to the al Qaeda outrages which began with 9/11 in New York and continue now in Madrid and London. As Graham Stewart, The Times historian, who provides a new introduction to this volume, points out - The Secret Agent had its germ in an actual attempt made in 1894 to blow up the Greenwich Observatory.
From the Inside Flap
Edited and with Notes by Peter Lancelot Mallios
Introduction by Robert D. Kaplan
In reexamining "The Secret Agent in a post-9/11 world, Robert D. Kaplan praises Joseph Conrad's "surgical insight into the mechanics of terrorism," calling the book "a fine example of how a savvy novelist may detect the future long before a social scientist does."
This intense 1907 thriller-a precursor to works by Graham Greene and John le Carre-concerns a British double agent who infiltrates a cabal of anarchists. Conrad explores political and criminal intrigue in a modern society, building to a climax that the critic F. R. Leavis deemed "one of the most astonishing triumphs of genius in fiction."
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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 meetings 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.
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.
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.