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on 20 February 2014
Read this for the second time, after about 6 years. Conrad definitely improves with a second (and third) reading, becomes less dense: one begins to see and savour details in description and/or characterisation which probably were missed first time round in one's desire to get on with the story (never a good tactic with Conrad). Taken slowly and benefitting from going back and re-reading passages this is a wonderful book!
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on 9 November 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.
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on 7 July 2017
Was Joseph Conrad the greatest author of the 20th Century? He writes very well for somebody who didn't have English as their mother tongue, giving the East End of London in the 1880s a very gritty quality, the boorishness of the Anarchists with their boorish language, and the contemporary feel of Anarchists who were quite willing to explode suicide vests to disrupt Society. I haven't read this since studying this for A-level English Literature in 1975, but it seems more relevant today than it did then, or perhaps I am just older...
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on 8 August 2016
Inspired by a recent BBC television adaptation of the novel, I embarked to find it darker and more disturbing than the excellent serialization.
The grim setting is lightly drawn around dark characters. Morality, immorality, loyalty, affection are straws in a whirlwind in a London beset by political machinations.
A thread of bleak despair runs through this work, as through the Heart of Darkness. There are obvious comparisons with the work of Graham Greene, but no heaven lurks behind incense or the confessional in this tale of Victorian intrigue.
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on 10 January 2017
Only one star? The book is excellent - but this so-called "illustrated" edition is terrible!
The writing is classic, great, Conrad. Really entertaining and thought-provoking (not least as a point of comparison for terrorism then and now). Plus it is fascinating to compare to the recent UK television series... A great read, no reservations there.
But the illustrations - oh dear. What a "con". The text contains many pictures, scattered in completely RANDOM places, which have NOTHING to do with the text. Absolutely nothing at all! The pictures look like very low-resolution copies of classical paintings; they are not described or captioned, so I've no idea what they are - but they look something like paintings of exotic oriental scenes, which is a long, long way from the foggy London in the story. Basically the images distract and annoy - they do not add anything of value. Whoever added the images should feel acutely embarrassed.
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on 16 July 2014
Said Stevie.

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.
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on 9 August 2017
Not an easy read. Long, complex sentences with a storyline that is very slow to unfold. However the quality of writing is exceptional as would be expected from this renowned author. Excellent description. You can see, hear and smell the characters.
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on 2 April 2016
This read like 2 separate tales - that of the the vercol family and that of the anarchists. the anarchist part in the middle of the book I found boring but loved the vercols, especially Winnie who really came into her own in second half of the book. Her fear of hanging was so vivid and so how I imagine I would feel. conrad does wonderful descriptions of people though not at all flattering. London also comes over as a very dismal place. His timeshifts can be a little confusing until you get used to them. A worthwhile read altogether.
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on 6 September 2017
Conrad's words are fine. Beware of buying this version. Not only is the font almost unreadable, and the presentation off-putting, but the book claims that it "includes a full and up-to-date bibliography, a comprehensive chronology and a critical introduction which describes Conrad's great London novel as the realization of a "monstrous town," a place of idiocy, madness, criminality, and butchery. It also discusses contemporary anarchist activity in the UK, imperialism, and Conrad's narrative techniques." None of these things is included.
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on 22 February 2015
after reading Lord Jim and Nostromo I was not a big fan of Conrad's proza and I guess I will never be. Again it was not easy to get into the story, introducing some vague characters. What are they exactly? Who is who. After some time you finally succees to get into it and the second half explains some of the idea. Not a bad story, but the difficult proza of Conrad makes it more difficult to read as it should be
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