Thursday, 21 October 2004

Joseph Conrad: The Secret Agent (1907)

Edition: Thomas Nelson
Review number: 1267

Almost since the English novel's origins, there have been writers who wanted to create literary versions of the melodramatic journalism which has been part of British life since the days of the Tudors. Dickens is perhaps the most notable example, with campaigning novels such as Nicholas Nickleby. The Secret Agent is very much part of this tradition, but takes it in a new direction: this is an important milestone towards the establishment of the literary end of the thriller genre, obvious successors including novels like Brighton Rock.

In the thirty years or so before the First World War, anarchist outrages were in the news in much the same way as terrorism is today. Sensationalist writing was rife, some of which was about as grounded in reality as the wildest ranting that can be found on today's Internet. The parallels extend to an equivalent of the 9/11 attacks - the assassination of the Russian Emperor Alexander II in 1881 (and attacks on other royalty). Hopefully there will not be a second parallel event to match the effective ending of the hysteria with another outrage - the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinant, followed by global war.

Conrad was no stranger to sensationalist plots; just think of Lord Jim, or The Heart of Darkness (the latter perhaps more shocking now, with its story of the dehumanisation of whte traders in colonial Africa, than it would have been at the time). The Secret Agent goes further, and also incidentally one of the few Conrad stories to make virtually no references to the sea.

The central character is the shady Mr Verloc; proprietor of a seedy shop atmospherically described in the novel's opening pages. For years, he has been supplementing the inadequate income provided by his business - a foreign embassy has been funding him to organise an anarchist cell in London. As a lazy man, this ideally suits him, as failing to make an impact is just proof of how difficult his allotted task actually is. Then, a change at the Embassy means that Verloc is given an ultimatum: produce results, or receive no more money. The target selected is the Greenwich Observatory, as symbol of the fetish of the age, science.

The Secret Agent isn't really about its plot, but about style and character (the most interesting being Verloc's wife). I've also found it the most accessible and appealing of Conrad's novels. It is less complex psychologically than Lord Jim or The Heart of Darkness, both of which are about how men's characters change; Winnie Verloc does not develop gradually but suddenly turns into a different person at the climactic point of the novel, when she makes a dramatic discovery.

The Secret Agent is, as far as I am concerned, the ideal introduction to Conrad's writing (it was the first writing of his that I read); and it has remained my favourite among his novels.

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