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The Secret Agent (1907)

by Joseph Conrad

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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5,405881,345 (3.61)252
'An impenetrable mystery seems destined to hang for ever over this act of madness or despair.'Mr Verloc, the secret agent, keeps a shop in London's Soho where he lives with his wife Winnie, her infirm mother, and her idiot brother, Stevie. When Verloc is reluctantly involved in an anarchist plot to blow up the Greenwich Observatory things go disastrously wrong, and what appears to be 'ASimple Tale' proves to involve politicians, policemen, foreign diplomats and London's fashionable society in the darkest and most surprising interrelations.Based on the text which Conrad's first English readers enjoyed, this new edition includes 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.… (more)

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English (83)  Dutch (3)  Italian (1)  Spanish (1)  All languages (88)
Showing 1-5 of 83 (next | show all)
Conrad's influential novel examining the psychology of terrorism and anarchism thrives in the decrepit streets of a murky London saturated in mist and darkness. A pale yellow light illuminates the center of subversion and moral degeneracy, a shop selling pornography operated by the agent, Verloc. What makes the novel so exceptional, however, is how it explores the impact of terrorism. The reader knows of the results of an attack before even its plotters do. And the shock comes in seeing how they respond to events already recorded in the narrative. The narrative itself employs Conrad's familiar distortion and twisting of time and the storyline into an elliptical structure. No good comes from the works of these ethically and morally compromised men and women. But no good comes from the representatives of authority either. The author has duly captured what looms on the horizon of the early years of the twentieth century--political terrorism in which the motivations for the soul are replaced by a sterile, cold and murderous ideology. ( )
  PaulCornelius | Apr 12, 2020 |
Re-reading, and maintains the ability to stun on the 3rd or 4th time through. ( )
  ben_a | Aug 11, 2019 |
Just in case you think there's something new under the sun, here's a book published in 1907 about fanatical outcasts who live in a lonely, dirty modern hellscape that dream of committing random acts of terrible violence. More than a hundred very bloody years later, it's interesting to see how much about the way we think about terrorism hasn't changed: the novel's radicals, who range from gormless idealists to bloodthirsty maniacs, seem like recognizable archetypes that might have been found in any of the last century's underground movements. In a titled lady's fawning over a certain incomprehensible, childlike anarchist, we see a bit of radical chic. Throughout the novel, Conrad takes pains to illustrate, in turn, his revolutionaries' poverty of spirit and their inevitable hypocrisy. It's all horribly familiar.

It's also a bit strange to see Joseph Conrad tell a story that has so little do with boats: the only water here seems to fall, interminably, from the gray London sky. It's also weird to see him, in his formal, finely tuned, way, take a decidedly ironic tone. Awful as they are, this novel's terrorists are mostly walking contradictions: for all their grand ideas, they're pitifully flawed humans, as lazy self-seeking, and comfortably bourgeois as the next guy. Conrad deals with their contradictions expertly, and while there aren't any really funny moments here, there's a lot of black comedy to be had. The book's title might refer to a specific character, but absolutely in the book seems to be living a double life, and most of them are at least dimly aware of it.

The book has other strengths, including a wonderfully detailed picture of a dreary, dirty Victorian London that may interest readers of historical fiction, but its big weakness is its tempo. Sentence-for-sentence, Conrad might have been one of the finest authors English has ever produced, but nobody's ever accused him of taking shortcuts. While most of the book's action takes place on a single day, it seems like forever. One can see why the spy novelists that wrote after "The Secret Agent" chose to tell their stories in lean, hard-edged, colorfully profane prose: the author's verbosity, skillful as it is, drains most of the mystery and the fun out of this story. This criticism may be unfair. While his subject matter might make him an obvious inclusion in any "Boy's Own Stories" compilation, I doubt that Conrad was trying to write genre fiction. While this isn't a particularly readable book, more than a century after it was published, it remains a sharply observed and superbly written study in human weakness, political fanaticism, and basic hypocrisy. ( )
3 vote TheAmpersand | Jun 10, 2019 |
My best friend Joel has a friend Bob who teaches at Rutgers. Nearly a decade ago, before becoming a scholarly expert on Borat, he stated that in terms of literature he wasn't going to bother with anything written later than 1920; what was the point, he'd quip? I admired his pluck. While I'm not sure he still ascribes to such. Well, for a couple of weeks in 2004 I adhered to the goal. There have been many goals with a similar history and such a sad conclusion: sigh. This was my first effort towards that goal and what an amazing novel it is.

The Secret Agent is the dark reversal of Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday. The devices employed are grim and effective. Highly recommended. ( )
  jonfaith | Feb 22, 2019 |
A gripping read, 'The Secret Agent' pulls you in with a superb opening chapter and strings you along until the final rush. Conrad has lightened his Victorian style for this story, but is by no means stingy with words. An important character short on time and patience often demands to hear only the "details...no particulars" and might be an explanation to his dumbfounded readers at the briskness of the pace and dialogue in the last half of the book. Some of his techniques made me wonder how much Conrad's particular talents were fueled by his not being a native speaker/writer in English. Are some of his quirks the result of some lingering Polish syntax? Undoubtedly there are reams of dissertations on the subject.

This book is in every way a precursor to the smart, techno, conspiracy thrillers but peopled with characters of rare quality. Verloc, the titular secret agent is put on notice to prove his worth for a new embassy official or risk exposure to his "comrades". Soon shady characters from the underground, government officials and members of high society, and of course the police and Verloc's closest become entangled in the labyrinthine plot and intrigue. On a simple level I liked this much better than 'Heart of Darkness', but the sole thing that made me think five stars was the character of Mrs. Verloc. She had been a silent character, almost a prop, if a sultry one, until her inner life is unpacked in a revelatory rush that is rare these days, and certainly has disappeared from the genre. It was stunning. I really felt for her. With Mrs. Verloc and her infirm mother Conrad highlights the precarious position that women were still in at the time, and the hard choices they were forced to make.

Conrad doesn't wrap all of his loose threads together at the end, his Assistant Commissioner doesn't carry the day, instead there is a feeling of unease, a feeling that forces have been put into motion that can't be stopped. Verloc's plot might not have succeeded, but improvements are being made. ( )
  ManWithAnAgenda | Feb 18, 2019 |
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» Add other authors (54 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Conrad, Josephprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Adell, AlbertoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Adlerberth, RolandTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Affinati, Eraldosecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ambrosini, Richardsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bassi, AnnagraziaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Danehl, GüntherÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
De Logu, PietroTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Doctorow, E. L.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Eisler, GeorgIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Epstein, HughIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Freißler, Ernst W.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Giacobelli, FrancescoEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gorey, EdwardCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Grimshaw, John AtkinsonCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hibbert, A.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Karl, Frederick R.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kivivuori, KristiinaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mallios, Peter LancelotEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mauro, WalterIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mosley, FrancisIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Newton, MichaelEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Saraval, LuisaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Serpieri, AlessandroEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Seymour-Smith, MartinIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Silva, HéctorTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
South, AnnaAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Theroux, PaulIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Threlfall, DavidNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tittle, WalterCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ward, ColinIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Waterfield, Robinsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Watts, CedricEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wilde, Barbara deCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Zanzotto, AndreaIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To H. G. Wells

The chronicler of Mr Lewisham's love
the biographer of Kipps and the
historian of the ages to come
this simple tale of the nineteenth century
is affectionately offered
First words
Mr. Verloc, going out in the morning, left his shop nominally in charge of his brother-in-law. It could be done, because there was very little business at any time, and practically none at all before the evening. Mr. Verloc cared but little about his ostensible business. And, moreover, his wife was in charge of his brother-in-law.
He talked to himself, indifferent to the sympathy or hostility of his hearers, indifferent indeed to their presence, from the habit he had acquired of thinking aloud hopefully in the solitude of the four whitewashed walls of his cell, in the sepuchral silence of the great blind pile of bricks near the river, sinister and ugly like a colossal mortuary for the socially drowned.
We can never cease to be ourselves.
With a more subtle intention, he took the part of an insolent and venemous evoker of sinister impulses which lurk in the blind envy and exasperated vanity of ignorance, in the suffering and misery of poverty, in all the hopeful and noble illusions of righteous anger, pity, and revolt. The shadow of his evil gift clung to him yet like the smell of a deadly drug in an old vial of poison, emptied now, useless, ready to be thrown away upon the rubbish-heap of things that had served their time.
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Average: (3.61)
1 15
1.5 6
2 65
2.5 20
3 222
3.5 88
4 253
4.5 38
5 137

Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0141441585, 0141199555

Tantor Media

An edition of this book was published by Tantor Media.

» Publisher information page

Urban Romantics

2 editions of this book were published by Urban Romantics.

Editions: 1909175994, 1909438006

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