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The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

The Secret Agent (1910)

by Joseph Conrad

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Showing 1-5 of 77 (next | show all)
Spy thriller that clearly heavily influenced le Carre. I really enjoyed the slow burn into incandescence. ( )
  brakketh | Jul 30, 2018 |
"... perverse reason has its own logical processes." -- Author's Note added 1920

Late Victorian London was a hotbed of political activity, especially in the 1880s when the Irish Republican Brotherhood instituted a bombing campaign that lasted a good five years. Few were killed but damage to several buildings -- including Tube stations and, in 1884, Old Scotland Yard -- ensured that terrorism was never far from the authorities' concern.

One particular incident though had no clear motive, the apparent attempt to blow up Greenwich Observatory in 1894. The bomb went off prematurely killing Frenchman Martial Bourdin, but why he was carrying it and what the proposed target was remains a mystery. It is this incident that Joseph Conrad, a Pole who would assume British citizenship in 1886, chose to fictionalise as the central event of his 1907 novel The Secret Agent, an extraordinary narrative that's not at all easy (despite its subtitle) to summarise in a few short sentences.

Adolf Verloc is the secret agent of the title. In fact he is a double if not triple agent who deals with various revolutionary groups, a foreign embassy (clearly Russian) and a police contact. His wife Winnie (whose implicit motto is "Life doesn't stand much looking into") supports his Soho business selling imported Continental pornography but doesn't enquire into his other activities: all her energies are put into caring for her brother and her infirm mother and ensuring Adolf has his meals put on the kitchen table. And things have clearly been pootling along like this for a few years until Verloc is summarily summoned by First Secretary Mr Vladimir to the Russian Embassy in Knightsbridge.

Mr Vladimir -- the new broom to sweep the Embassy clean -- thinks that Mr Verloc has not been justifying his pay with significant results. And he believes London is playing host to numerous Jewish agitators [note] who threaten Tsarist Russia with revolution, and that the Metropolitan Police have been turning a blind eye to it all. He wants action, and Mr Verloc with all his revolutionary contacts is the one to shake things up by arranging a significant bomb outrage to galvanise the police. Poor 'indolent' Mr Verloc's placid comfy existence is now all in turmoil.

The next we hear is that a bomber has blown himself up near the Observatory. Is this Verloc, as we readers are led to suppose? Or is the explosion the work of revolutionary philosopher called Michaelis as Chief Inspector Heat believes, though not as his superior the Assistant Commissioner assumes? Where do revolutionaries like Alexander Ossipon, Karl Yundt and 'The Professor' fit into all this? How and why is Secretary of State Sir Ethelred (with his amusing private secretary Toodles) being drawn in? And what is to be the role of Winnie's young brother Stevie, an individual who appears to be on what we'd now call the autistic spectrum?

The Secret Agent is a slow-paced novel but one that repays persistence. It is of course a tragedy, not of high-placed individuals or nobles but of commoners (the Assistant Commissioner observes to the Secretary of State that "from a certain point of view we are here in the presence of a domestic drama"). Mrs Verloc's mother sees herself as heroic by planning not to be a burden on her daughter's husband. Stevie, with his strong emotional pull towards compassion and social justice, is too easily manipulated by a father figure. Mrs Verloc -- who in effect is the real protagonist of this book -- is blindly heroic in her housewifely way, but acute feelings of abandonment and betrayal lead to two shocking conclusions. The motives of pretty much all the other characters (bar The Professor, who is the most unsympathetic individual of all) lead them down avenues which ultimately end in compromise or failure.

Yet though this seems merely a tale of human despair and nihilism it is, as a narrative, completely engrossing. Our focus is constantly shifting from one player in the action to another, from Verloc to Vladimir, from Chief Inspector Heat to the Assistant Commissioner, from Winnie Verloc to Alexander Ossipon, and we are led through their chain of thoughts whether they are considering, judging, deciding, justifying or fooling themselves. That they are all insignificant bit-players as events unfold is rarely better symbolised than by this passage:

Mr Verloc heard against a window-pane the faint buzzing of a fly -- his first fly of the year -- heralding better than any number of swallows the approach of spring. The useless fussing of that tiny, energetic organism affected unpleasantly this big man threatened in his indolence. -- Chapter 2

In another way we readers are playing the role of fly-on-the-wall, observing and trying to make sense of what conversations and actions mean in the grand scheme of things, if there is indeed a scheme. The fact that Conrad features so many dusty, opaque or dark windows in his narrative -- characters looking in or looking out -- suggests that we are all going to struggle to evaluate the significance of what we witness; and of course he leads the inattentive reader up the garden path at one stage when he suddenly backtracks to imply a particular course of action has happened when it hasn't.

We are left wondering, along with the Assistant Commissioner in Chapter 7, whether this is all the work of anarchism or "some species of authorised scoundrelism". Conrad's own Author's Note specifically says that his tale is designed to express and evoke both "scorn and pity" on the doings of anarchists of all stripes; that he chooses to do it in a consistently ironic tone (Verloc is always 'indolent', Ossipon 'robust') helps to ease this rather dark story along.

Conrad, by the way, was a self-confessed flâneur, and he utilises this early habit in evoking London at the tail-end of a miserable winter, particularly in Verloc's journey from Brett Street in Soho to Chesham Square in Knightsbridge. Elsewhere we get a strong sense of the metropolis when the "adventurous head of the Special Crimes Department" ventures out on foot:

He advanced at once into an immensity of greasy slime and damp plaster interspersed with lamps, and enveloped, oppressed, penetrated, choked, and suffocated by the blackness of a wet London night, which is composed of soot and drops of water. -- Chapter 7
You can feel the cloying atmosphere not just of the capital city but of the dark deeds we are to encounter in these pages.

[note] Conrad's characterisation of many of the chief actors in The Secret Agent suggests that they are of Jewish extraction (though I don't know if this is an example of anti-Semitism on his part or a reflection of the realities of the time): see The Secret Agent: Centennial Essays edited by Allan Simmons and John Henry Stape (Rodopi 2007) viewable here.

https://wp.me/p2oNj1-agent ( )
1 vote ed.pendragon | Jan 23, 2018 |
The Secret Agent is another Conrad mystery, great for descriptions of locale and depth of characters,
"...no man is a hero to his valet..." and "...descended into the abyss of moral reflections" -
but slow and weak with plot.

Once again, there was no character whose fate readers might connect to or care about. ( )
  m.belljackson | Jan 29, 2017 |
annotazioni extra personali: Anterselva 1985
  vecchiopoggi | Jan 10, 2017 |
There may have been a time, long before this book was written, when its darkly comic vision of politics, revolutionaries, and law enforcement didn't apply. But I doubt there has been a time since. No one understood the dark intersection of politics, money, power, and love quite like Joseph Conrad. Since the moment that the man on the street gained enough power to have an opinion, politics (being all local) has wormed its way into every corner of our lives, and Conrad does a wonderful job of examining those motives. Unlike Sinclair or Rand, however, Conrad's style is not distant or didactic. In fact, the lens can often be so close as to slow the pacing. A very timely book, ahead of its time. ( )
1 vote TheBentley | Nov 25, 2016 |
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» Add other authors (154 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Conrad, Josephprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Eisler, GeorgIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gorey, EdwardCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Karl, Frederick R.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kivivuori, KristiinaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mosley, FrancisIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Newton, MichaelEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Saraval, LuisaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Serpieri, AlessandroEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Seymour-Smith, MartinIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Threlfall, DavidNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tittle, WalterCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ward, ColinIntroductionsecondary 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.

-- And that's all one (bleep'n) sentence!


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.
We can never cease to be ourselves.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0192801694, Paperback)

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 "a simple 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 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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:27 -0400)

(see all 8 descriptions)

Thriller. In the only novel Conrad set in London, The Secret Agent communica- tes a profoundly ironic view of human affairs. The story is woven around an attack on the Greenwich Observatory in 1894 masterminded by Verlac, a Russian spy working for the police, and ostensibly a member of an anarchist group in Soho. His masters instruct him to discredit the anarchists in a humiliating fashion, and when his evil plan goes horribly awry, Verlac must deal with the repercussi- ons of his actions.… (more)

» see all 32 descriptions

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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.

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Urban Romantics

2 editions of this book were published by Urban Romantics.

Editions: 1909175994, 1909438006

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