The Secret Agent – Joseph Conrad

Posted by Robin:

In 1894, Martial Bourdin, a young French anarchist, attempted to bomb the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London. On his way through Greenwich Park, however, he tripped over a tree stump, inadvertently set off the device and blew himself up.

12 years later, Joseph Conrad took inspiration from Bourdin’s goof and began his brilliant (and modestly titled) novel, The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale.

The novel tells the story of Mr. Verloc, an informant working for the Russian government who keeps a shop in Soho where anarchists and revolutionaries meet in secret. For years, Verloc has sponged off the Russians for scraps of information. But his superiors have tired of England’s ‘sentimental regard for individual liberty’; they have come to believe that only a violent, shocking act will spur the English into action against the political dissidents who shelter in London.

And so Verloc, the lazy ‘seller of seedy wares’, is suddenly tasked with planning and executing an attack. Out of cowardice and desperation, he instructs his wife’s brother, the ‘delicate’ and ‘vacant’ Stevie, to deliver a package to Greenwich Observatory…

Don’t be put off from reading The Secret Agent if you think spy novels are tired and predictable! The Secret Agent is a classic, sensational story of espionage, but it’s also subtle and savagely comic (maybe not ‘ha ha’ funny, granted, but brilliantly clever all the same). Conrad’s brutal irony raises the genre of spy-fiction to a level that only Graham Greene has matched since.

I can’t resist quoting my favourite passage. A policeman observes the mangled body of the failed anarchist, thinking to himself that it looks like ‘an inexpensive Sunday dinner’, and Conrad writes:

“The inexplicable mysteries of conscious existence beset Chief Inspector Heat till he evolved a horrible notion that ages of atrocious pain and mental torture could be contained between two successive winks of an eye.”

I’ve returned to The Secret Agent again and again because it still seems shockingly modern for a book first published in 1907. Conrad anticipated the style and concerns of some of the greatest literature of the 20th century and — as is so often the case with pioneers — he remained largely unnoticed until later writers began to cite him as an influence. (T. S. Eliot would later claim the novelist as a proto-Modernist.) But above all, a novel which satirizes how governments manipulate the fear of terrorism is as relevant today as it ever was.


Read This Book…
So I don’t have to keep banging on about how great it is.


This book is a … Grizzly Read / Epic Read


Genre: Literary Fiction
Paperback ISBN: 9780007420261
ebook ISBN: 9780007477500


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