Conrad: The Secret Agent

January 31, 2012

The Secret Agent
A Simple Tale
Joseph Conrad
(Everyman, 1992) [1907]
317 p.

Aspiring writers would probably do well to be wary of Joseph Conrad. On the one hand, one can learn a lot from him — therein lies the allure. On the other hand, he is so good at what he does that reading him must sometimes be a near occasion of despair. He is one of those writers who wields his pen like a scalpal, capable of a precision of tone and style beyond the abilities of most writers. (And in his second language too, which is even more depressing.)

The story is about an indolent secret agent employed by a foreign government to stir up fear and anxiety among the British public. Threatened with the termination of his position if his lackadaisical ways continue, he is forced into reluctant action. He plans a bombing, but it goes horribly wrong, and he and those around him must deal with the consequences.

The book situates itself in my mind somewhere between Graham Greene and Franz Kafka. Like Greene, Conrad focuses on the motivations and relationships of the characters more than the mechanics of the plot. Like Kafka, he gives the story a faint but unmistakable whiff of absurdity. He does so, in part, by over-writing his descriptions. There is a tendency to emphasize small details, or to write grandiose descriptions of prosaic situations, or to lose the train of thought in runaway introspection. And of course there is the absurdity underlying the whole action of the story: the secret agent is a nihilist, and his whole purpose is to attack the most meaningless target possible, so as to provoke the greatest anxiety. That he fails in this effort is the book’s central tragedy.

Toward the end of the book, when the tragic fallout is all around, there comes a moment when the mist clears, the prose becomes clean and sharp, and the action is propelled forward relentlessly. In the process, Conrad writes one of the best narrations of a murder that I have encountered anywhere. It is quite an amazing performance.

Less amiably, I am not sure that I have ever read a book in which the author displays as little affection for his characters as Conrad does here. He does not seem to like any of them, and that is rare. Every single one is ruthlessly exposed as deluded, grasping, self-important, or stupid. It makes the book tough going at times.

Given that the story is about a man who tries to sow terror in London by planting a bomb, one has the nagging feeling that the book ought to have some contemporary political relevance, but to me the drawing of such connections feels forced.

7 Responses to “Conrad: The Secret Agent”

  1. Janet Says:

    I hate to say this, but “Conrad: The Secret Agent” sounds like a children’s book about a dog.


  2. Janet Says:

    I have been meaning to read something by Conrad for a long time, but I always forget when I’m choosing something to read. When I do, it will probably be Heart of Darkness.

    I am currently reading a mystery in which the detective, Maisie Dobbs, is trying to find someone who has threatened the English government, and has already killed some dogs with chlorine gas, and some birds, and now a civil servant. This takes place between the wars. In contrast to Conrad, I think the author, Jacqueline Winspear, likes almost all her characters and is at least sympathetic towards the terrorist.

    Are you familiar with this series? I wonder if you would like them. I think you might.


  3. cburrell Says:

    Heart of Darkness is the only other of Conrad’s book that I have read. It is stylistically very different from this one — in a blind test I’d not attribute them to the same author. It is also a stylistic tour de force, and a nice, short one.

    I’ve never heard of the Maisie Dobbs books. Wow, she has won a lot of Edgar Awards! I will put them on my list. Can you recommend one with which to start?

  4. Mac Says:

    I sort of skimmed this, hoping to miss any spoilers, because I haven’t read the book, but have always wanted to. I’m disappointed to see that you didn’t think it was so great, because I expected it to be. I like Heart of Darkness a lot, though it’s been a long time since I read it. Lord Jim not as much.

  5. cburrell Says:

    It would be too strong to say I didn’t like it. I did like it in many ways: it is superbly written, and the story has some real kick to it. But it is a fairly bleak picture that is painted. I didn’t like that so much.

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