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Book review and recommendation---- 'The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale' by Joseph Conrad

“Madness alone is truly terrifying, inasmuch as you cannot placate it by threats, persuasion, or bribes.” ― Joseph ConradThe Secret Agent

One of the things that I admire about Joseph Conrad is his ability to examine a human soul in all of its complexity. His writing never fails to impress me. When a novel makes you want to ask questions, you know it must it good. When it continues to stay in your mind months after you had read it, you know it must be brilliant. From my personal point of view, Joseph Conrad is one of those uniquely talented writers who are successful in both asking the right kind of questions and making their writing stay with their readers. Conrad's novels are, more often than not, wonderfully profound and hauntingly complex. The Secret Agent is no exception. I feel like I could talk about this novel forever but I will try to control myself and attempt to somewhat summarize my thoughts. Still, this review will be more a collection of my reflections about this novel than my final say on it. 


The Secret agent is a psychological thriller, centered around a terrorist act- that is how I would describe it anyway. Originally published in 1907, The Secret Agent was based on an actual event.  The title indicates that a protagonist might be a secret agent, but if you're thinking James Bond, think again. This secret agent is nothing like the famous agent. Likewise, this novel is nothing like Bond books. It is a serious work of literature that focuses on themes such as anarchism and terrorism. Espionage is not portrayed as something positive or exciting. Both the government, the police and the secret agents are portrayed in a rather dim light. Despite its subtitle, this novel is not a simple tale- or rather it is not simple in the usual term of the word. The only simple thing about it  might be the plot. The outline of the story can be told in a few words, but to describe this novel one needs to dig deeper. 


Did I enjoyed reading The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale? Yes, I did enjoyed it. I feel like saying that I liked it would be an understatement. I loved this novel. As a die-hard Joseph Conrad fan, I was not  disappointed. From my personal point of view, this short novel can measure up to the best of his works. From the beginning to the end, The Secret Agent is brilliantly written. The portrayal of characters is simply outstanding. The story is amazing relevant and well developed. If you want to read what I liked most about this novel, you will have to read on because I can't express it in a single sentence. However, I could note a a few points that impressed me deeply: complex character development and portrayal, social commentary, social analysis, analysis of revolutionaries/ anarchists/terrorist, the examination of power mechanisms (both in individual relations and on greater scale) and finally the excellent writing. 


In reality, I wanted to read this novel for a while. When I saw it referenced in an Oriana Fallaci's book I was reading, I decided that it was going to be the next novel I was going to read. Really any excuse to read more of Conrad’s works will do it for me, but this time I was particularly drawn by the theme- the exploration of political terrorism. Unless I’m mistaken, this is not a common theme with Conrad. Well, it is not a common theme in literature period.

 How many really good novels were written about terrorism? There are plenty of books written about terrorism (mostly by journalists and political analyst), but in the literary world it still seems to be somewhat of a taboo- or so it seems. I haven’t done much research or official counts, but when it comes to my personal reading experience- besides Herbert’s White Plague and Rushdie’s Satanic Verses nothing comes to mind.  Those are the only two ‘acclaimed’ novels I remember reading that were DISTINCTLY about terrorism. There are others, I’m sure, but probably not at the top of the best-selling list.

 Interesting that today when terrorism is so wide spread and common- it not as a common theme in literature as one might expect. So, it was certainly fascinating seeing that someone explored this subject a while back.  This novel was inspired by an actual event- and today when such ‘events’ are plentiful, it perhaps even more relevant. Having read it, I can say that it does more than just creates a plot around a terrorist act. I was happy to find out that The Secret Agent is more than a novel about a terrorist act, it is a novel that isn’t afraid to go into depth and examine the social and the individual dynamics behind it, as well as show what might lead to a person resorting to it.


I would say Conrad handled the subject matter very well. By creating a protagonist who becomes a terrorist only to keep his job as a secret agent (that he desperately needs so he would be able to support his family), he added an ironic twist to the narrative. I’m surprised by how I sympathized with the protagonist of the novel, i.e. the secret agent. Mr. Verloc is by no means a likable character. Yet, there is something very tragic about his life. Supposedly, Mata Hari was killed not because she spied for the Germans but because she failed to supply her employers with any kind of valuable information so they decided to use her as a scapegoat and let her take the fall, correctly figuring out that nobody will miss an aging dancer turned prostitute. Somehow Mr. Verloc reminded me of her. He is an easy pray for someone like Mr. Vladimir. The blending of domestic and personal tragedies with political schemes and madness was done particularly well. The unwilling terrorist is a figure that invokes disturbing thoughts and worrying implications- how much was this the author’s intent, I can’t say but it makes for a very interesting novel.

Secret agents are supposed to fight off terrorists, not become terrorists themselves- or are they? In a time when there is considerable evidence that some western governments (or whoever is behind them) might have something to do with the rise of ISIS, one doesn’t find it hard to believe that governments can and will use terrorism as a means to their own ends, i.e. staying in power at any coast. However, it is not only ‘governments’ and ‘social structures’ that are examined and criticized in this novel. Unemployment, lack of money, poverty- those are the motifs behind many actions. Conrad’s makes it evidently clear that life is a rat race. There is no place for romanticism here. The desperate need to stay in power doesn’t lurk just behind government’s officials and their actions—at times you get this feeling that nobody is really what he or she appears to be, everyone seems to have a secret agenda.


How much does an average person hide? How much does we hide from ourselves and others? What are our secrets? There seem to be a lot of ‘secrets’ in this novel, both as individuals and society, we all seem to hide a lot. As always, Conrad doesn’t shy away from examining the dark side of human nature, be it from an individualist or a social point of view. The sinister side of organized power appears as potentially horrifying as the violent madness of anarchism. Moreover, I had this feeling there was more irony and sarcasm in The Secret Agent than in other Conrad’s works- or perhaps there were more in the open, not as subtly woven into the story as usual. Speaking of which, this novel seemed even ‘darker’ in tone that other of his works. The conversations between anarchists chilled my blood. The fascination with death, the desire to end it all- these things can be found in present days as well. The sort of moral ambiguity that is so prevalent today is a slippery ground. Anarchism flourishes easily on the fertile land of moral ambiguity. 


The opening of the novel sets the mood and describes the setting quite nicely. A reader receives a fair share of information in the first few paragraphs. Moreover, the very first two sentences not only introduce us to the main characters of the novel (Mr. Verloc, Mrs. Verloc and her brother Stevie) , they also tells us something about the organisation of their domestic life:  

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.
The relationship between the three is very interesting and as the novel progresses, it will become increasingly so. In addition, the relationship between the three is important for understanding the dynamics of their domestic life, so I will take a moment to comment on this. Mrs. Verloc doesn't care much, neither about his business nor about his brother-in-law but he does seem to care about Ms. Verloc. His wife, however, seems to care mostly about her brother, everything else Mrs. Verloc does is solely with her brother's safety and happiness in mind. Ms. Verloc's brother has got some kind of behaviour or health problem that is never specified, but it is clear that little Stevie has special needs. It might be a condition of some sort, a form of mental retardation or autism, it is really hard to tell. Anyhow, it seems that Mrs. Verloc is both determent and content to be Stevie's care-taker.  A natural question that arises is whether her brother had anything to do with her wedding choice? Clearly, she would only choose a man who would tolerate (if not love) her brother. That brings us back to the text,  the following sentence paints the house, the 'business' and the surroundings. You can clearly see the house and the shop Mrs. Verloc spends her time in:
The shop was small, and so was the house.  It was one of those grimy brick houses which existed in large quantities before the era of reconstruction dawned upon London.  The shop was a square box of a place, with the front glazed in small panes.  In the daytime the door remained closed; in the evening it stood discreetly but suspiciously ajar. The window contained photographs of more or less undressed dancing girls; nondescript packages in wrappers like patent medicines; closed yellow paper envelopes, very flimsy, and marked two-and-six in heavy black figures; a few numbers of ancient French comic publications hung across a string as if to dry; a dingy blue china bowl, a casket of black wood, bottles of marking ink, and rubber stamps; a few books, with titles hinting at impropriety; a few apparently old copies of obscure newspapers, badly printed, with titles like The Torch, The Gong—rousing titles.  And the two gas jets inside the panes were always turned low, either for economy’s sake or for the sake of the customers.

Besides the depressive and dim setting, you might also notice the nature of the 'shop'. Both of the reasons why the gas jets were set very low in that shop are perfectly plausible: either for the sake of economy or because of the customers- or both. Well, obviously there is something shady going on there. The protagonist of our novel Mr. Verloc seems to deal with 'inappropriate' things, meaning light porno-graphical materials- hence it is obvious why customers might prefer less lighting. That's only half of the story. Mrs. Verloc must also be at least relatively poor- or why would he economize? In fact, this 'business' is only a cover up for his real work- and that is being an agent provocateur for an unknown country. A work that at first doesn't seem as dramatic, but that will soon become so, for Verloc will be forced to prove his worth to his employers. Here is the first description of his that the writer shares with us: 
 His eyes were naturally heavy; he had an air of having wallowed, fully dressed, all day on an unmade bed.  Another man would have felt such an appearance a distinct disadvantage.  In a commercial transaction of the retail order much depends on the seller’s engaging and amiable aspect.  But Mr Verloc knew his business, and remained undisturbed by any sort of æsthetic doubt about his appearance.  With a firm, steady-eyed impudence, which seemed to hold back the threat of some abominable menace, he would proceed to sell over the counter some object looking obviously and scandalously not worth the money which passed in the transaction: a small cardboard box with apparently nothing inside, for instance, or one of those carefully closed yellow flimsy envelopes, or a soiled volume in paper covers with a promising title.  Now and then it happened that one of the faded, yellow dancing girls would get sold to an amateur, as though she had been alive and young.

Very early into the narrative, his wife was mentioned and right after Verloc's 'description', Winnie is introduced as well. Her introduction poses obvious question. Why would such a good-looking woman marry Mr. Verloc? Why is she so casual about working in such a shop? Obviously, Conrad knows how to create intriguing characters. 
Sometimes it was Mrs Verloc who would appear at the call of the cracked bell.  Winnie Verloc was a young woman with a full bust, in a tight bodice, and with broad hips.  Her hair was very tidy.  Steady-eyed like her husband, she preserved an air of unfathomable indifference behind the rampart of the counter.  Then the customer of comparatively tender years would get suddenly disconcerted at having to deal with a woman, and with rage in his heart would proffer a request for a bottle of marking ink, retail value sixpence (price in Verloc’s shop one-and-sixpence), which, once outside, he would drop stealthily into the gutter. 

Next character to be introduced is another female character, Mrs Verloc's mother. Besides describing her physical appearance, Conrad also explain her origin and personal history, hence providing more information about the family:

Winnie’s mother was a stout, wheezy woman, with a large brown face.  She wore a black wig under a white cap.  Her swollen legs rendered her inactive.  She considered herself to be of French descent, which might have been true; and after a good many years of married life with a licensed victualler of the more common sort, she provided for the years of widowhood by letting furnished apartments for gentlemen near Vauxhall Bridge Road in a square once of some splendour and still included in the district of Belgravia.  This topographical fact was of some advantage in advertising her rooms; but the patrons of the worthy widow were not exactly of the fashionable kind.

 After describing the mother's (and hence the family's history) the writer focuses on Winnie once again. Elaborating on her description further, Conrad draws a more precise portray of Winnie: 

  Such as they were, her daughter Winnie helped to look after them.  Traces of the French descent which the widow boasted of were apparent in Winnie too.  They were apparent in the extremely neat and artistic arrangement of her glossy dark hair.  Winnie had also other charms: her youth; her full, rounded form; her clear complexion; the provocation of her unfathomable reserve, which never went so far as to prevent conversation, carried on on the lodgers’ part with animation, and on hers with an equable amiability.  

So, we can see that, at the very beginning, the writer chooses to focus on the domestic life of this seemingly simple family. This family (composed primarily of a husband and wife, but equally importantly, also of wife's mother and brother) is at the centre of this novel, it humanizes the story and renders it its depth.  I don't want to go into more details when it comes to the plot. I shared the above listed paragraphs with you because I wanted to create a sort of introduction to this novel, as well as to give you a taste of the writing.


Before I continue with reviewing this novel, there is one thing I want to talk about. It has to do with Conrad’s ‘language’. I would personally rather call it ‘a style of writing’, but many use the term ‘language’. I just want to be clear what I’m talking about once I get to the subject of Conrad writing style.

One of the things I find incredibly annoying is when people assume how the reason why Conrad’s language is unique is because English wasn’t his mother tongue. So, that is basically saying that one of the most brilliant English (British) writers was great because he didn’t know English well. I mean, am I the only one who thinks this notion is downright silly?

Joseph Conrad lived in Britain for most of his life and was, as far as I know, a British subject. It is ONLY natural that he wrote in English. It doesn’t matter how many other languages he may have spoken or whether he had an accent or not. English was obviously his dominant language when it came to writing. Conrad’s language is unique, but I don’t think it has anything to do with the fact that he was born someplace else than Britain. It is called talent. A talent for writing. End of story. 


Well, one thing that is unique about it is the subject of terrorism. Moreover, this book is based on a historical event and that alone makes it specific to a certain time and place. Social commentary in this novel is naturally shaped by that event so while it is in some ways similar to social commentary in Conrad's other novels, it is also in other ways unique. Conrad focused on the relationship between the government and the individual in his other works as well, but in this one, there is more talk of anarchism, revolutionary and terrorism then in his other works. Another thing that I feel like I ought to mention is the 'female lead'. Winnie plays an important part in this novel. While some Conrad's novels feature noteworthy female characters, it is my no means his trademark. In fact, many of his  works hardly feature any female characters ( Heart of Darkness, The Shadow Line, Lord Jim being among some). There is a female protagonist in Victory but she is an idolized woman. As a rule, noteworthy lady characters are, when one does find them in Conrad's novels, rather innocent and sweet. In that sense, Winnie is almost an exception to the rule. I have to say, it was most refreshing to have such a realistically portrayed woman as one of the main characters in this novel.


Absolutely and what is more- probably more relevant that ever. It will remain relevant as long as human beings continue being human, in both positive and negative sense of the word. It is enough to take a look at the description of this character, for example, to see the danger of fanaticism: 

The Professor had turned into a street to the left, and walked along, with his head carried rigidly erect, in a crowd whose every individual almost overtopped his stunted stature.  It was vain to pretend to himself that he was not disappointed.  But that was mere feeling; the stoicism of his thought could not be disturbed by this or any other failure.  Next time, or the time after next, a telling stroke would be delivered—something really startling—a blow fit to open the first crack in the imposing front of the great edifice of legal conceptions sheltering the atrocious injustice of society.  Of humble origin, and with an appearance really so mean as to stand in the way of his considerable natural abilities, his imagination had been fired early by the tales of men rising from the depths of poverty to positions of authority and affluence.  The extreme, almost ascetic purity of his thought, combined with an astounding ignorance of worldly conditions, had set before him a goal of power and prestige to be attained without the medium of arts, graces, tact, wealth—by sheer weight of merit alone.  On that view he considered himself entitled to undisputed success. (....)  To destroy public faith in legality was the imperfect formula of his pedantic fanaticism; but the subconscious conviction that the framework of an established social order cannot be effectually shattered except by some form of collective or individual violence was precise and correct.  He was a moral agent—that was settled in his mind.  By exercising his agency with ruthless defiance he procured for himself the appearances of power and personal prestige.  That was undeniable to his vengeful bitterness.  It pacified its unrest; and in their own way the most ardent of revolutionaries are perhaps doing no more but seeking for peace in common with the rest of mankind—the peace of soothed vanity, of satisfied appetites, or perhaps of appeased conscience.


The pace of the novel suited me just fine. When it comes to Conrad, I’m by now used to his sometimes very long descriptions. When it comes to describing every physical and psychological aspect of his time, this writer really takes his time- to the point it can be distracting to the narrative. I wouldn’t say this is a ‘reader-friendly’ book, but it is not terribly difficult either.

 The novel has an interesting narrative. It did take me a long time to read it, but to be fair- it was no fault of this novel. It was neither me nor Conrad, it was a vicious disease I’m fighting and the fact I’ve been in and out of hospitals for the last few months. I did enjoy reading this one- I can't stress that enough. I only struggled a bit when it came to the middle of the novel. Conrad is amazing when it comes to drawing incredibly detailed portraits of all of his characters, but there was a point when the combination of profound soul searching and the succession of characters felt overwhelming. At times I even struggled with keeping my focus, but in the end it was more than worth it.


The ending really caught me by surprise- and in a good way. I found it to be absolutely brilliant. What more can I say? The way the novel ended was, in my view,  immensely powerful. I didn’t expect Conrad to write something so brutal and naturalistic. Winnie really came to life in that last chapter. I don’t want to say anything more to avoid the spoilers, but the ending really fitted the bleak tone of the novel. This is a serious novel, no doubt about it, so if you're looking for something light or something to entertain you, this isn't a good book for you. However, if what you're looking for is literature and not merely entertainment, look no further. The Secret Agent is a marvellous novel with a very powerful finish. Absolutely brilliant piece of writing!


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