At present this wonderful little novel is being serialised on BBC One in three parts.
Joseph Conrad was a Pole who joined the British Merchant Navy as a young man, learnt English and became one of the greatest of English Novelists. His short novel Heart of Darkness is a searing indictment of colonialism and was adapted into the film Apocalypse Now.
The Secret Agent is Adolf Verloc who runs a small shop in Soho selling pornographic books and pictures; he lives above the shop with his wife Winnie, her mother, and Winnie's brother Stevie who is a 'degenerate', a 'special lad', a lad with special needs, perhaps on the autistic spectrum. But Verloc also works for the Embassy as agent Triangle; he infiltrates revolutionary groups (England was a haven for many European political dissidents including Karl Marx and Lenin) and informs on their activities. He also gives information to Inspector Heat of the Special Branch.
The first chapter is full of fabulous descriptions and beautifully laid breadcrumbs delivered with savage irony. Verloc is "a protector of society"; he "had an air of having wallowed, fully dressed, all day on an unmade bed"; "he found at home the ease of his body and the peace of his conscience"; he is "a very nice gentleman" with a "kind and generous disposition". By marrying Mr Verloc, Winnie reflects, she has ensured that Stevie "was pretty safe in this rough world" even though Stevie lost his job as an office boy after "he was discovered one foggy afternoon ... letting off fireworks"; persuaded to do so by two other office-boys.
Chapter two starts with a brilliant description of Mr Verloc walking through the streets of London. Here we find words littered such as "peaceful slumber", "harmoniously", "sedately", "benign vigilance" and "a town without shadows". "The only reminder of mortality was a doctor's brougham arrested in august solitude close to the kerbstone." And Verloc reflects that "all these people had to be protected ... the whole social order"; "his mission in life being the protection of the social mechanism". But devilish Mr Vladimir calls Verloc into the Embassy, attacks him as fat and complacent, requires action not information, and insists that he plants a bomb to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, the symbol of time.
Chapter Three describes the ineffective and lazy revolutionaries that Verloc has collected around him: Ossipon the ex-medical student who has a taste for the ladies (as they do for him); Karl Yundt, full of hate; Michaelis who has spent fifteen years in prison, is now released on parole, is a favourite of a certain elderly peeress, and is about to depart for the country to exchange a prison cell for a hermit's cell and to write a book about the religious experiences he has in jail. None of these will ever take the action Mr Verloc now needs.
Then, after just a quarter of the book has gone, we jump forward to the time when the bomb has exploded. The bomber has blown himself up in Greenwich Park, probably after stumbling over a tree root. We are treated to a sordid description of the remains in the mortuary: "the gruesome detail of that heap of mixed things, which seemed to have been collected in shambles and rag shops ... the by-products of a butcher's shop" including the details that there is gravel mixed in with the remains because bits had to be scraped off the ground with a shovel and that the first thing the wonderfully stoic constable collected was the bomber's feet. The Assistant Commissioner becomes involved, intent on taking Heat down a peg or two, and goes to the address found in a label in the overcoat, the address of Mr Verloc's shop.
We hit the fifty per cent mark, half way through, and we lurch back again in time. Winnie's mother goes into an almshouse leaving Winnie and Stevie with Mr Verloc. But Winnie and Stevie are with mum on the final trip in a cab, and Stevie is much impressed with the character of the cabbie who declares "This ain't an easy world ... 'Ard on 'osses, but dam' sight 'arder on poor chaps like me" which awakens Stevie's social conscience; he tells Winnie on the way home that it is a "Bad world for poor people". But Stevie believes that "Mr Verloc was good. His mother and his sister had established that ethical fact on an unshakeable foundation. They had established, erected, consecrated it ... Mr Verloc was obviously yet mysteriously good." I am getting those little shivers crawling over my skin as I recognise that I am in the presence of a literary genius. Omg, I thought.
Omg. Verloc is God. Stevie is Jesus. Winnie (who has not given birth to Stevie nor has she had children of her own) is the Virgin Mary. Stevie knows the world is bad and has an "unshakeable" belief that Mr Verloc is good; this belief has, ironically, been instilled in him by his mother and his sister. And Mr Verloc has chosen Stevie and taken him from Winnie and has sacrificed Stevie. Stevie has died, the innocent victim of self-sacrifice.
And Conrad hammers home this point. Beautifully breadcrumbed is the triangle symbol by which Verloc is known, the Trinity (and of course is twas forbidden to pronounce the name of the God of the Old Testament unless you were a prophet). Immediately after we discover that Stevie thinks Verloc good, Verloc becomes restless and goes out to wander the streets, despite the fact that "it was no earthly good going out". He has a terrible decision to make. He comes back and goes to bed with Winnie who asks:
"'Shall I put the light out?'
Mr Verloc snapped at his wife huskily.
'Put it out.'"
Oh that is genius.
And the next chapter starts. Verloc is back from the continent and Stevie continues to look at him "with reverence and awe", taking his bag with "devotion" and carrying his hat "reverently". Winnie, watching, tells her husband that Stevie "would go through fire for you ... that boy just worships you." As they walk down the street together she thinks that they "might be father and son".
Verloc takes Stevie off 'to stay with Michaelis'; when he returns alone, the boy having stayed there, he is shaking and his wife is concerned he has a cold. Then the police come. This is the point in the book where it is revealed that Stevie is the victim; Heat realises it and Winnie suddenly discovers what has been going on. Heat takes Verloc into the back room and Winnie listens at the keyhole. Heat advises Verloc to "clear out ... there are some of them ... who think you are already out of the world."
And then Winnie and Verloc are left. This is the best part of a wonderful book. Because we discover that Verloc has no understanding at all of how Winnie feels. It is as if Conrad is saying that God is so high that he cannot possibly understand the sadnesses of us humans.
Verloc is obsessed with his own troubles. He has been exposed, he will go to prison, he might face retribution from all the comrades he has betrayed in the past. And he is so wrapped up in himself that he cannot understand Winnie's point of view at all.
Conrad achieves this by using the everyday banal aphorisms that people use in times of grief. "Can't be helped," says Verloc. It wasn't after all his fault: "I didn't mean any harm to come to the boy." "Do be reasonable, Winnie," he says and "Don't be a fool, Winnie." "The eventuality he had not foreseen had appalled him as a humane man and fond husband. From every other point of view it was rather advantageous. Nothing can equal the everlasting discretion of death." "You'll have to pull yourself together, my girl" Verloc says, "What's done can't be undone ... You go to bed now. What you want is a good cry." She tells him she had thought he had a cold and he says "It was nothing ... I was upset. I was upset on your account." And later: "By heavens! ... I ran the risk of giving myself away to find somebody for that accursed job. And I tell you again I couldn't find anyone crazy enough or hungry enough. What do you take me for - a murderer, or what? The boy is gone. Do you think I wanted him to blow himself up. He's gone. His troubles are over ... Don't you make any mistake about it: if you will have it that I killed the boy, then you've killed him as much as I."
But she can't get over the fact that "This man took the boy away to murder him."
This is the awful climax of the book. After, Winnie hears the ticking of the clock, but she thinks the clock has stopped, and we are reminded that the bomb was an attempt on Greenwich, the source of time; the hearts stop beating; that God is eternal. Winnie seeks the help of Ossipon who, when he discovers that it is Stevie not Verloc who has died, says "The degenerate - by heavens!"
Right at the end, Ossipon meets the bomb-maker in a bar. Ossipon "could face no woman. It was ruin. He could neither think, work, sleep, nor eat. But he was beginning to drink with pleasure, with anticipation, with hope. It was ruin." And the last sentence is left to the bomb maker, the anarchist who goes about with a bomb under his coat so he can blow himself up is the police come to catch him. The bomb naker is (in our allegory) Death himself. He walks through the crowd. "He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men."
July 2016; 249 pages
Mike Blamires points out to me that there are alternative interpretations of this great and classic text. He referred me to Joseph Conrad: Married to the Devil: The Secret Agent's Critique of Late-Victorian Gender Roles By Brandon Colas. This suggests that Winnie is the pivot around which all the characters are brought to destruction and puts her in the role of the Devil, the Serpent in the Garden (and in this regard quotes Ossipon who "saw the woman twined round him like a snake ... she was nor deadly. She was death itself - the companion of life" and, two paragraphs later when Winnie says: "Tom, you can't throw me off now ... Not unless you crush my head under your heel").
I agree. I think Conrad, like all novelists, was deliberately weaving several levels into his tale. Certainly there is a political aspect and there is the idea that if you fight terrorists with violence you are playing into their game, and there is a very sarcastic portrayal of the revolutionaries as lazy men who were parasites on women. Women again. The BBC have emphasised the terrorist thriller aspect of the story (by adding a lot of extra writing that is not in the original). The fact that there are alternative interpretations does not, I think, invalidate mine. Criticism should be a multi-dimensional game.
- I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57