Conrad’s Secret Agent and the Book Group

Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent (1907; I read it in a Conrad omnibus from the library)

1conradBefore the meeting: I first read The Secret Agent 40 or so years ago, but all I remembered was a moment when a character hears a sound like a ticking clock and realises after a long paragraph that she is actually hearing blood dripping. That, a dark, clammy London, and a vague sense that the book’s anarchists were nasty, stupid  big-talkers who bore very little resemblance to the anarchists of my acquaintance (except perhaps for the capacity to talk theory).

Rereading it for the book group, I found all those elements still firmly in place. Soon after starting the book, I made the mistake of getting hold of Christopher Hampton’s 1995 film version. I switched off  about half way through the movie, but on the strength of what I saw I’m confident that the virtues of the book didn’t make their way onto the screen – with the exception of Robin Williams’s chilling, uncredited turn as a nihilistic bomb-maker. The Secret Agent is not a spy thriller; Joseph Conrad wasn’t a forerunner of John Le Carre.

The book proceeds largely by a series of conversations: Mr Verloc the eponymous secret agent meets Mr Vladimir of the Russian embassy; the largely self-deluding anarchists of 1880s London discuss political theory; an armchair radical has a beer with the nihilistic bomb-maker; the bomb-maker and a police inspector have a stand-off; the inspector and his superior jostle for the upper hand; the latter seeks the support of a Very Important Politician; Mr Verloc tries to calm his wife after her beloved brother dies dramatically; and so on. Most of the conversations are two-handers; in many of them one participant is virtually silent. The effect ranges from comic when the policemen are playing power games to almost intolerably suspenseful when Verloc is reassuring his wife, completely failing to grasp that her world has been shattered, and that she rightly holds him responsible. Every conversation goes on far longer than could be tolerated by any self-respecting filmmaker (with the possible exception of Louis Malle, who made the superbly garrulous My Dinner with André). Once I relinquished my cinema-trained desire for compression and speed, I was engrossed.

I don’t know that The Secret Agent has much of value to say about anarchism, beyond the observation that some anarchists tend to talk a lot and not do much. Terrorism at the end of the 19th century was a different beast from the terrorism of today, but the book’s central image resonates: when simple-minded Stevie is manipulated by a man he trusts to risk his life, his central motive is compassion for the suffering poor, but his act actually serves as fuel for repressive propaganda. It’s hard not to feel that the young men and women who strap explosives to themselves in the 21st century have a lot in common with him – just insert aggrieved religion in place of simple-mindedness.

The meeting: In the lead-up to the meeting, one chap emailed that if we ever made ‘another ill-thought out decision to read a book like The Secret Agent‘ he’d apply for a transfer to a women’s book group. It looked as if we were going to have a good old stoush. But it turned out that though some of us loved the book, some found it laugh-out-loud funny, and some would prefer to have spent their time on other things, we all at some level enjoyed it. (At this point I should say that I made a number of egregious errors of fact over dinner, and may be completely inaccurate on this matter as well.) There was some happy sharing of favourite sentences.

One guy read us a 2004 review from the New York Times, which made me think that our plan to read a book that dealt with terrorism might have been better served by Conrad’s Under Western Eyes. I guess we’ll save that for another day.

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