Novel Review - The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
The Secret Agent
by Joseph Conrad, 1907, 442 pages
TLDR: 5 out of 5 for a wonderful, character-driven story of people caught up in things they don't fully understand.
"And the incorruptible Professor walked, too, averting his eyes from the odious multitude of mankind. He had no future. He disdained it. He was a force... He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men."
The Secret Agent is a dense and layered novel about just that: a secret agent living in the heart of London around the turn of the century. Conrad called it 'A simple Tale' and I suppose the plot itself is simple enough, but the reasons anything happens in this book are far from simple and require some unpacking.
Adolph Verloc is the secret agent. He's been living an easy life, running his low key pornographic book shop in Soho with the help of his wife and autistic brother-in-law, and meanwhile going for long walks to 'observe', and making reports to the 'embassy' on such matters as the state of policing in his district. In the evenings, he gets together with his buddies, a bunch of didn't-really-amount-to-anything anarchists with pretentious names like "the doctor" and "the professor". Sometimes they create and distribute pamphlets, hoping to wake up the populace.
But then one day Verloc is called into the embassy to account for his lack-lustre reports, and the new contact, Mr Vladimir, pushes Mr. Verloc into doing something more dramatic: to place a bomb at the Greenwich observatory.
And from here, things start to go a little sideways, bit by bit, until the carriage is quite off the road.
What really drives this book isn't the plot - it's the characters. Remember The Matrix? Of course you do. Remember how they would freeze the action mid-leap so the camera could pan around the characters to see them from all sides, before resuming the action? Conrad does that in this book, freezing the action during conversations so he can take us noodling around inside the heads of the characters. And in doing this, he makes them all very relatable. Not likeable, but relatable.
In this sense, society is also a character. Like an ancient temple diviner performing a dissection on an animal to read what the gods had written on its liver, Conrad excises society's organs - its law, class system, management, marriage, disenfranchisement - then examines them and reveals his prognosis.
This isn't an uplifting novel, but it is a rich one. It has a modicum of humour and a helping of love - Conrad loves his characters, and makes fun of almost everything. And it's full of delicious description. It's sombre, but beautiful. I'd be surprised if you could come away unmoved by it. But if you could, then maybe, just maybe, like the incorruptible Professor, you'd inherit the earth. 5 out of 5 for this, my favourite novel of the year.