lunes, 2 de marzo de 2015

The Secret Agent

The Secret Agent (Penguin Classics, 2007)
by Joseph Conrad
England, 1907

"Exterminate, exterminate!  That is the only way of progress."
(The Secret Agent, 240)

Joseph Conrad's 1907 cover of "Anarchy in the U.K." isn't as rousing or anthemic as the Sex Pistols' debut single--even if, at its best, it's sometimes its equal in ironic malevolence--but I'm willing to overlook that for r-r-right now-w-w on account of the well-known greater availability of cheap speed and antisocial power chords in the "don't know what I want/but I know how to get it" 1970s.  In any case, what concerns us here is that the title character of the bomb-throwing satirical thriller The Secret Agent is a part-time pornographer, part-time family man, and full-time employee of the Russian embassy by the name of Adolf Verloc whose involvement in a bungled plot to blow up the Greenwich Observatory in order to cast suspicion on London's anarchist community will make him rethink the age old adage that "Ⓐ is the only way to be!" when his wife, the cops, and of course those dirty rotten anarchists themselves all line up to fight over who wants Verloc out of the way the most by the end of the squalid tale.  Not having read any other Conrad novels since Heart of Darkness back in the Apocalypse Now/early Thatcher days, what was easily the least gratifying thing about the resumption of my reading relationship with the guy was seeing how inauthentic the Verloc character became after the bombing mishap at the center of the story.  That was almost a deal-breaker for me, in fact.  Fortunately, what was probably the most gratifying thing about the resumption of my reading relationship with the guy was seeing what a full-on, mean-spirited loon he could be re: the art of description--saying, for example, that a good housewife turned murderess "had put all the inheritance of her immemorial and obscure descent, the simple ferocity of the age of caverns, and the unbalanced nervous fury of the age of bar-rooms" (208) into the stabbing of her victim is probably Darwinian evidence enough, but that example positively pales in comparison to the "outrage" of an earlier one in which a certain Chief Inspector Heat examines the remains of a bombing victim on an exam room table as the reader is told "And meantime the Chief Inspector went on peering at the table with a calm face and the slightly anxious attention of an indigent customer bending over what may be called the by-products of a butcher's shop with a view to an inexpensive Sunday dinner" (70).  Pre-punk punk, punk!

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)

13 comentarios:

  1. I've yet to read anything by this author (yes - I know, I know) but he's been sitting on my long-term wishlist for some time. The Secret Agent is one of two Conrads I've considered (no prizes for guessing the other one!). I had to laugh when I saw your comment about his full-on, mean-spirited tendencies...that just might be the deal-clincher to tip me towards The Secret Agent.

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    1. It's been so long in between Conrads for me that you should probably take this with a huge grain of salt, but I think Heart of Darkness is deeper/more complex and The Secret Agent more a triumph of style over substance. Conrad is amusingly mean-spirited in the descriptions department here, though, and I may be slighting this novel's complexity given its critique of poverty and the economics underlying marriages of the time: i.e. "Mr Verloc loved his wife as a wife should be loved--that is, maritally, with the regard one has for one's chief possession" (143). Ouch!

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  2. Such a great Conrad; so unlike his other books: funny, straightforward, thrilling! I had such a great time reading it a few years ago.

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    1. I liked The Secret Agent well enough, but I was disappointed with Conrad for Verloc's unconvincing "psycholology" in the second half of the book. Really didn't find the character credible at all as time went on, so it's a good thing the novel had other things (humor, the anarchist arguments) going for it. Have you read Nostromo? I think I'd like to read that one next--and hopefully within the next 35 years!--unless I revisit Heart of Darkness first.

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    2. Well, this is a late reply!

      Yeah, I read Nostromo. It's a tortuous book, Conrad does some really difficult things with chronological shifts. I didn't find the plot very engaging, although the central concept of economic powers manipulating rebellions in foreign nations was ahead of its time.

      I've read a handful of Conrads, and The Secret Agent and Heart of Darkness are my favourites.

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  3. I have been meaning to read this for decades. This does sound fun.

    And yes - It IS the only way to be :)

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    1. LOL re: your final comment, Brian! The Secret Agent is a fun book indeed and probably would have seemed even more fun if I hadn't read Bely's way superior terrorist novel Petersburg so recently. That book is almost impossible to compete with although Conrad put up a valiant effort w/off the wall mini-gems like this one: "Not a soul, not even the vagabond, lawless, and amorous soul of a cat, came near the man and the woman facing each other" (222). Heck, I probably should have tried harder to work that line into the post!

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  4. This and Conrad's Under Western Eyes are two I have not read and intend to sooner or later. In the meantime I look forward to your post connecting The Clash with G. K. Chesterton.

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    1. I'll try to bring your great the Clash vs. The Man Who Was Thursday Chesterton idea up at Caravana's next editorial board meeting, Scott, esp. since it would be fairly easy to work in a Big Audio Dynamite reference or two if the Chesterton novel deals with similar bomb-throwing sonic shenanigans. Of course, the ironic thing about reading The Secret Agent today is that what Penguin is pimping as a "dark satire" apparently failed to amuse many of Conrad's anarchist-fearing contemporaries judging by the 1920 author's note that's appended to this edition of the novel.

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  5. I don't know Conrad well, but this is the only one I have read that I really think of as funny.

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    1. Yes, Conrad is much funnier in The Secret Agent than that grim, impeccably groomed author photo would lead you to believe. Also funny: Conrad's defensiveness regarding criticism of his novel as too squalid and his claim that he would have liked to have gone after the millionaires better than he did in pursuit of "the truth" (don't have the book with me right now--pardon the paraphrasing).

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  6. Loved this post, Richard, and must take this one down from my shelves, where it has sat comfortably unread for twenty years or more. Sounds much more fun than I had thought.

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    1. Thanks very much for your kind words, Séamus, and I'm glad to see your eye injury has gotten better to the point that you can now put up with a little Sex Pistols-inspired inanity on the reading front again. This Conrad was much more fun than I'd expected as well, and a semi-serious characterization flaw or two notwithstanding, it gets even better when I think of how boring and stupid G.K. Chesterton's "rival" The Man Who Was Thursday was in comparison. Conrad at least doesn't make anarchy boring!!!

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