Category: Joseph Conrad

book review – The Secret Agent


This is an odd book to be reading right now. Joseph Conrad might be credited with writing one of the first novels to cover the subject of terrorism but it feels all too familiar in this age of suicide bombers.

The irony with The Secret Agent is that The Professor, who is rigged and boldly talks about being prepared to blow himself up, never does it while an innocent simpleton stumbles and trips blowing himself to pieces.

Living not too far away from Greenwich Park and enjoying strolls through its tree-lined avenues it is odd to think of someone choosing to target the observatory for a terrorist attack.

But maybe it is never intended to be chosen with Mr Verloc being intimidated into making some sort of outrage to ensure he keeps the cheques coming from the embassy that pay him for being a secret agent. Verloc is the main character in the story flanked with his wife Winnie and his brother-in-law Stevie.

Back in his past Verloc once tipped off a foreign dignitary over the possibility of some sort of assassination attempt and ever since then has been dining out on the performance. But with a change of guard at the embassy he is challenged to show his worth by exploiting his position as a leading light in anarchist circles in London. Verloc feels blackmailed and disappears from view while he thinks about the consequences.

Conrad starts to weave the story around the encounter and takes the reader into a pub where two anarchists, nicknamed The Doctor and The Professor, are talking about the power that comes from the knowledge that you could blow yourself up. The Professor is rigged permanently to blow. But he finds it hard to believe someone has beaten him to it when The Doctor produces the paper to show that someone has blown themselves up in the park.

Conrad manages to leave you wondering if it was Verloc for a while before the identity of the simpleton Stevie is revealed. The reader finds out only just before his sister and her grief leads to the murder of Verloc. All of the secret agents protestations of innocence laying the responsibility at the door of the embassy count for nothing.

With Verloc dead the story fizzles out but Winnie tries to take refugee in the arms of the Doctor but once he sees the dead Verloc he is intent on escaping her clutches. Left alone she commits suicide leaving those who knew the couple shell shocked and undermined by the experience. The power of the bomber has been tested and found wanting.

This is sometimes a book that is difficult to follow because of the style but the message is as up to date as ever. Here is a morality tale of the costs of taking lives and the results on those who have been involved in that process. The outcome is that innocent people die and even those that believe they are in the right are plagued with self-doubt, recriminations and a sense of futility. A bomb might make a temporary outrage but does not do much more other than main and kill innocent people who had to be killed for some one, and some radical group, to make a point.

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book review – The Secret Agent


This is an odd book to be reading right now. Joseph Conrad might be credited with writing one of the first novels to cover the subject of terrorism but it feels all too familiar in this age of suicide bombers.

The irony with The Secret Agent is that The Professor, who is rigged and boldly talks about being prepared to blow himself up, never does it while an innocent simpleton stumbles and trips blowing himself to pieces.

Living not too far away from Greenwich Park and enjoying strolls through its tree-lined avenues it is odd to think of someone choosing to target the observatory for a terrorist attack.

But maybe it is never intended to be chosen with Mr Verloc being intimidated into making some sort of outrage to ensure he keeps the cheques coming from the embassy that pay him for being a secret agent. Verloc is the main character in the story flanked with his wife Winnie and his brother-in-law Stevie.

Back in his past Verloc once tipped off a foreign dignitary over the possibility of some sort of assassination attempt and ever since then has been dining out on the performance. But with a change of guard at the embassy he is challenged to show his worth by exploiting his position as a leading light in anarchist circles in London. Verloc feels blackmailed and disappears from view while he thinks about the consequences.

Conrad starts to weave the story around the encounter and takes the reader into a pub where two anarchists, nicknamed The Doctor and The Professor, are talking about the power that comes from the knowledge that you could blow yourself up. The Professor is rigged permanently to blow. But he finds it hard to believe someone has beaten him to it when The Doctor produces the paper to show that someone has blown themselves up in the park.

Conrad manages to leave you wondering if it was Verloc for a while before the identity of the simpleton Stevie is revealed. The reader finds out only just before his sister and her grief leads to the murder of Verloc. All of the secret agents protestations of innocence laying the responsibility at the door of the embassy count for nothing.

With Verloc dead the story fizzles out but Winnie tries to take refugee in the arms of the Doctor but once he sees the dead Verloc he is intent on escaping her clutches. Left alone she commits suicide leaving those who knew the couple shell shocked and undermined by the experience. The power of the bomber has been tested and found wanting.

This is sometimes a book that is difficult to follow because of the style but the message is as up to date as ever. Here is a morality tale of the costs of taking lives and the results on those who have been involved in that process. The outcome is that innocent people die and even those that believe they are in the right are plagued with self-doubt, recriminations and a sense of futility. A bomb might make a temporary outrage but does not do much more other than main and kill innocent people who had to be killed for some one, and some radical group, to make a point.

The Secret Agent – post V

Should have posted this last night but things intervened so here is the last post on The Secret Agent with just a review to come.

Having stumbled back to his home after the bombing in Greenwich Park Mr Verloc faces the challenge of explaining to his wife why her brother died. The problem is that his wife is not listening and she realises that the man in front of her is a killer who took the life of her brother.

The more he moans on about the embassy and the pressure he was under to carry out the bombing the less he gets through to her and in the end is rewarded with a knife in the stomach. Mrs Verloc then stumbles around in shock and rushes out of the house and into the arms of one of the other members of the anarchist group. The Doctor, as he is known, has a weakness with women and announces all too quickly that he has always loved her. But after having been introduced to her husband’s corpse he starts to panic and although appearing to go along with her plans to flee to the continent jumps off the train and leaves her to travel to the continent alone.

The chronology then skips with the Doctor talking to the bomb carrying Professor sharing a rather frank and bitter exchange before pulling out a newspaper report detailing the suicide of Mrs Verloc who threw herself off the cross channel ferry. As he stumbles off to the wreck of his life the bitter professor shuffles off through the streets with his bomb under his coat. His power is ignored but his arrogance remains and his stumbling off into the dark sums up the contrast between those who choose to use their own suicide as a weapon and the masses around them who have no such concept.

A review will follow soon…

The Secret Agent – post V

Should have posted this last night but things intervened so here is the last post on The Secret Agent with just a review to come.

Having stumbled back to his home after the bombing in Greenwich Park Mr Verloc faces the challenge of explaining to his wife why her brother died. The problem is that his wife is not listening and she realises that the man in front of her is a killer who took the life of her brother.

The more he moans on about the embassy and the pressure he was under to carry out the bombing the less he gets through to her and in the end is rewarded with a knife in the stomach. Mrs Verloc then stumbles around in shock and rushes out of the house and into the arms of one of the other members of the anarchist group. The Doctor, as he is known, has a weakness with women and announces all too quickly that he has always loved her. But after having been introduced to her husband’s corpse he starts to panic and although appearing to go along with her plans to flee to the continent jumps off the train and leaves her to travel to the continent alone.

The chronology then skips with the Doctor talking to the bomb carrying Professor sharing a rather frank and bitter exchange before pulling out a newspaper report detailing the suicide of Mrs Verloc who threw herself off the cross channel ferry. As he stumbles off to the wreck of his life the bitter professor shuffles off through the streets with his bomb under his coat. His power is ignored but his arrogance remains and his stumbling off into the dark sums up the contrast between those who choose to use their own suicide as a weapon and the masses around them who have no such concept.

A review will follow soon…

The Secret Agent – post IV

The consequences of the suicide bombing come home to roost in quite dramatic style. As the two senior policemen fight it out to protect and charge their favourite anarchists Verloc has to face his wife.

Once she overhears that Stevie her brother is dead she goes into a trance and no matter what excuses Verloc gives it doe nothing to get through to her. In a brilliant piece of writing Conrad has Verloc arguing exactly as a man usually does trying to justify the unjustifiable by making himself out to be the victim.

Despite Verloc’s warning that he will spend time in prison and that he has been a victim of the bullying of Mr Vladimir in the embassy his wife realises she is now free and gets dressed to go out. She gets stopped by her husband who is lounging on the sofa and she then picks up the knife and kills him convinced that she is doing away with her brother’s murderer.

The entire scene of Verloc and his wife is not only believable but shows how easy it is for the wrong words and attitude to inflame grief and lead to something much more dangerous.

Meanwhile the police are focused on smashing the spy ring and see Verloc as a sprat that will lead them to the whale. But with him lying on a sofa in Soho with a knife in his gut is he going to be any good to anyone?

Final chunk tomorrow…

The Secret Agent – post IV

The consequences of the suicide bombing come home to roost in quite dramatic style. As the two senior policemen fight it out to protect and charge their favourite anarchists Verloc has to face his wife.

Once she overhears that Stevie her brother is dead she goes into a trance and no matter what excuses Verloc gives it doe nothing to get through to her. In a brilliant piece of writing Conrad has Verloc arguing exactly as a man usually does trying to justify the unjustifiable by making himself out to be the victim.

Despite Verloc’s warning that he will spend time in prison and that he has been a victim of the bullying of Mr Vladimir in the embassy his wife realises she is now free and gets dressed to go out. She gets stopped by her husband who is lounging on the sofa and she then picks up the knife and kills him convinced that she is doing away with her brother’s murderer.

The entire scene of Verloc and his wife is not only believable but shows how easy it is for the wrong words and attitude to inflame grief and lead to something much more dangerous.

Meanwhile the police are focused on smashing the spy ring and see Verloc as a sprat that will lead them to the whale. But with him lying on a sofa in Soho with a knife in his gut is he going to be any good to anyone?

Final chunk tomorrow…

The Secret Agent – post III

They were discussing Conrad on Radio 4’s Front Row programme tonight pointing out the similarities between his wiring and Henry James. Have to confess I have never read any of the latter’s work but there is still time to sneak on in this year.

The more you read The Secret Agent the more there are similarities with Under Western Eyes, which is set in St Petersburg.

But where that book was a relatively straightforward narrative this one moves backwards and forwards with the bomb going off in Greenwich before the back-story is filled out. There are two stories running in parallel with the police officers trying to crack the case both having different views of who is to blame and meanwhile it emerges that it was Verloc’s brother-in-law the simpleton Stevie who tripped over a root and blew himself up.

For Verloc’s wife the news is all too much as she is still getting over the fact her mother has moved out begging a charity to put her into an alms house. She overhears her husband not only admitting to being the second man in Greenwich Park but also admitting to coming clean about his involvement as a secret agent.

Although the bombing has been a failure it still managed to cause an outrage as demanded by the Embassy paying Verloc but there is no sense of victory just disaster back at the shop. For Mrs Verloc, the really innocent party, there is a sense of blame because she suggested that her excitable brother Stevie went out for walks with her husband and then suggested that he go and stay with a well known anarchist.

Quite what will happen now the details of the bombing are starting to become clear is nowhere certain and that is because Conrad has already made things far from clear with the movement back and forth in time.

More tomorrow…