: The Secret Agent
I don’t much like this book. Likely, that’s a personal problem. A simpleton, I need for a story to be told in a straightforward fashion—straightforward enough, at least, that it doesn’t end with too
many more unresolved questions than it has answered. Some literati regard The Secret Agent
as an obscure masterpiece, a landmark spy novel and one of Conrad’s finest works. I regard it primarily as a bore.
Published in 1907, the book is based on anarchists’ attempt, a quarter-century previously, to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. The British government and police fail to bring justice—but that hardly matters, since the terrorists fail to accomplish anything more than killing one of their own unwitting operatives. Not a single personage in the book seems likeable; not a single one is especially intelligent; and there is nothing more about a single one that I would care to read anything further about.
The focal character—which becomes apparent at the very end—is/was not the secret agent (a basically kind but self-preoccupied, hapless buffoon) at all, but his working-class wife. Both die tragically, and perhaps that is all you need to know. Others—revolutionaries, government authorities and a few dull neutrals—come and go, each contributing little to a plot that inches ponderously and dismally to a dreary conclusion. Conrad has taken what might have been an intriguing story and smothered it with self-indulgent, interminable commentary. Consider this:The extreme, almost ascetic purity of his thought, combined with an astounding ignorance of worldly conditions, had set before him a goal of power and prestige to be attained without the medium of arts, graces, tact, wealth—by sheer weight of merit alone. On that view he considered himself entitled to undisputed success. His father, a delicate dark enthusiast with a sloping forehead, had been an itinerant and rousing preacher of some obscure but rigid Christian sect—a man supremely confident in the privileges of his righteousness. In the son, individualist by temperament, once the science of colleges had replaced thoroughly the faith of conventicles, this moral attitude translated itself into a frenzied puritanism of ambition.
This is a description of one of the anarchists, a secondary character barely worth more than a mention. (His role is merely to supply the bomb, which proves tragically flawed.) If we’re to wade through this style of relentless verbiage, Conrad might at least have done us the favor of clarifying such terms as “a delicate dark enthusiast” and “a frenzied puritanism of ambition.”
We’ve trapped for almost a complete, lengthy chapter inside a carriage transporting the secret agent’s mother-in-law to her retirement at an almshouse. (The mother-in-law, introduced at some length initially, turns out to be of so little significance that she easily could have been excluded from the tale altogether.) Half a page is given to a government official’s entirely irrelevant musings on Italians and Italian restaurants. (No Italians are involved in the bomb plot or in any other aspect of the book.) Worsening the tedium is Conrad’s blatant lack of consideration for the reader. At one point a character of “grotesque and incurable obesity” is introduced within such a hopeless grammatical construction that we’re unsure which of two possible characters the fat one actually is. I remain uncertain, having read the book, whether there was one botched assault on the observatory or two—and consequently, whether there was one demolished terrorist or two.
A bleak, sluggish study in failure and futility from cover to cover. You do have, if you’re so inclined, an opportunity here to indulge extensively into Conrad’s thought processes, which some consider of extreme value. I’m not so eager anymore. Rather than take up The Shadow-Line
, another lesser-known Conrad novel which has piqued my interest, I've selected to read next The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople
by Jonathan Phillips—something light. — Daniel Elton Harmon