Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent still relevant today


I must confess that I haven’t read any “serious” English novels for quite some time, but 2 weeks ago, I started reading the relatively short Joseph Conrad spy novel The Secret Agent. The novel is only around 240 pages, but feels much longer due to Conrad’s dense prose. Despite this it remains a manageable read. My core experience with Conrad was Heart of Darkness during college; The Secret Agent felt much easier to read (based on my memory of slogging through Heart of Darkness nearly 2 decades ago), I think, because there is more plot development and involvement in the characters. And I am going to congratulate myself for finishing this book!

The novel centers around Mr. Verloc, who runs a seedy shop while acting as an agent for the Russian Embassy. When ordered to instigate an incident (plant a bomb at Greenwich Observatory) or risk losing his subsidy (his main source of income), he embarks on a dangerous terrorist act that ends in tragedy.

The Secret Agent feels as relevant today as it did back in 1907 when the novel was published. Terrorist bombings are used pretty much the same way now as then – i.e. to instill fear and cause governments to react. As a spy novel (I would hesitate classifying it as a thriller, as the slow pace makes it NOT a page turner), I would pretty much call it the precursor to John Le Carre’s excellent early spy novels – that is, these are novels about mundane but complex characters caught in turbulent times. Mr. Verloc is not a James Bond, and Conrad is not fascinated by boyish adventures; his spies and their superiors are seedy politicians and officials looking to further their own careers at the expense of others. And incidents happen not really according to meticulous plans as much as by chance.

Recommended for people who have the tolerance for slow and difficult prose.

P.S. The quality of paper on these new Penguin paperbacks are really quite superior to the ones I used to read back in school. My guess is they won’t go yellow so quickly. Very nice.

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