Monday, April 1, 2013

The Secret Agent

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad was an easy addition to my Classics Club reading list. I had liked it when I originally read it for a British Modernism class in college, but I couldn't remember exactly why. I was interested in revisiting it to see if my first impressions held up. Now that I've finished it for a second time, I'd say it's the kind of book that's improved upon by an interesting class or group discussion, and one that can be appreciated more than enjoyed.

Title character Adolf Verloc, proprietor of a shabby and shady London shop, is employed as a secret agent by a foreign government. Although certain members of the British police have knowledge of Verloc's allegiances, they turn a blind eye to them and ostensibly accept his nondescript existence and placid home life that revolves around his wife, Winnie, who is devoted to Verloc because he unquestioningly provides for her mother and her mentally disabled brother, Stevie. After years of quietly observing and reporting on the revolutionaries and anarchists that he involves himself with, Verloc is suddenly called to the foreign embassy that employs him, where his contact urges him to spearhead an act of terror that will shake the British public to its core. Shortly after this, we learn that a bomb has been set off at the Greenwich Observatory, claiming the perpetrator as its victim.

Up to this point, the story is pretty slow moving, largely comprised of long, obliquely veiled conversations between various combinations of revolutionaries, police officials, dignitaries, and politicians. Intended to set the backdrop of Verloc's secret world, they feel a bit endless, interesting only when Conrad throws in little gems of character descriptions, like "a wide mouth, like a cavern, into which the hooked nose seemed anxious to peer". These moments were few and far between, however, and the first half of the novel left me puzzled as to what I had originally liked about it. Then, once the bombing occurs, the pacing of the plot tightens and suspense quickly builds. Through the eyes of various parties, beginning with the police, we start to piece together what actually happened, coming to realize that Verloc's act of terrorism will actually have greater repercussions within the private sphere of his family than for the public at large. These events, and the issues and themes that they raise, are thought provoking enough to make the first half of the book worth slogging through, but only just barely.

And to end on a very frivolous note, I actually discovered a connection between The Secret Agent and the movie Bridget Jones's Diary. The bibliography in the back of my copy suggests a book by the critic F.R. Leavis as further reading. This name rang a bell when I randomly glanced at it. After thinking a minute, I realized that F.R. Leavis is the (long dead) critic who Bridget pretends to be talking to on the phone at work when Daniel Cleaver catches her in the middle of a personal call. File that away in your store of romantic comedy trivia!


  1. I love that randomt tidbit!! I heard there is a third Bridget Jones book coming out sometime this year or perhaps next year.

  2. I was a little baffled by The Secret Agent as well. I started out thinking the book was about anarchists and then completely changed my mind at the end. I liked the book, but it was a hard book to like ... if that makes any sense. I enjoyed the Bridget Jones tidbit too!



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