When my reading group decided to read Secret Agent for our first book, I was not quite sure what to expect. Sure, it is listed as #46 on the Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, but I have to admit that I had never heard of it. One of the things I like to do before jumping into a new book is to do some background research on it. I had read that this book has been interpreted as being both pro-terrorism and anti-terrorism (however that happens), but as I will discuss, I do not think Conrad was taking any kind of stand on terrorism itself.
Since the book is over 100 years old, I do not feel any guilt over spoiling some of the plot. Secret Agent follows the story of Adolph Verloc, an agent of espionage for some unidentified embassy in London. His handlers at the embassy hatch a scheme to blow up the Observatory in Greenwich hoping that it will stir up public support for oppressive homeland security regulation (hmmm). Things obviously do not go smoothly. People are manipulated, innocents die, lives are ruined, and at the end of the story, the political and social situation is unchanged from the beginning of the novel. Basically this is your typical Joseph Conrad novel. No matter how hard Conrad tries, he cannot hide that the cup of his heart runneth over with love for humanity. Read Heart of Darkness for more of his mushy feelings for how great we all are.
Secret Agent was published in 1907, so I knew there would be some Victorian Era shenanigans in the writing style, i.e. a lot of people walking around and looking at things or people sitting and thinking. In this regard, the book did not disappoint, or rather to a modern reader, it did disappoint. Conrad is pretty verbose when it comes to describing people, places, and emotional states. I have to admit that I found myself losing interest in certain chapters that were being bogged down by narrative.
The characters, however, are pretty memorable and the book is enjoyable when they are given time to actually interact with one another. In fact, the interactions between Verloc and the embassy ne’er-do-wells are the most entertaining scenes in the novel.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, this book was one of the most talked about and cited, for obvious reasons. Personally, I thought Conrad was commenting on the corruption imbedded in the upper levels of power in Victorian society rather than taking some sort of stand on terrorism. The police are corrupt, the would-be terrorists are lazy, and every “bad” person is fat. Conrad bludgeons the reader with the rich, corrupt, influential person = fat trope. It is a bit distracting to read hundreds of pages of fat people, but I think Conrad did a decent enough job at least making it entertaining.
Am I glad I read this book? Yes. Was it as great a work of literature as the critics suggest? Probably. The writing is old and can be laborious to get through, but as a true sign of the novel’s worth, it is as topical and relevant today as the day it was published. This is probably the strongest point of the book. If you do not mind being a bit depressed after reading it, Secret Agent is a fine classic to pick up as your next book.
3.5/5 witty substitutes for stars.