Illustration: from the New York Times review of first edition, in 1907.
I’d been reading a trio of Conrad’s sea stories: The Nigger of the Narcissus, Typhoon and The Shadow-Line. Two were about storms, one a calm; two about sailing ships, one steam; two about serious illness on board, one about the obstinacy of a captain. After these I was hungry for more Conrad, but could not imagine that any land-based tale could be as gripping. Landlubbers are not bound together like sailors by mutual dependence, racked by the uncertain elements. As my recent posts bear witness, I’m moved by the elemental: in this tame inland suburb I cannot be up in the rigging of some creaking schooner, but I can still hang sheets on the washing-line in a medium breeze.
So when Suzan Abrams said she was reading The Secret Agent—with all her travels to Frankfurt, Dublin and Singapore I suspect her for a secret agent herself—I decided that that title would be my next port of call.
What attracted him to write on spying and skulduggery in London? As he says in his Author’s Note:
It seems to me now that even an artless person might have foreseen that some criticisms would be based on the ground of sordid surroundings and the moral squalor of the tale.
His tale, like most he wrote, fleshes out an anecdote or news story, imagining the possible background of a bizarre event. I found a resemblance to one of the inner themes of Nostromo, still fresh in my mind.. The secret agent Verloc and Gould in Nostromo are each compromised and corrupted by their chosen occupations, whilst clinging to some fig-leaf of idealism. In this attempt, their dutiful long-suffering wives play a major part through faithfulness and apparent love. In The Secret Agent, this theme, with an underlying concern for morality in a compromised world, grows in strength till it swallows the thriller intact, suspense and all, adding a universal dimension.
I found by looking at online reviews that some readers were disappointed that it wasn’t more of an action thriller. But I’m no critic: when I fall in love with an author I am blind to his faults, or rather I adapt myself to them, make allowances. Reading is an active process, like listening to music. You sing along and your own wrong notes are likely to exceed those of the musician. So don’t look to me for any listing of Conrad’s shortcomings. I don’t see any, and each story I read is better than his last.
So in my amateur reading the central characters are Winnie Verloc and her retarded brother Stevie. The others including her husband reveal themselves through posturing actions and words more than inner monologue. Winnie and Stevie are vulnerable and innocent: to survive the callous machinations transacted in this foggy London of hansom cabs and gaslight, they have to attach themselves to benefactors as best they can. And this is where the link to the sea-stories comes in. Just as in those, just as in Nostromo, his plots are focused on the dynamics of survival: the twisted honour and pride of men coping with circumstances.
It’s a thriller for all that. He maintains the suspense through to the last few pages; though these are characteristically calm and reflective. Plot details are perfectly managed, so that what seems in the first pages mere descriptive colour plays pivotal roles in the dénouement. In contrast with whodunnits, riddled with false trails, it’s irreducible, as implied by the much-disputed subtitle “A Simple Tale”. Every part is essential to the whole in this classical tragedy. The characters themselves may misinterpret what is going on but the author never uses cunning to mislead us. Gradually, we put the hints together and work out with a sense of horror and pity what must have happened. It becomes unbearable as we wait for the characters to find out the truth that we have only guessed. Their limited horizons have shaped it over their lifetimes, ineluctably.Here the self-effacing Winnie gradually comes to the fore, as we see that the plot is shaped by her strengths and limitations, unleashing a triple tragedy. She can’t live without a benefactor: at first the excuse is her responsibility to look after Stevie. But whenever she fastens on to one, she refuses to look beneath the surface or ask questions. “Things don’t stand much looking into”, she says to herself.
I’d drafted out a quite different piece at first, whilst I was still halfway through the book, for what struck me then was the relevance today of this tale involving suicide bombers and deadly disregard of ordered society. It all seemed so believable and modern. In the back of my mind, I was contrasting Conrad with John Cowper Powys, whose dramas take place within the souls of lonely individuals: every character reflecting an aspect of its author. Conrad seems the opposite, concerned with the dynamics of action in a tough world. But now I see that The Secret Agent, for all its sordidness and dark intrigue, is psychological too, a mirror to the real world.
The modern school of literary criticism, if I am not mistaken, analyses texts as objects with intrinsic qualities. I don’t take that view. Texts are nothing without the reader, who alone constructs the meaning. They are dishes served up to a person, preferably hungry, on a particular occasion. By this, my book-reviewing is a subcategory of memoir-writing. It reaches out to an unknown reader, gives my personal view; is not a judgement of merits, doesn’t trouble itself with suggesting “Read (or don’t read) this book. I share because I like to do so.
Last night I watched a movie, Crash (2005). The premise, played out on dangerous streets in LA, is that racial prejudice is lethal, yet redemption is always possible. To demonstrate the point we are offered a bouquet of unlikely coincidences. As a child at heart, my favourite thing was the invisible cloak of invulnerability. A father bestows it on his five-year-old daughter. She believes, and it doesn’t let her down.
From Conrad to a popular movie: I am not going to say “from the sublime to the ridiculous”. I’ve read few novels, and until recently seen few films. As far as I am concerned, all experience is worth savouring as if rare and precious, full of significance. Because it is.