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The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (Penguin Classics) Paperback – September 25, 2007
"Halsey Street" by Naima Coster
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“The Secret Agent is an altogether thrilling ‘crime story’ . . . a political novel of a foreign embassy intrigue and its tragic human outcome.” —Thomas Mann
“One of Conrad’s supreme masterpieces.” —F. R. Leavis
“[The Secret Agent] was in effect the world’s first political thriller—spies, conspirators, wily policemen, murders, bombings . . . Conrad was also giving artistic expression to his domestic anxieties—his overweight wife and problem child, his lack of money, his inactivity, his discomfort in London, his uneasiness in English society, his sense of exile, of being an alien . . . The novel has the perverse logic and derangement of a dream.”
—from the Introduction to the Everyman's Library edition by Paul Theroux
About the Author
- Publisher : Penguin Classics; 1st edition (September 25, 2007)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 320 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0141441585
- ISBN-13 : 978-0141441580
- Lexile measure : 1030L
- Item Weight : 8.3 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.1 x 0.71 x 7.9 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #152,493 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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Maybe its because, although the topic matter of the work is grim, I surprise myself by laughing uproariously each time I read this work. Conrad was never really known for his humor, at least from what I can tell, but I find there are places in the book that, whether meant to be intentionally funny or not, make me laugh my head off. I'll leave it at that-there is something strange indeed about this work, which is really quite different from Conrad's other works.
The Penguin Classics edition is very helpful with references, and I recommend it highly.
All in all really well done and worth the read.
As always, Conrad stories don't have much of a plot. A genial bookstore owner does not do a thriving trade because he is inordinately lazy. But he gets a supplemental income from a foreign government by spying on local anarchists. Most of whom are as dangerous as a newly hatched duck. it is the foreign government (ostensibly an ally) that is dangerous. Because the anarchists are pretty lazy too, the foreign government wants to scare the British into doing something about them by blaming them on an atrocity of their own concoction. Our bookstore owner is coerced into the insanely stupid plot, which fails to come off.
Part of the bookstore owner's life is his wife and her idiot brother, whom she protects fiercely. The idiot brother dies as a result of the stupid plot. the wife, angry at her worthless husband for killing her brother, kills him and takes the money he had saved up from being paid by the government and runs off with one of the anarchists to France. However, the anarchist just wants the cash and he turns her over to the Dover police and makes his way to France by himself.
As a plot, it is sparse and in the modern world we see it too often. it is repeated over and over every time there is a terrorist attack. We dig into the life of the suicide bomber and we see stories of desperation and inanity very much like it.
However, if you are going to read Conrad, you are not interested in plot. And what makes this such a good read is the way Conrad looks into the lives of his characters and reports on them so very dispassionately. His style is sort of that of an engineer explaining the trajectory of an enemy missile. he is not responsible for it, he can't do anything about it, the story proceeds on its way to its inevitable explosion and he just describes the process. Sometimes passionate interest is helpful, sometimes it gets in the way. Conrad's story her benefits from his detachment.
And very much the story moves in the manner of a mathematical formula for figuring the path of a runaway train. It is inexorable.
How accurate is Conrad's description of the life of a terrorist? From my reading it is painfully so. He has looked into their hearts and minds and found the vacancies and levers that move them.
The book is so old, the story is so old, but it repeats over and over. It is a very good book to understand our modern world. And the minds of those who would like to end it.
Top reviews from other countries
I didn't think one could find such simple sentences in a Conrad novel. But then again, this was a novel of many firsts for him.
Mr Verloc is a middle-aged agent provocateur in the employment of a foreign country. He answers to the latest embassador, Mr Vladimir, who wants Verloc to conduct a terrorist attack that can be blamed on the various emigre socialist/anarchist groups that inhabited London in the 1880s. These groups are a serious problem in Mr Vladimir's native country, so he hopes that the British police will crack down on them. Mr Verloc is threatened with loss of livelihood (his cover being a shop selling obscene materials) in the strictest terms if he does not comply. He chooses to fulfil his mission at the expense of his family, although he is so callous he hardly realises what he has done.
It must be a mark of how confident Conrad, an Ukranian-born, Polish novelist felt in his maturation as a writer that he chose to set the story entirely in London. The sea is absent here. In his former novels, Conrad felt he could not compete with native British writers- but in this one he builds some of his most compelling characters.
Winnie Verloc is Mr Verloc's wife and in her we see Conrad's most believable female character he ever managed to write. She is a stoic, industrious, harmless creature that comes from a very modest background. The only person she cares for in the world is her brother and she has made serious compromises for his sake. It is hard not to sympathise with her situation and the final part of the novel is exclusively about her inner world, which is portrayed with a humanity reminiscent of Dickens.
Verloc himself is a shallow, relatively dull and totally lazy man - Conrad is mercilessly ironic towards him, although it doesn't prevent him from making Verloc totally believable. Every action Verloc takes makes sense given his character. Conrad holds negative views of all "revolutionaries" and he displays then openly in this book which is unusual for such a subtle writer. Inspector Heat calls anarchists "lazy dogs, all of them". Michaelis's views are portrayed as hopelessly naive. The Professor is an intensely misanthropic character and a very authentic one. Ossipon is reptilian up until before the end, when he is disturbed by the consequences of his actions.
Some of the episodes certainly make it Conrad's most human novel. The incident with Stevie and the cabman for example, or Mrs Verloc's mother going away to the almshouse and the brutal description of her quarters there. This may be a political novel on the surface, but underneath it, it is a novel concerned with motives very connected to the social realities of the time. Conrad paints a bleak, disturbing picture of London; I wonder if it is because he could not afford to live there.
This book is part of what I consider Conrad's three great novels which came one right after the other. Nostromo, and Under Western Eyes are the other two. All of them are difficult and inaccessible although the Secret Agent in particular is supposed to be one of Conrad's simplest novels. Dialogue in the Secret Agent is more frequent than in Conrad's other novels and the verbosity is somewhat simpler, although simple only by Conrad's standards. The paragraph-length sentences, the bombardment of adjectives, the non-linear chronology are all here. It is only a simple novel in terms of length (not very long) and story (not particularly convoluted).
I suspected that the Secret Agent started as a short story, something that I confirmed when I read the Author's Note. By the way, this edition is absolutely brilliant. It includes voluminous notes, a brilliant introduction and Conrad's notes approximately thirteen years after he wrote the book. Even the cover is fitting.
Published in 1907, one gets the feeling that the Secret Agent has created and influenced certain literary genres of the 20th century. It is my favourite of Conrad's novels (and I think it was a literary triumph for him, even bigger than Nostromo), yet its bleakness means I cannot easily go back to it. Nevertheless, if anyone wanted to start reading Conrad I would recommend starting right here.