The Secret Agent is one of those rare novels that manage at once to tell the story of an individual and hold up a mirror to the age. Weaving together a collection of dissatisfied characters, it examines the ideas and pressures that push people further and further from their desires until they are forced into terrible and irrevocable action. The result is a powerful and sobering tale that sticks in the mind long after the book is back on the shelf.

Conrad’s genius for characterisation is the key to the story’s success. Master of the mixture of opportunism and predisposition that underlies most of what we do, he presents us with the agonising steps by which human beings retreat from the things they want most.

The most fully realised example of this is the central character, Adolf Verloc, who lets slip every opportunity to sidestep his commission to blow up the Greenwich Observatory through cowardice, lack of vision and an inability to share his secrets with his wife. At last, thrown into the company of his mentally-handicapped brother-in-law (because of his wife’s anxiety that he should bond with – and therefore continue to provide for – the boy), Verloc tries to keep himself at arm’s length from the deed by getting Stevie to do his dirty work, with disastrous results.

This trait, which is displayed in every character, down to the most minor, allows Conrad to present the minute psychological shifts that govern human decisions. The scene towards the end of the book where Comrade Ossipon, one of Verloc’s anarchist cronies, bumps into Winnie Verloc shortly after she has stabbed her husband is a good example. Here, we see how Ossipon’s vanity and opportunistic desire for an attractive woman cushion him from understanding the meaning of her distress; and then, when confronted with the full horror of the situation, how he contrives to abandon her, taking her money with him.

It is this enormous empathy for human weakness that enables Conrad to avoid the pitfalls the subject matter opens up. While many novels that chart the friction between conflicting ideologies run aground on pages of weighty philosophical discussion, The Secret Agent skims lightly over its themes, playing out their drama in the actions of its characters instead. This, coupled with Conrad’s linguistic fluidity - described by T E Lawrence as “not built on the rhythm of ordinary prose, but on something existing only in his head” - makes the book an easy and absorbing read, without losing any of the weight or complexity of the topics it considers.

On the downside, this duty to the shifting motivations of each and every one of his characters can mean that Conrad occasionally gets bogged down in the delineation of an incidental digression or sub-plot. The wrangle between the Assistant Commissioner and Chief Inspector Heat, for example, while true to life, lays claim to a disproportionate amount of printer’s ink.

Yet this is a small price to pay for a novel in which many of the sub-plots, such as The Professor’s quest for the “perfect detonator”, constitute mini-masterpieces in their own right. Balancing intellectual muscularity with emotional depth, The Secret Agent calls up a world that is at once involving and moving, and profoundly flawed. A book to challenge your mind and wring your heart. 

 

Other Reviews

The New York Times: The most brilliant novelistic study of terrorism

The Independent: One of Conrad's great city novels 

Giles Foden: one of the great novels of modernism... Part of the genius of The Secret Agent is the way it shows the unknowability of people.