Scorn and pity

Entrance to The Oxford Arms Inn, Warwick Lane demolished in 1878. Image by Society for Photographing Relics of Old London’s record of threatened buildings (Museum of London)

Joseph Conrad: The Secret Agent. A Simple Tale
Penguin Modern Classics 1963 (1907)

“… perverse reason has its own logical processes.” — Author’s Note added 1920

Late Victorian London was a hotbed of political activity, especially in the 1880s when the Irish Republican Brotherhood instituted a bombing campaign that lasted a good five years. Few were killed but damage to several buildings — including Tube stations and, in 1884, Old Scotland Yard — ensured that terrorism was never far from the authorities’ concern.

One particular incident though had no clear motive, the apparent attempt to blow up Greenwich Observatory in 1894. The bomb went off prematurely killing Frenchman Martial Bourdin, but why he was carrying it and what the proposed target was remains a mystery. It is this incident that Joseph Conrad, a Pole who would assume British citizenship in 1886, chose to fictionalise as the central event of his 1907 novel The Secret Agent, an extraordinary narrative that’s not at all easy (despite its subtitle) to summarise in a few short sentences.

Fenian bombing of Scotland Yard 1884

Adolf Verloc is the secret agent of the title. In fact he is a double if not triple agent who deals with various revolutionary groups, a foreign embassy (clearly Russian) and a police contact. His wife Winnie (whose implicit motto is “Life doesn’t stand much looking into”) supports his Soho business selling imported Continental pornography but doesn’t enquire into his other activities: all her energies are put into caring for her brother and her infirm mother and ensuring Adolf has his meals put on the kitchen table. And things have clearly been pootling along like this for a few years until Verloc is summarily summoned by First Secretary Mr Vladimir to the Russian Embassy in Knightsbridge.

Mr Vladimir — the new broom to sweep the Embassy clean — thinks that Mr Verloc has not been justifying his pay with significant results. And he believes London is playing host to numerous Jewish agitators [1] who threaten Tsarist Russia with revolution, and that the Metropolitan Police have been turning a blind eye to it all. He wants action, and Mr Verloc with all his revolutionary contacts is the one to shake things up by arranging a significant bomb outrage to galvanise the police. Poor ‘indolent’ Mr Verloc’s placid comfy existence is now all in turmoil.

The next we hear is that a bomber has blown himself up near the Observatory. Is this Verloc, as we readers are led to suppose? Or is the explosion the work of revolutionary philosopher called Michaelis as Chief Inspector Heat believes, though not as his superior the Assistant Commissioner assumes? Where do revolutionaries like Alexander Ossipon, Karl Yundt and ‘The Professor’ fit into all this? How and why is Secretary of State Sir Ethelred (with his amusing private secretary Toodles) being drawn in? And what is to be the role of Winnie’s young brother Stevie, an individual who appears to be on what we’d now call the autistic spectrum?

The Secret Agent is a slow-paced novel but one that repays persistence. It is of course a tragedy, not of high-placed individuals or nobles but of commoners (the Assistant Commissioner observes to the Secretary of State that “from a certain point of view we are here in the presence of a domestic drama”). Mrs Verloc’s mother sees herself as heroic by planning not to be a burden on her daughter’s husband. Stevie, with his strong emotional pull towards compassion and social justice, is too easily manipulated by a father figure. Mrs Verloc — who in effect is the real protagonist of this book — is blindly heroic in her housewifely way, but acute feelings of abandonment and betrayal lead to two shocking conclusions. The motives of pretty much all the other characters (bar The Professor, who is the most unsympathetic individual of all) lead them down avenues which ultimately end in compromise or failure.

Yet though this presents as merely a tale of human despair and nihilism it is, as a narrative, completely engrossing. Our focus is constantly shifting from one player in the action to another, from Verloc to Vladimir, from Chief Inspector Heat to the Assistant Commissioner, from Winnie Verloc to Alexander Ossipon; through Conrad’s use of free indirect speech we are led through each individual’s chain of thoughts — whether they are considering, judging, deciding, justifying or fooling themselves. That they are all shown as events unfold to be insignificant bit-players is rarely better symbolised than by this passage:

Mr Verloc heard against a window-pane the faint buzzing of a fly — his first fly of the year — heralding better than any number of swallows the approach of spring. The useless fussing of that tiny, energetic organism affected unpleasantly this big man threatened in his indolence. — Chapter 2

In another way we readers are playing the role of fly-on-the-wall, observing and trying to make sense of what conversations and actions mean in the grand scheme of things, if there is indeed a scheme. The fact that Conrad features so many dusty, opaque or dark windows in his narrative — characters looking in or looking out — suggests that we are all going to struggle to evaluate the significance of what we witness; and of course he leads the inattentive reader up the garden path at one stage when he suddenly backtracks after implyimg a particular course of action has happened when it hasn’t.

We are left wondering, along with the Assistant Commissioner in Chapter 7, whether this is all the work of anarchism or “some species of authorised scoundrelism”. Conrad’s own Author’s Note (penned thirteen years later) specifically says that his tale is designed to express and evoke both “scorn and pity” on the doings of anarchists of all stripes; that he chooses to do it in a consistently ironic tone — Verloc is always ‘indolent’, Ossipon ‘robust’ — helps to ease this rather dark story along some tortuous passageways.

Conrad, by the way, was a self-confessed flâneur, and he utilises this early habit in evoking London at the tail-end of a miserable winter, particularly in Verloc’s journey from Brett Street in Soho to Chesham Square in Knightsbridge. Elsewhere we get a strong sense of the metropolis when the “adventurous head of the Special Crimes Department” ventures out on foot:

He advanced at once into an immensity of greasy slime and damp plaster interspersed with lamps, and enveloped, oppressed, penetrated, choked, and suffocated by the blackness of a wet London night, which is composed of soot and drops of water. — Chapter 7

You can feel the cloying atmosphere not just of the capital city but of the dark deeds we are to encounter in these pages. Just like the compass-drawn overlapping circles that the autistic Stevie entertains himself with over and over again The Secret Agent‘s interlocking spheres of individual actions cannot help but affect all and sundry. [2]

[1] Conrad’s characterisation of many of the chief actors in The Secret Agent suggests that they are of Jewish extraction (though I don’t know if this is an example of anti-Semitism on his part or a reflection of the realities of the time): see Cedric Watts’ essay in The Secret Agent: Centennial Essays edited by Allan Simmons and John Henry Stape (Rodopi 2007), part of which is viewable here

[2] See also this post

2018 Ultimate Reading Challenge: a book published over a hundred years ago

12 thoughts on “Scorn and pity

  1. My father really enjoys reading Conrad, or did, he is now nearly 91 and very ill, but in his reading heyday, he read everything he could of Conrad’s………I did try, but found him hard going……maybe I should try again 🙂


    1. I’ll be honest and say that I found this really slow, very hard going at first, much as I did Heart of Darkness. But once I adjusted to the pace of things and the occasional slightly awkward phrasing the effort for me was definitely worth it.

      However, life’s too short to feel bad about giving up on something, so all I can say is that I didn’t manage the Conrad when I was a schoolboy or when I was middle aged, having to wait till retirement to be in the mood to appreciate his work. Maybe for you too? 😁

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I admire Conrad’s work but haven’t read this novel yet – thanks for the recommendation! 🙂 I think Conrad can be a difficult read for two main reasons: 1) the themes of his work, which usually revolve around the issues of morality and are not easy in themselves, and Conrad does a lot to make them even harder (scorn and pity – who nowadays would want to read a book evoking such emotions? ;)) 2) his language, which seems to use a more Polish than English syntax and style. Polish compared to English is a much more descriptive language, operating with long, convoluted sentences full of adjectives. It’s only my opinion, mind you, but I have a feeling Conrad uses way too many adjectives for a regular English user 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, really interesting comments, Ola, got me thinking further! Adjectives: his use of them here didn’t really faze me, it was more in the way that he phrased things, say, or his precise placement of an adverb (not in itself wrong, just not the way that felt idiomatic to a native speaker).

      I think this novel’s theme, however, appeals more to the modern mind than it did to his contemporaries (who thought it decadent for daring to show any kind of understanding of might go through a terrorist’s mind). He had scorn for their deeds but pity for them as flawed human beings; and it appears that the only way he could reconcile the two opposites was through his declared use of irony.

      To be honest, though, I’m not so sure if I’d have ‘got’ what he was about if it wasn’t for his subsequent author’s note which, added many years later, made his intentions so much clearer!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. piotrek

      You haven’t? Read my copy 🙂 It is quite good, the only Conrad I have, and read, in English. But my favourite book of his is “Under Western Eyes”, as I share Conrad’s dislike of the Russian state, and of Dostoyevsky…
      This one I’ve read pre-9/11 as a period piece about anarchism and perfidy of Russian diplomats. I was a simpler man back then 😉

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I’m sure if I’d read this pre-9/11 I’d have thought, not of ISIS-inspired atrocities, but of IRA terrorist bombings, themselves modelled on the activities of the Irish Republican Brotherhood contemporary with (but unrelated to) the Greenwich explosion. We were all simpler people back then, I think!

        Under Western Eyes is not a Conrad title that comes to mind but I’ll be alert to it now. I suspect we’re all suspicious of the Russian state (and have been for some time) all except for a handful of collusion-deniers from a certain global superstate which seems to be fooling some of its people all of the time. 😒


      2. The list keeps getting longer… Banks’ The Culture, Conrad, I believe some comic books were in order as well – I’ll get a wheelbarrow for my next visit 😉


Do leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.