1907, Books, Fiction

The Secret Agent (1907) by Joseph Conrad

This is a rather remarkable book where Conrad manages to combine suspense with satire/social comment and some fairly modernist construction.

SPOILERS so let me just say if you like Conrad read it.

There is no protagonist. I don’t know how radical that was for 1907, probably not as radical as I think, but it still feels notable to me and it’s sort of like a double Psycho in the sense that two of the people you think could be the protagonist don’t make it (though one lasts longer than the other). So there are many different third person POVs which make it a little disorienting but also let Conrad tell his full story and also play with our expectations of how the story will go.

The other neat trick is how he (briefly) plays with chronology. Again, I don’t know how radical this was in 1970, but the breaking away from the main incident to build up to it again from another angle feels like it’s anticipating the way films tells stories. People have said this is Conrad’s hardest novel to film – though it has been turned into multiple films and miniseries – but it feels like it has been really influential on the ways filmmakers tell stories, both with playing with time and playing with perspective.

The plot doesn’t go where you think it will but it stays compelling and tense. I find the POV from the assistant commissioner (who disappears without a trace!) to be perhaps the most compelling from a page-turning point of view, but the novel is compelling most of the time. It’s regularly a pretty great example of how to write pretty sentences while still keeping the reader on edge.

And the resolution is pretty ballsy, I’d say. It helps to have a reputation already to write a book like this with this aggressive an anti-climax. I like it but I can see why a lot of people didn’t at the time.

And then there’s the social comment (or satire): these are some pretty pathetic anarchists/terrorists. It’s bizarre that a prominent American terrorist admired one of them and it just goes to show how satire is so often lost on the audience. This book is critical of basically everybody (though I find Winnie much more sympathetic than a lot of people it seems) and I think this is effective. I know lots of people don’t like reading books where there are no heroes or no one is likeable. I used to like the more when I was younger. But here, I think there is enough here in terms of the plot and the style to make up for a lack of appealing characters. (And I do think there are at least two.) Moreover, I think the point of the book (such as there is one) requires most of these characters to be unlikeable (or outright caricatures). Conrad is not Dickens, even if he’s trying to be here, but he makes up for it in other ways.

For me it’s definitely one of his best novels. And really quite different from his earlier books and stories.

9/10

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