The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
Narrator: Steven Crossley
Published by Tantor Audio on May 10, 2014 (first published 1907)
Source: Library
Genres: Classic
Length: 10 hrs 21 mins
Format: Audiobook
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four-half-stars

Secret agent Mr. Adolph Verloc operates from a seedy Soho shop, where he deals in pornography and espionage. Idle, treacherous, and self-righteous, he makes the life of his wife, Winnie, one of silent misery. When Verloc is assigned to plant a bomb at Greenwich Observatory, his plans go terribly awry, and his family has to deal with the tragic repercussions of his actions.

Joseph Conrad's dark satire on English society, while rooted in the Edwardian period, remains strikingly contemporary. Presenting a corrupt London underworld of terrorists, grotesques, and fanatics, Conrad's savagely ironic voice is concerned not just with politics but with the desperate fates of ordinary people.

I have not read anything by Joseph Conrad before. Obviously, I’ve heard of him, but neither Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim ever made it to my TBR list. Honestly, I was looking for a classic audiobook available to “read now” from my library and came across The Secret Agent— the title grabbed my attention and the blurb made me borrow it.

Verloc is our secret agent in London who works for Russia? Germany?—it’s not really clear. Mostly he collects a check to pass on whatever rumors come his way and hangs out with anarchists. He also keeps on the cops’ good side by sharing info with them. His wife Winnie marries for security for herself and her brother, but has no idea about the true nature of his work.

Then, the rather nasty Mr. Vladimir, from “the embassy” tells Verloc that he needs to do more than observe to keep getting his check. He needs to do something, specifically blow up the Greenwich Observatory. Vladimir concludes that the attack will stir England into decisive, even extreme, action against criminal/revolutionary/terrorist elements or organizations—or something to that effect.

Verloc is far from thrilled with the idea, but feels that taking the action is his only real choice. But his plan blows up and the consequences are disastrous.

The terrorists are not crazy, they’re not evil, but they’re also not noble. They profess to be acting for ideals, but for the most part their motivations deal more with security and their egos. Honestly, I’m not sure I liked any of the characters. I could sympathize with them, but none of them were nice people, not even the cops.

It’s a tough book. Conrad repeats a lot of the same things over and over, which gives a rather uncomfortable feeling that fits well with the plot. The structure is not linear. We jump backward and forward in time at a couple of points, but for me that just added to the shock of one of the events. We also shift perspectives regularly. It’s also tough subject matters, terrorism, death, power, greed. I don’t know if enjoyed is the right word, but I’m definitely glad I read it. And it still has relevance.

The book was written in 1907 but takes place in 1886. Apparently when it was first published it was not very popular although it received positive reviews. I can understand, it’s not a pleasant book and the event it is based in part on, Greenwich Bombing of 1894, was still in people’s memory. Since then, The Secret Agent has come to be considered one of Conrad’s finest novels. The Independent calls it “one of Conrad’s great city novels” and The New York Times stated that it is “the most brilliant novelistic study of terrorism”.

About Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad (born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski; 3 December 1857 – 3 August 1924) was a Polish-British writer regarded as one of the greatest novelists to write in the English language. Though he did not speak English fluently until his twenties, he was a master prose stylist who brought a non-English sensibility into English literature. Conrad wrote stories and novels, many with a nautical setting, that depict trials of the human spirit in the midst of what he saw as an impassive, inscrutable universe.

Conrad is considered an early modernist, though his works contain elements of 19th-century realism. His narrative style and anti-heroic characters have influenced numerous authors, and many films have been adapted from, or inspired by, his works. Numerous writers and critics have commented that Conrad’s fictional works, written largely in the first two decades of the 20th century, seem to have anticipated later world events.

Writing near the peak of the British Empire, Conrad drew, among other things, on his native Poland’s national experiences and on his own experiences in the French and British merchant navies, to create short stories and novels that reflect aspects of a European-dominated world—including imperialism and colonialism—and that profoundly explore the human psyche.

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