Monday, August 22, 2016
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“THE SECRET AGENT” by Joseph Conrad (first published in 1907)
Long ago on this blog [see the posting on Joseph Conrad’s Victory] I confessed that, as a young student, I went through a phase of believing that Joseph Conrad was the World’s Greatest Novelist, before I got over the foolish habit of applying that designation to anyone. I recalled the Conrad books I had read and I retailed one favourite anecdote: I was so absorbed in Conrad’s The Secret Agent that I spent a whole day in the university caff, reading it compulsively and missing a number of lectures in the process. The novel was both exciting and intellectually satisfying.
I recently reacquainted myself with this tight, depressing and brilliant book, and re-affirmed my youthful impressions of it.
As all lit. guides will tell you, the Pole Josef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski (1857-1924) had English as his third language after Polish and French (both of which he spoke better than he spoke English); yet remaking himself as Joseph Conrad, he was able to become a master of English prose. And of deep irony. Again, as any lit. guide will tell you, The Secret Agent may be subtitled “A Simple Tale” but it is far from simple and it is saturated in irony.
And yet at least one of its strengths is the fact that its central plot is indeed simple and has some elements of the suspense thriller.
Under cover of being a respectable lower-middle-class businessman, Adolf Verloc plays a double game. He is both a police informant, who infiltrates anarchist groups, and an agent provocateur, employed by a foreign (presumably Russian) embassy. Mr Verloc has married the younger Winnie, apparently providing domestic stability and security to her and her feeble-minded little brother Stephen (Stevie). They run a shady newsagents and stationery shop (there are hints that they sell smut under the counter). When Verloc visits his foreign controller Vladimir at the embassy, Vladimir tells Verloc he wants him to create an “anarchist” outrage that will cause the British police to come down hard on foreign political agitators and justify the promotion of stricter laws against terrorists at a forthcoming international conference. Vladimir suggests Verloc attack Greenwich Observatory, as science is now the holy cow of the middle classes more than art, culture or religion. After gaining the necessary explosives from an anarchist contact, “the Professor”, Verloc entrusts them to the unknowing young Stevie and tells him where to leave them. But in the neighbourhood of the Greenwich Observatory, Stevie is blown up and killed by what Verloc has given him. When Winnie learns of this, she is rapidly disabused of her notion that Verloc really cares for her or her brother. She kills Verloc and flees, knowing she could hang for murder. In her flight she is apparently given comfort and moral support by the anarchist Alexander Ossipon, who in fact deserts her as soon as he is able, taking all her money. In a postscript we learn that Winnie commits suicide after the desertion. So Stevie, Verloc and Winnie are all dead by novel’s end and the illusion of domestic security is literally blown up, leaving police, anarchists and agents provocateurs to continue their tawdry dance.
The germ of the novel was the so-called “Greenwich Bomb Outrage” of 1894, when the anarchist Matrial Bourdin was blown up by own bomb. He had apparently been urged on by brother-in-law, who was an agent provocateur. It is possible to historicise The Secret Agent by placing it in the context of early 20th century British fears of anarchism and foreign political activists, fuelled by the many anarchist “outrages” that had occurred in continental Europe. (See my posts on Donald Rumbelow’s TheHoundsditch Murders and the Siege of Sidney Street and G.K.Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday.)
Yet while the novel was inspired by events and fears of its own time, and while it does have elements of the thriller or detective story, it is by no means as simple as the dull-witted synopsis with which I have presented you. Conrad, in his third-person eye-of-God narration, does not relate events in chronological order, and often forces us to piece together what has happened. The first three chapters systematically present Verloc and his shabby milieu – Verloc and his home; Verloc and his relations with the foreign embassy; Verloc among the anarchists. In Chapter 4 we learn, in a conversation between Ossipon and “the Professor”, that somebody has blown himself up at the observatory. This leads to chapters in which various levels of police are seen at work and more of the Verlocs’ domestic life is revealed. But it is only in Chapter 9, when Verloc admits the truth to Winnie, that we know for certain that Stevie was the victim. In effect, the novel doubles back on itself.
As well as defying chronology, Conrad lingers long over analyses of characters’ motives and descriptions of their surroundings. He literally slows time down. In Chapter 11, Winnie’s killing of Verloc, with a carving knife, is played in agonising slow motion. More than one critic has noted that an anarchist attack on the Greenwich Observatory is, in effect, an attack on rationality and the orderly processing of time. Conrad’s use of symbolism is not as oppressive in this novel as it is in Victory, but chronology and its symbolic destruction as a contrast of reason and unreason (orderly society and anarchy) is certainly implied. For the record, there seems more symbolism in the hat Verloc always wears – even indoors. It is the outward sign of his comfortable bourgeois status – and of course it falls off his head the moment he is killed. And who could miss the irony of a household implement like a carving knife being used as a murder weapon?
Where is the major irony of this novel? It is most overtly the irony of outcomes confounding intentions. Winnie marries for domestic security and in the belief that Verloc will be like a father to feeble-minded Stevie. Verloc’s actions destroy both the boy and the household. Anarchists believe they will overthrow or unsettle authoritarian governments – but their outrages are exactly what authoritarian governments want, to justify greater repression. The foreign embassy official wants to create a big outrage – but the matter resolves itself as a grubby little domestic murder. The police want to avoid the creation of anarchist martyrs by hushing the matter up - but in combatting such a movement as anarchism, they often step outside due process of law. They are, in effect, corrupted by anarchism and end up undermining the very values they claim to uphold.
Under this, however, there is the more pervasive irony of a systematic exposure of characters’ delusions and the false assumptions under which they operate. In a famous passage (in Chapter 8) we are told of Verloc that “he was indolent with that indolence which is so often the secret of good natures”. Conrad the Pole is using this word “indolence” with utter precision. It does not mean idleness or laziness. It means the desire to avoid pain and bother – in other words, not to be troubled by things and therefore not to look honestly at oneself. We are repeatedly told that Verloc believes Winnie “loves him for himself”. But obviously she does not know what and who he really is: and when she finds out, she kills him. Far from matching Verloc’s illusion (always a favourite word in Conrad), Winnie has married Verloc for security, not out of love. This is the “marriage-as-long-term-prostitution” that anarchists often spoke of. Yet Winnie is as morally dead as Verloc is. In the same passage where we hear of Verloc’s indolence, we are told that Winnie believes “things don’t bear much looking into”. In short, she does not wish to look honestly at her own motives.
The novel shows that the rampant self-interest and “indolence” that are true of the Verlocs are also true of the police. The Assistant-Commissioner of Police knows that an anarchist called Michaelis has been involved in the Greenwich outrage, yet he deliberately turns any investigation away from Michaelis because Michaelis has society connections that the Assistant-Commissioner does not wish to disrupt. Chief-Inspector Heat, the man at first put in charge of the case, wants to divert suspicion from Verloc because, most unethically, he has not revealed to his superiors that Verloc is his chief informant among the anarchists and it is upon Verloc that Heat’s reputation really rests. Conrad suggests what later history would call fascist tendencies in these high-ranking police officers. The Assistant-Commissioner is a former colonial administrator who yearns for legitimised violence against his inferiors. Chief-Inspector Heat talks of being allowed to shoot down anarchists like mad dogs.
If Conrad is merciless toward bourgeois morality and the upholders of authority, his gaze on anarchists is often even more devastating. Anarchists declare that they despise bourgeois materialism and merely “use” it to advance their anarchistic cause. But in this novel they are obviously as wedded to it as their ostensible foes. Alexander Ossipon, failed medical student, enjoys the power of swaying audience with oratory, but he preserves his own comfort by affairs with various affluent women. His final approach to Winnie is fuelled by his desire for her shop and bank account. More tellingly, Ossipon is a devotee of the eugenics theories of Lombroso, and sees people in terms of inherited deficiencies and mental diseases – which is hardly a theory on which to base egalitarian anarchism. Symbolically fat Michaelis, the “ticket-of-leave” social evolutionist, lives by sponging off the wealthy who are shallow enough to see anarchism as an amusing fad. We are introduced in Karl Yundt to the type of anarchist who believes in “the propaganda of the deed” – that is, direct terrorist action. But his destructive impulse is apparently fuelled by the fear of impotence and could be classified as a form of masturbation. And then there is the anarchist explosives expert “the Professor”, characterised in the novel’s closing phrase as “a pest in a street full of men”. He is the fanatically cold technician, mainly interested in creating a perfect detonator. There is something both silly and grotesque in the squeeze-bulb explosive he carries in his pocket (it sounds like a squirting flower), but this doesn’t make him any less sinister. “The Professor” has perversely “pure” motives in his rage for social chaos, but they have nothing to do with the betterment of humanity which anarchism claims to represent.
Does Conrad set anything positive to set against the self-deluded bourgeoisie, the self-deluded upholders of the law and the self-deluded anarchists? Not really. Young and murdered Stevie, feeble-minded and in need of protection, could have been developed as the kind of visionary “idiot boy” that Wordsworth imagined (and that Golding more-or-less created in the figure of Simon in Lord of the Flies). But this is what Conrad resolutely does not do. Stevie may be morally innocent, but he also has a pent-up rage (demonstrated in events early in the novel) and his feeble-mindedness renders him dangerous. If The Secret Agent attacks the myth of the noble revolutionary, it also attacks the myth of the holy innocent. There are no Prince Myshkins in Joseph Conrad’s worldview.
So we come to this awful question. On the evidence of this novel, was Joseph Conrad a moral nihilist? Law and established society are corrupt and delusional as are their militant opponents. As he does elsewhere, Conrad’s feeble faith hinges on “necessary illusions”. The unavoidable imperfections of society can be softened only by “fidelity” – meaning a form of humanism showing respect for others and occasionally requiring heroism to maintain. But this is not what Conrad stresses in The Secret Agent, and we are left disturbed at the way the novel knocks our own complacency.
There are only two moments in this novel where I think Conrad runs a little off his narrow-gauge track.
Consider that slow-motion murder scene in Chapter 11, where Verloc (in what is presumably a split-second of “objective” time) watches Winnie stab him and is able to think of how he could evade death. Conrad writes:
“The knife was already planted in his breast. It met no resistance on its way. Hazard has such accuracies. Into that plunging blow, delivered over the side of the couch, Mrs Verloc put all the inheritance of her immemorial and obscure descent, the simple ferocity of the age of caverns, and the unbalanced nervous fury of the age of bar-rooms.”
Two things trouble me about this paragraph. Less damagingly, the last long sentence appears to show Conrad buying into the Lombrosian eugenics ideas of degeneracy that the anarchist Ossipon embraces. Winnie’s “immemorial and obscure descent” damns her. More damagingly, there is the sentence “Hazard has such accuracies”. When I read this as a student, and as I re-read it now, this seems a quick and necessary papering-over of the implausibility of Winnie killing her husband with one blind blow of the knife.
The other matter is one which the critic E.M.W. Tillyard pointed out many years ago. In the final pages, Ossipon carries around a newspaper clipping about the unknown woman (clearly Winnie) who has killed herself by jumping off a cross-Channel ferry. Ossipon is clearly haunted by Winnie’s death. But given what the novel has already told us about Ossipon, this is psychologically wrong. The exploitative Ossipon we already know would have no such tender feelings.
Setting aside these two blips, I would agree with the view that The Secret Agent was Conrad’s last great novel – and very possibly his greatest. Thereafter his literary decline began. Behind him were the great Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness and Nostromo. Ahead of him were, at best, the pretty good Under Western Eyes (also about anarchists and politics), the confused Victory and the okay adventure The Rover, but not much else to shout about. Dark, satirical and totally disabused, The Secret Agent is at his pinnacle.
Cinematic footnote: Once, years ago, I saw an indifferent British television adaptation of The Secret Agent (and another of Under Western Eyes). I have just learnt that this year (2016), in the climate of fear about domestic terrorism, the BBC has just made a new three-part serial of The Secret Agent starring Toby Jones as Verloc. But to the best of my knowledge, there have been only two film versions of the novel made for the cinema. One was not very faithful to the plot, but was a very good film in its own right. The other was faithful to the plot, and was a deathly dull film.
First the good one. Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage, made in 1936, was based on Conrad’s The Secret Agent. (Confusingly, as all students of Hitchcock know, the man’s next film was called The Secret Agent, but was based on Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden stories). I have watched Sabotage (which was retitled The Woman Alone for American release) a number of times. Sabotage updates the story to the (1930s) present. Instead of running a seedy little shop, the Verlocs run a seedy little East End cinema. The American actress Sylvia Sidney – she of the eyes that always seemed on the verge of brimming with tears – played Winnie Verloc. Oskar Homolka played Verloc – two very good performances. The film contrived to provide a happy ending for Winnie and there is no ambiguity in the character of the nice detective (played by John Loder) whoinvestigates the case. He is a shining hero. Young Stevie is simply a carefree young boy – not a mental defective. But there are two outstanding sequences. One is when Winnie, acting as usher in the cinema, has just heard the news of Stevie’s death. She is fighting back tears, but she is also joining an audience in watching a Walt Disney Silly Symphony cartoon, and she can’t help laughing at the same time. This is far more wrenching for us viewers than straight hysterics would have been. The other is the sequence where Winnie stabs Verloc – an early example of the virtuosic cutting that could allow Hitchcock to dramatise something very nasty without literally showing it. Literary purists would be correct in saying that there is not much Conrad here, but the film does capture a pinched, grubby, seediness that is true to the tone of the novel (and apparently true to Hitchcock’s own childhood – his dad was an East End greengrocer.).
Now the deathly dull one. In 1996, the distinguished playwright Christopher Hampton was able to get an A-grade cast for a version of The Secret Agent, which he both wrote and directed. I thought the American Patricia Arquette, with her pale and moon-ish face, was well cast as Winnie and Bob Hoskins was okay as Verloc (perhaps not quite complacent enough). As Ossipon, I could take or leave Gerard Depardieu and I thought Christian Bale (already in his twenties) was too old to play Stevie. The film went back to the original period setting of the novel and was quite scrupulous in following Conrad’s narrative. And it was tedious beyond belief. It bombed at the box office and was universally panned by critics. What went wrong? After one viewing only, I conclude that while being faithful to the plot, it missed completely the tone. Conrad’s pervasive irony, conveyed in the novel by the omniscient author-narrator, simply cannot be dramatized. We are left with a sad and melodramatic domestic tale. One point of oddity – one actor’s name was kept out of all publicity related to this film and did not appear in the credits. This was the (late) comedian Robin Williams who played, efficiently enough, “the Professor”. I assume Williams was attempting to expand his dramatic range. But I also assume that the producers wanted his presence in the film to be a surprise and perhaps didn’t want to mislead viewers into thinking that the film was a comedy.