Joseph Conrad's 1907 spy thriller has a surprising degree of relevance today

Why Conrad's The Secret Agent is the perfect novel for our time

Written after the Heart of Darkness, the novelist's secret agent thriller gains a new relevance today
May 10, 2019

  Illustration © 2019 Ben Jones from The Folio Society edition of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent
There is a passage in Siegfried Sassoon’s wartime diaries in which he recounts the experience of sheltering in a dugout on the Western Front during a savage German bombardment, with a group of officers—and men—all of whom were reading the works of Joseph Conrad. At the time Conrad was one of a handful of writers capable of bridging the gap between paramount artistic ambition—repurposed for the machine age by Ezra Pound with his slogan, “Make it New!”—and the quotidian enjoyment of a rattling good yarn. To read Conrad—and this is true in particular of The Secret Agent (1907)—is to find oneself, while apparently making clear headway, in fact, with all sails trimmed, beating hard against the wind. In his most celebrated work, the novella Heart of Darkness, the novelist fashioned a tale-within-a-tale, in which the genocidal hell of the Belgian Congo was nested cosily on the deck of a pleasure yacht moored in the Thames estuary. In the novel he wrote after The Secret AgentUnder Western Eyes—which is its thematic sequel, if not a narrative continuation, Conrad created a sort of “once-removed” first-person narrative, whereby the English translator of a Russian agent provocateur’s diary mixes its content with his own contemporaneous accounts of the individuals featured in its pages. Conrad’s own stated intention was that this device should impress upon his democracy-and-clarity-loving English-language readers the obscurity of the Czarist despotism’s doublethink. Something similar is true of The Secret Agent. Comfortable for many years with his sinecure as the secret agent of the Baron Stott-Wartenheim, the spymaster of an unnamed—but clearly the Russian—embassy, Soho pornographer Mr Verloc is appalled when the Baron’s successor—the far more Machiavellian Mr Vladimir—orders him to commit a terrorist outrage. “What do you think of having a go at astronomy?” Mr Vladimir proposes, reasoning that in the post-Darwinian world of late-Victorian England science is the only true religion. To bomb the Greenwich Observatory, as if it were somehow possible, conceptually, to destroy time—and along with it capitalist society—might seem to be the very essence of Conrad’s facetious inventiveness. And yet an outrage of this sort was apparently planned—and imperfectly executed—by a French anarchist, Martial Bourdin, in February 1894. There’s this fact—acknowledged as a source by Conrad—and there’s also the inherently fanciful nature of terrorism itself, which depends for the most part on its victims’ imagination. This, in contradistinction to conventional warfare, which is utterly prosaic: unstoppable bullets striking immovable ranks. While infinitely more devastating, the 11th September 2001 attacks by al-Qaeda on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington were also examples of how terrorist logic fuses symbolism and reality. Both weaponry (jet airliners) and targets were chosen for what they represented: under the aegis of its neoliberal boosters, the high-rise office block and the high-speed transit system are realised as part of what anthropologists term a “symbol set.” In the aftermath of 9/11 much was made of the supposedly “medieval” cast of the Islamist terrorists’ mindset. They, it was supposed, were—in a chilling echo of Curtis LeMay’s policy for North Vietnam—determined to bomb the west back to the Middle Ages. But the truth is that terrorism—like the delusions of schizophrenics—adapts its wild ideas from the most up-to-date machine dreams.

*** We know very little about Bourdin’s motivations, or his political associations, but we know a great deal about the inexorable progress of Greenwich Mean Time in late Victorian England—and in the world more generally. The symbol set of steam engines, steel rails, precision chronometers—and latterly, the telegraph—conjured, over a span of three or four decades, the programming of the incremental division of time into the western collective consciousness, and so democratised what had been formerly the preserve of elites; namely, the zeitgeist. When the blood dripping from the carving knife plunged into Adolf Verloc’s chest strikes the parlour floor, it seems—in the ears of his murderess, his wife Winnie—to merge with the ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece. Some critics have seen this as Conrad’s buried hint that had the poor “idiot” boy, Stevie, been successful in fulfilling Mr Vladimir’s scheme, the first great age of globalisation would, indeed, magically have gone up in a puff of smoke. The Greenwich bomb would’ve been—if you like—a sort of Victorian steam-punk version of the millennium bug that so troubled us in the dying days of the 20th century. Space, time and their odd interlinkages seem to lie at the very core of Conrad’s thinking in this novel: Stevie’s evening occupation in the dingy shop, where he lives with his mother, sister and Mr Verloc, is to sit at a table covering sheets of paper with strange and wild patterns of interlinked circles—neatly drawn with compass and pencil—round and around, again and again. His obsessive repetitiveness, Conrad seems to be suggesting, reflects an inexorable aspect of the world: there are no counterfactuals; what is will be, for ever and ever, world without end. Since this is a novel concerned fundamentally with physics—understood as the interactions of moving bodies within defined spaces—Conrad preoccupies himself a great deal with their minutiae, focusing, for example, on Mr Verloc’s black bowler hat, not only because of its overt and deathly symbolism, but because its gyres and tumbles are also synecdochically attuned to those of other, larger and more significant bodies. In our own era terrorism has been treated jocosely by satirists—sometimes, as in the case of the journalists at Charlie Hebdo, at the cost of their lives. Chris Morris’s film Four Lions pretty much does for contemporary British-born Islamist wannabe terrorists what The Secret Agent aimed to do for its readership: it made them see what repelled Conrad about all “revolutionists,” which was their absurd moral vanity—believing, as they truly do, that they really know what’s best for everyone. And moreover, to expose the paradoxical cowardice in such an attitude; just like the contemporary suicide bomber, the evil Professor, who walks the streets of London ever prepared to blow himself—together with whoever might accost him—to pieces, is really a craven figure, unable to assume the very ordinary burden of survival.

*** Conrad manipulated the novel’s timeframe so that many of the outrages associated with the Fenian bombing campaign of the 1880s could act as the models for anarchist outrages of the 1890s (when the action putatively transpires); and it’s in the light of such blurring that we should view his banjaxed conception of these propagandists of the deed. In his Author’s Note, he claims that there were times during the novel’s writing when he was “an extreme revolutionist”—and this may have been true, for there’s no disputing his capacity for the Stanislavski Method more or less avant la lettre. According to his wife Jessie’s posthumous memoir, following the completion of Under Western Eyes, Conrad fell into a feverish delirium in which he conducted long conversations with its characters. The pathetic figure of Stevie being led to his inadvertent yet inevitable death by the bulky figure of Verloc, his deformed father-figure, takes us back to the seedy revolutionary underworld frequented by Conrad’s true father, the aristocratic Polish patriot Apollo Korzeniowski. That Conrad could straddle these worlds—the demi- and the beau-, the workaday and the exalted—is attested to in every scene of The Secret Agent. Yet just as eras are blended in the novel to create a sort of time-that-never-was, looked back on from the early 1900s, so the Polish émigré writer’s wonky sense of England’s complex social stratigraphy creates a politics-that-never-was as well. What Conrad understood perfectly, though, was that the English of his own era weren’t so much utopians as uchronians: fervent believers in a Merrie England that may never have existed (one in which knights were bold and social relations happily organic), but which they nonetheless confidently expected a return to. In a certain sense, as a fundamentally pessimistic and aristocratic conservative, out of Nietzsche by way of Dostoevsky, Conrad had no interest in practical politics. The current efforts by a demagogic—if not despotic—Russian regime to destabilise British politics would have been at once no surprise and a complete one for Conrad, whose essay “Autocracy and War” set out his political thinking in the period when he was writing The Secret Agent. In it, Conrad is both percipient about the impact of mass media on mass events and uncharacteristically optimistic about the demise of Russia as a great power following what he assumes will be defeat at the hands of the Japanese, with whom they were at the time at war. Rumours of Russia’s death have continued to be greatly exaggerated—not least by liberal humanists of the kind Conrad despised. The Skripal poisoning precipitated in leafy Salisbury last year by Russian military intelligence operatives has loud overtones of Mr Vladimir’s wacky plot. Anyone familiar with this novel will have thought, immediately upon learning of the poisoned cosmetic products recklessly sprayed on door handles, of poor Stevie carrying the old one-gallon copal varnish can, hideously adapted by that malignant and mad bombmaker, the Professor, to be a lethal device. Discussing the bomb’s premature explosion with the equally grotesque Ossipon, with whose ultimate fate Winnie Verloc’s will be entwined, the Professor remarks: “He either ran the time too close, or simply let the thing fall.”  

***   And it is here—at the level of physics—that the fates of the characters in The Secret Agent are truly decided: for they all—the criminal and the legitimate—run things too close, or simply let them fall. Conrad, surely, in his depiction of Verloc’s murder and its aftermath, surpassed all others—contemporary or otherwise—in his evocation of what it might be like to take a life, and the immediate psychic consequences for the killer: the complete and utter loneliness of Winnie Verloc after the murder is foreshadowed by this beautifully exact evocation of a psychic state, seen from within: “Her personality seemed to have been torn into two pieces, whose mental operations did not adjust themselves very well to each other.” A deracinated Polish aristocrat who tried to reinvent himself as a tweedy English country gentleman—the pseudonymous and multilingual Conrad knew all about being torn in pieces. Some critics look to Conrad’s marriage—which they’re convinced was unhappy—for The Secret Agent’s biographical models. But while the affinities between Jessie Conrad and Winnie Verloc’s mother may be obvious—they are both obese, poorly educated, dark complexioned, etc—the truth is that Conrad revealed his genius here in the very breadth and depth of his sympathy. Forced into the bondage of a loveless marriage simply in order to provide for her adored simpleton brother, it’s Winnie Verloc’s great existential act that does indeed destroy time—if by that is meant the abolition of any distance between character and reader, which is the true mark of great literature. And of course, there was a terrorist campaign actually under way at the time Conrad was writing the novel, although it’s seldom mentioned in the critical literature. A campaign, moreover, which involved its adherents in the most fanciful and inventive acts—so although it’s not usual to view Conrad in this way, perhaps when he wrote of being an “extreme revolutionist” it was the Suffragettes he had in mind. This is an edited extract from Will Self’s introduction to The Folio Society edition of Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Agent,” illustrated by Ben Jones, which is available from