Written after the Heart of Darkness, the novelist's secret agent thriller gains a new relevance todayby Will Self / May 10, 2019 / Leave a comment
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 Agent—Under 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…