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'The Secret Agent'

September 23, 1990|JOHN ESPEY

Living in an age that has virtually accustomed us to both deliberate and random violence, we may well react somewhat differently from what Joseph Conrad expected of the readers of his tale of espionage and anarchic bombing. Exhausted after completing the huge canvas of "Nostromo" and seriously ill, Conrad had sought warmth in the south of France at Montpellier, where a compelling impulse made him drop his current projects and write what he thought would be a vivid short story titled "Verloc."

Once back at The Pent, the Conrads' farmhouse in Kent, the short story turned into a longer tale that by the time of its first version's completion in November of 1906 already was being serialized in an American magazine--Ridgeway's: A Militant Weekly for God and Country--as "A Secret Agent," advertised by that journal in a poster as "A Tale of Diplomatic Intrigue and Anarchist Treachery." Dismayed by this description of his story as well as by what he felt were insufficiently developed elements, Conrad required another year before he was willing to permit its book publication in September of 1907 as "The Secret Agent."

At first glance, or in this instance perhaps I should say on first hearing, all the elements of today's "thriller"--and Conrad hopes that it would "produce some sensation"--appear to be present. Verloc, the secret agent, uses as his front a run-down shop selling pornographic material. In its back rooms, a seedy lot of anarchists meet from time to time, enabling Verloc to report on planned activities to the London Embassy of a European power from which he receives a regular salary.

He is also, in the best tradition of this pattern, known to the London detective police, who are willing to overlook his doubtfully legal trade in return for information. In the course of his career, Verloc has married an attractive young woman, Winnie, who, he believes, loves him for himself and not for his willingness to take in her elderly, ailing mother and, more important , her impressionable half-witted brother, Stevie, who is the real magnet of Winnie's love and careful concern.

What is most striking, however, is Conrad's tone, for this is an early exercise in black humor, ruled by a comic, satiric tone that Rupert Keenlyside communicates ably in his varied voices during the three hours of this somewhat abridged reading. Only Winnie and Stevie escape Conrad's muted scorn in this ironic narrative in which almost no one actually understands the actual workings of his fellows' minds. The tone is quiet in some instances and broad in others, as in the contrast between the obtuseness of the superior detective officer in charge of the investigation and the perceptive analysis of his subordinate.

Verloc's comfortable double-dealing life has been brought up short by a change of regime in the embassy that he has been serving. His new employer, a M. Vladimir, sneers at the tame reports that have been coming in. With a truly contemporary touch, he sardonically insists that something sensational is called for, and that since science above all else is now respected and rules the world, the "destruction of the first meridian" through bombing the Royal Observatory in Greenwich should set off just the right note of terror.

Vladimir's choice was no accident. Conrad had his sensational material ready to hand. What became known as the Greenwich Bomb Outrage occurred on the 15th of February, 1894. A "respectably dressed man" was found by a Greenwich keeper after what was probably a premature explosion of a bottled device. "The young man of about 30, supposed to be a foreigner," who had lost a hand and been severely mutilated, died in less than half an hour after being taken to the Seamen's Hospital.

Though in later years Conrad insisted he was not in England at the time, he was in fact living in London at 17 Gillingham St., writing "Almayer's Folly," and could hardly have ignored the press reports of the day.

The police investigations that followed led to a number of accounts of anarchistic plots. But for Conrad, the real interest lay in the characters he could create for his plot and the use he could make of the underside of London he had known from time to time when he was a transient seaman.

He remembered a comment of his friend Ford Madox Ford--in whose house at Winchelsea part of the book was written--as triggering his writing when Ford had said that "that fellow was half an idiot. His sister committed suicide afterwards." Ford was to insist later that what he had actually said was, "Oh that fellow was half an idiot: His sister murdered her husband afterwards and was allowed to escape by the police. I remember the funeral." Novelists are not, perhaps, the most reliable sources for this kind of information, but the creative memories of Conrad and Ford show us how the book's powerfully tragic ending, with its two deaths, came to be shaped.

Conrad enjoyed another writer's hospitality as well, staying for a time with the Galsworthys in their London house. No longer the radical that he had been in his youth, Conrad still took a dim view of the extremely wealthy, referring once to the passengers on the Titanic as "a fatuous handful of individuals who have more money than they know what to do with"--a state of affairs far from his own.

But the ultimate irony was Conrad's dedication of this dark, passion-haunted tale of terrorism in which the terrorists become their own victims, to another friend, H. G. Wells, the ebulliently optimistic apostle of human betterment. That irony, however, lies outside of the text itself, and it is the shifting tone of that text as read here by Keenlyside that gives "The Secret Agent" its quality of contemporary meaning.


Book of the Road Inc.; Sebastapol, Calif.

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