Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

Source of book: I own this.

Conrad is one of those individuals that I find amazing for unlikely achievement. Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857, in the Ukraine, but to a family of Polish nobility, he managed to become one of the most highly regarded English authors. This despite not attaining a fluency in spoken English until his 20s, and waiting until his mid-30s to switch from his maritime career to writing. 

His parents took part in the resistance movement, seeking to throw off Russian domination of both Poland and the Ukraine. As a result, they were both exiled to northern Russia when Conrad was a small child. Both would die of privation and tuberculosis by the time their only child was eleven. He was then raised by a maternal uncle, until departing for training for a seaman’s career at sixteen. Since Conrad showed no interest or skill in academic pursuits - although he was an avid reader - his uncle figured he needed to learn a trade. He also seemed to have a knack for languages, learning French, German, Latin, and Greek: a useful skill for a merchant sailor.

As the son of a dissident, he could not well return to Russia, so he sought foreign citizenship, eventually becoming a British subject and rising to the level of Captain in the Merchant Marine.

But for a fortunate meeting, he might have been a footnote in the ledger of the annals of the British Empire. On one of his voyages, he met a discontented young lawyer named John Galsworthy, who was himself considering a career change. As a result of this meeting, both resolved to seek their fortunes in literature. Both would go on to success, and the literary world may be forever grateful for this fortuitous meeting.

Conrad is generally a pessimistic author, and things do not typically end well for his characters. While this was not particularly popular in his time, it was influential on later generations of writers. Furthermore, the Twentieth Century played out in a way that followed his dark vision far more than the optimism of the late Victorian period. Removed from their time and technology, his books could easily represent our own times.

The Secret Agent was written toward the end of the early part of Conrad’s writing career, in 1907, before he gained a real literary reputation.

The title character, Mr. Verloc, is a lazy double agent of sorts. He is not a glamorous James Bond type, but a man seeking to make a living to support his wife, her mother, and her half-wit brother. To this end, he nominally runs a shop selling goods of dubious legality and morality, while working as an agent for the Russian embassy in London. At the same time, he also serves as an informant to the local police force.

These two jobs were not really in opposition in practice, however much they might be in theory. Verloc’s job is to infiltrate and inform on a local anarchist cell, which both the Russians and the London police wish to keep in check.

Compared with the far more successful Communists, the Anarchists never really accomplished enough to gain a significant following in the United States, although they were a key factor in the Spanish Civil War. (See my review of the excellent The Cypresses Believe in God.) They came to my attention a few years ago with their rather bungled protests of the World Trade Organization. While not a major factor in the last fifty years, they were once a force nearly as feared as the Communists themselves.

(Quick primer: Anarchists believe in the complete destruction of both government and all authorities and hierarchies. Many support the use of violence and destruction to accomplish this. While this much is agreed, the various branches of Anarchism differ as to what should replace the status quo. Some support complete collectivism resembling Socialism or Communism. Others envision a libertarian society. Still others believe that once the current institutions are destroyed, a new society will spontaneously arise, a kind of utopia perhaps. All of these viewpoints find their homes in characters in this book.)

Conrad uses the Anarchists as the basis for his plot, in the process giving a remarkable picture of their beliefs and goals. Impressively, he does this using very little of the book, sneaking it into the conversations of the characters in a minimum of space, never interrupting the narrative enough to bog it down.

The inciting event occurs soon after the opening. Mr. Vladimir, who works for the embassy, has become Verloc’s new boss. He demands that Verloc earn his keep by arranging for a bomb to be set off at the Greenwich Observatory, which would then be blamed on the Anarchists, leading (Vladimir hopes) to the British people suspending their pesky belief in the rule of law and simply liquidating the Anarchists without proof of overt acts. Verloc knows that this is not at all in his line of work, and he further knows that the motley group of “revolutionists” that meets at his apartment lacks anyone with both the nerve and the desire to do it. In theory, these are dangerous men, but in practice, only the “Professor,” who manufactures explosives, poses any danger in reality. And the Professor has no intention of getting his own hands dirty: he is, after all, the only one who can make bombs.

As becomes rapidly obvious, this cannot possibly end well. And, indeed, it ends in “success” for the authorities, the disgrace of Vladimir; but the utter destruction of the smaller players in the drama. The attempted bombing goes horribly awry; and an inexorable destiny leads to a stabbing, suicide, and insanity.

Along the way, Conrad takes jabs at both the Anarchists and the hierarchies they seek to destroy. Mr. Verloc himself is of the Establishment, as he muses early on.

He surveyed through the park railings the evidences of the town's opulence and luxury with an approving eye. All these people had to be protected. Protection is the first necessity of opulence and luxury. They had to be protected; and their horses, carriages, houses, servants had to be protected; and the source of their wealth had to be protected in the heart of the city and the heart of the country; the whole social order favourable to their hygienic idleness had to be protected against the shallow enviousness of unhygienic labour.

What I particularly love about this passage is that he cuts right to the heart of class snobbery. The great “unhygienic” masses.

Also in that vein is Conrad’s description of the wealthy patroness who supports Michaelis, the formerly imprisoned Anarchist.

A certain simplicity of thought is common to serene souls at both ends of the social scale. The great lady was simple in her own way. His views and beliefs had nothing in them to shock or startle her, since she judged them from the standpoint of her lofty position. Indeed, her sympathies were easily accessible to a man of that sort. She was not an exploiting capitalist herself; she was, as it were, above the play of economic conditions. And she had a great capacity of pity for the more obvious forms of common human miseries, precisely because she was such a complete stranger to them that she had to translate her conception into terms of mental suffering before she could grasp the notion of their cruelty.
She had come to believe almost his [Michaelis’] theory of the future, since it was not repugnant to her prejudices. She disliked the new element of plutocracy in the social compound, and industrialism as a method of human development appeared to her singularly repulsive in its mechanical and unfeeling character. The humanitarian hopes of the mild Michaelis tended not towards utter destruction, but merely towards the complete economic ruin of the system. And she did not really see where was the moral harm of it. It would do away with all the multitude of the "parvenus," whom she disliked and mistrusted, not because they had arrived anywhere (she denied that), but because of their profound unintelligence of the world, which was the primary cause of the crudity of their perceptions and the aridity of their hearts. With the annihilation of all capital they would vanish too; but universal ruin (providing it was universal, as it was revealed to Michaelis) would leave the social values untouched. The disappearance of the last piece of money could not affect people of position. She could not conceive how it could affect her position, for instance.

Lest one think that Conrad sympathises with the one side of the issue, there are corresponding passages in which he skewers the beliefs of the other characters in turn. None escape either his mockery or his sympathy.

For example, “Toodles,” the (unpaid) personal secretary to the Home Secretary (equivalent to our Secretary of State), has socialist ideals. But he never lets these ideals interfere with his desire to hobnob with high society.

Toodles was revolutionary only in politics; his social beliefs and personal feelings he wished to preserve unchanged through all the years allotted to him on this earth which, upon the whole, he believed to be a nice place to live on.

The characterizations are really the most memorable part of this book. The plot is necessary to reveal the characters, but they never are there just to serve the plot. The plot takes the shape it does because of who the characters are, and how they react to bad circumstances and worse luck.

Verloc, of course, is well drawn.

Mr. Verloc would have rubbed his hands with satisfaction had he not been constitutionally averse from every superfluous exertion. His idleness was not hygienic, but it suited him very well. He was in a manner devoted to it with a sort of inert fanaticism, or perhaps rather with a fanatical inertness. Born of industrious parents for a life of toil, he had embraced indolence from an impulse as profound as inexplicable and as imperious as the impulse which directs a man's preference for one particular woman in a given thousand. He was too lazy even for a mere demagogue, for a workman orator, for a leader of labour. It was too much trouble. He required a more perfect form of ease; or it might have been that he was the victim of a philosophical unbelief in the effectiveness of every human effort. Such a form of indolence requires, implies, a certain amount of intelligence. Mr. Verloc was not devoid of intelligence - and at the notion of a menaced social order he would perhaps have winked to himself if there had not been an effort to make in that sign of scepticism. His big, prominent eyes were not well adapted to winking. They were rather of the sort that closes solemnly in slumber with majestic effect.

The others of the Anarchist cell are interesting individuals. Michaelis, released after a lengthy prison sentence for serving as a locksmith in a prison escape that went wrong, who becomes a mystic and, as it were, a saint; content in his belief in the inevitability of the Revolution. Karl Yundt, the fiery old man - who has never actually lifted a finger in action. Ossipon, the lecherous and hunky young man, who lives more to leverage his Anarchism to aid him in bedding women than in taking any personal risks. The Professor, short and unimposing, who attempts to compensate for the lack of respect he gets through firmness of will -  who carries a bomb in his vest at all times to prevent arrest. The authorities also are memorable. The Chief Inspector, who would much rather be chasing burglars, who abide by a recognizable code. The Home Secretary, who seems more concerned with arcane domestic issues than terrorism. The Assistant Commissioner, who was forced to leave his preferred employment in Colonial Asia because of his marriage to a controlling woman.

The complex relationships between the members of Mr. Verloc’s extended family are also well drawn. Verloc himself fancies that he is loved simply for being himself, but the reality is more complicated. Mrs. Verloc intended to marry a poorer man, but was prevented because she was weighed down by her crippled mother and mentally challenged brother. She considers it her duty to make provision for their support. Thus, Verloc is primarily important to her because of what he represents as both breadwinner and as a father of sorts to her brother. When things unravel, these expectations lead to a tragic and violent end.  

The Secret Agent formed the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s early film, Sabotage. It was also adapted to film in a more faithful version in 1996. This scene between the Professor (Robin Williams) and Ossipon (Gerard Depardieu) in the cafe preserves most of the original dialogue, and is remarkably faithful to the original. And, the score is by Phillip Glass. The cello solo (played by Fred Sherry) undergirding this scene is stealthily sinister. (Note: I haven't seen this movie, so I assume it takes liberties elsewhere, but this scene at least is well done.)

No comments:

Post a Comment