The Secret Agent

This evening I picked another book off fuego’s shelves, this one a putative classic. The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale, by Joseph Conrad, has proven to be a pretty good read so far. First published in 1907, it is a story based on an actual terrorist attack against the Greenwich observatory outside London. In this version the act is incited by entrenched political forces who want to encourage terrorism so they can better legislate away the freedoms of the populace. The story is a satire, but back in the day it apparently pissed a few people off.

I was reading along, and I hit a section where I really got the joke. Which makes me wonder if there are other sections where I don’t get the jokes. I suspect that many of the character descriptions and actions are steeped in irony that is often lost on me because the vocabulary (and simple Englishness) used to describe them impedes my understanding. This isn’t a comedy by any means, but I think that wry undercurrent is what gives the story life. I just wich I could understand it a little better.

I get the same feeling sometimes with Japanese literature (and cartoons), that there are veins of humor and symbolism that I can detect but cannot fully appeciate. In a way that’s pretty cool; it defines a new area I can learn stuff. Happily, I can still laugh at things like nonsensical street numberings. Some things will never change in London Town, and Conrad deals with the subject with a dry wit that permeates the entire book. His portrayal of ‘revolutionaries’ is not very flattering, to say the least, and many of the good guys don’t come off that well either.

This story came out in what must have been a great time to be literaturati. The novel as an art form was changing dramatically; I mentioned it a while back when speaking of The Great Gatsby, and this work just adds to the muddle of those decades. There’s a couple of decades there where What A Novel Is was no longer clearly defined, and a few writers shook off convention and told good stories their own way. This one has a lot of devices, like non-linear storytelling, that I was surprised to find in something of this era. (Maybe non-linear storytelling was common then. I’m certainly not a expert, but I associate things like that with much more recent literature.)

The story has a slyness which I’m really enjoying. People are working at cross-purposes; even the best of the good guys has a personal agenda. Perhaps the bomb maker has the purest (in the sense of not being diluted) of intentions. I haven’t finished reading yet, but I will soon.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

6 thoughts on “The Secret Agent

  1. Jer, it will be awesome if the two of us don’t implode next time we meet. We’re living quasi-parallel lives right now which leads me to consider that perhaps we are actually alternate-dimension versions of EACH OTHER. That is: you are the you of this dimension and I am the you of another dimension, I am the me of this dimension, etc. How’s that for a speculative fiction scenario!

    I point this out because a few days ago I returned a borrowed copy of The Secret Agent to a friend. I explained to her her that I thought it was funny, but I just couldn’t get into it so I stopped reading after the initial meeting at the embassy.

    So both you and I (all four of us?) have recently interacted with Conrad’s classic. We also both enjoy Czech beer, we both have long hair and beards, and we have both lived with Soup Boy. What are the odds that we are not, somehow, the same person?

  2. zlato, you missed some good stuff, if you’re an irony fan. Also, you’re the anchor for my twelve days of being social program. My go-to guy, the one with something happening when I need happening. Just so you know.

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