David Stuart Davies looks at The Secret Agent

David Stuart Davies looks at one of Joseph Conrad’s later political novels..

The Secret Agent is a bleak novel, the gloom of which is alleviated by the subtle thread of humour which is woven into the story. The dark and often depressing mood of the book is said to have been influenced by Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. The sub-title, A Simple Tale, establishes the ironic tone of the narrative about revolutionary politics in turn-of-the-century London. It was published in 1907 and is one of Conrad’s later political novels after he moved away from writing tales of seafaring life, based to a large extent on his own nautical experiences. Conrad (1857-1924) was of Polish descent but born in the Ukraine when it was under Russian control and therefore was regarded as a Russian citizen.  Remarkably, he did not speak English fluently until his early twenties. In later life he settled in England, having married an English woman.

The central character in the novel is Adolph Verloc whose run down shop in Soho is where he peddles pornographic material as cover for his work as a double agent, infiltrating the underworld of anarchists to supply information to his two diverse contacts: Inspector Heat of Scotland Yard and Mr Vladimir, the ambitious First Secretary in the embassy of a foreign country, which we must assume is Russia. Dismayed by Verloc’s lack of action as an agent provocateur, Vladimir is furious that the English are so tolerant of having political extremists in their midst. He is determined to stir matters up and orders Verloc to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, explaining that an attack on ‘science’, the current vogue amongst the public, will help to intimidate the British and their apparent complacency. Vladimir explains that Britain’s lax attitude to anarchism endangers his own country, and this act of sabotage will be an effective antidote, forcing the police into interning or expelling foreign dissidents who have flocked to London. Despite his reticence, Verloc has no option but to carry out his orders. Reluctantly, he equips himself with explosives from a sinister American ‘Professor’ and recruits his weak-witted stepson Stevie as his innocent accomplice. In attempting to carry out the deed, things go terribly wrong and from then on Verloc’s life unravels in a tragic way. The failed assault on Greenwich Observatory was based on a real-life event in 1894, which resulted in in the accidental death of the 26-year-old saboteur who was fatally injured while carrying the bomb across Greenwich Park.

At the time the novel was published such acts of terrorism were on the rise. Indeed, only a few years later it was a bomb outrage which led to the outbreak of World War I. Vladimir asserts that the bombing ‘must be purely destructive’ and as such the act will announce to the authorities that the anarchists ‘are perfectly determined to make a clean sweep of the whole social creation.’

The darkly farcical nature of the bomb plot is determined by the fact that Verloc does not exhibit any strong political views himself. His covert activities as a double agent are carried out in a purely mercenary fashion. He is fearful that he may lose employment if he does not supply his two masters with what they want.

The novel exposes the desperate and grubby world of the undercover agent at the time – no James Bond theatrics here. All the revolutionaries are presented as being parasitic, embittered, useless and lazy. They despise their host city but fail to do anything to change the status quo. The Professor, for instance, boasts of his own power, strength and will but he is an ineffectual little man skulking in a back bedroom in Islington.

The novel also examines the slow disintegration of Verloc’s marriage. His covert activities destroy the banal domesticity which his wife has selflessly created for him. In the end it is she who acts on a dramatic and emotional impulse to bring the story to a very dark and tragic conclusion.

Initially, the novel fared poorly in Britain and America with disappointing book sales. However it received excellent reviews from the critics and over the years it has become regarded as one of Conrad’s greatest novels. As the Tom Reiss observed in his essay in the New York Times a few years ago, The Secret Agent is ‘the most brilliant novelistic study of terrorism.’

The novel became the source for many adaptations on stage, film, television and radio. Conrad adapted the novel himself as a stage play. Alfred Hitchcock produced a film version of the book, renaming it Sabotage, in 1936. However the story was modernised and the plot deviated significantly from the original. There was a 1996 movie which stayed close to Conrad’s text, starring Bob Hoskins as Verloc, Eddie Izzard as Vladimir, Patricia Arquette as Winnie and Robin Williams as the Professor. Despite its starry cast, it only received mixed or average reviews.

BBC Television brought the book to the small screen twice in the last thirty years.  In 1992, David Suchet played the title character with Cheryl Campbell as his wife and a superb performance by Peter Capaldi as Vladimir. It was an earnest and faithful adaptation but rather depressing. Variety called it, ‘finely drawn yet sombre and slow-paced.’ Then in in 2016 the BBC produced a mini-series in three episodes. Toby Jones starred as Verloc – renamed Anton because, as Jones observed, ‘no one can be called Adolph anymore’. Vicky McClure played his wife. Unfortunately, many aspects of the storyline were changed and the version was not entirely coherent.  The Daily Telegraph reviewer, Gerard O’Donovan, observed that, ‘There is such a dearth of decent human beings in The Secret Agent that it makes for deeply uncomfortable viewing.’ And indeed, one might add that this applies to book, which also makes for uncomfortable reading, but then truth and reality are often like that. Conrad’s The Secret Agent is certainly dark, with an air of despair enveloping all the characters but it also fascinates one, rather like the lifting of a stone and viewing the little creatures scurrying beneath.

Image: Detail of the sailing ship Joseph Conrad, moored at Mystic Seaport, Connecticut. Credit: Norman Barrett / Alamy Stock Photo