Dan Sandman

26: The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

In Books, Fiction, Spy on 28/06/2013 at 12:00 pm

Inspired by an anarchist bomb attack of 1894, The Secret Agent explores the dark nooks and crannies of late nineteenth Century London: shifty characters slinking by the Thames; revolutionary groups plotting in the backs of dodgy shops; upper class embassy gentlemen manipulating their subordinates – a brilliant and thrilling fiction based on a real-life story. The infamous Greenwich bomb of 1894 had its origins in Europe where anarchists had been carrying out bomb attacks since the assassination of the Russian Tsar Alexander in 1881. After the explosion, near the Greenwich observatory, a man was found with his left hand entirely blown off and a gaping hole in his stomach. Following the man’s death, police identified him as Frenchman Martial Bourdin whose brother-in-law was believed to be a police informer.

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), a Polish born writer writing in English, who is often spoken of as the founder of modernist literature, embarked upon his story twelve years later in 1906. Conrad states, in his Author’s Note (1920), that the idea for the story was given to him by a friend. The trusted friend had mentioned to Conrad that he’d heard some interesting revelations about the Greenwich bomb. These revelations were to inspire the writer to create a fiction, based around the incident, but with imaginary characters.

Today, Conrad’s use of faulty science to explain his character’s inert criminality feels sightly antiquated. However, the writer’s choice to focus deep attention on physiology, morality and psychology was unquestionably innovative during the time of writing. Tragic characters, such as the unquestioning Mrs Verloc and the ‘poor boy’ Stevie, are treated with great sympathy. The reader is given time, through the writer’s intensely engaging prose, to explore the inner workings of characters whose life is balanced precociously on the precipice of death. As a result, the story both thrills the reader’s senses and explores the reader’s own morality.

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

I found this Penguin English Library edition of the classic book in Daunt Books. These editions are smaller than their counterparts and come in a series. Before I decided to buy it, I deliberately studied the sides of every single book categorised as fiction. From A to Z, I found myself in awe of books; their inviting spines creating a true sense of wonder within my soul. I’m not sure how long I stood there, engrossed in thoughts about books, but it was long enough for several customers to have come and gone. In the end, when I got home, I was instantly gripped by the brilliant storytelling of a remarkable writer.

Very highly recommended.

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