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The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (Modern Library 100 Best Novels) Paperback – December 14, 2004
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The Amazon Book Review
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“The Secret Agent is an astonishing book. It is one of the best—and certainly the most significant—detective stories ever written.” —Ford Madox Ford
“The Secret Agent is an altogether thrilling ‘crime story’ . . . a political novel of a foreign embassy intrigue and its tragic human outcome.” —Thomas Mann
“One of Conrad’s supreme masterpieces.” —F. R. Leavis
“[The Secret Agent] was in effect the world’s first political thriller—spies, conspirators, wily policemen, murders, bombings . . . Conrad was also giving artistic expression to his domestic anxieties—his overweight wife and problem child, his lack of money, his inactivity, his discomfort in London, his uneasiness in English society, his sense of exile, of being an alien . . . The novel has the perverse logic and derangement of a dream.”
—from the Introduction to the Everyman's Library edition by Paul Theroux
From the Inside Flap
Edited and with Notes by Peter Lancelot Mallios
Introduction by Robert D. Kaplan
In reexamining "The Secret Agent in a post-9/11 world, Robert D. Kaplan praises Joseph Conrad's "surgical insight into the mechanics of terrorism," calling the book "a fine example of how a savvy novelist may detect the future long before a social scientist does."
This intense 1907 thriller-a precursor to works by Graham Greene and John le Carre-concerns a British double agent who infiltrates a cabal of anarchists. Conrad explores political and criminal intrigue in a modern society, building to a climax that the critic F. R. Leavis deemed "one of the most astonishing triumphs of genius in fiction."
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So it is interesting to find a superbly written book about terror in a time long ago. The Secret Agent is just such a book, and how marvelous it is. Its subject is the seamy, sordid world of anarchists in Edwardian England. The year is 1907 and the main characters are Adolf Verloc, a small-time pornographer and part-time secret agent and anarchist, and his long-suffering wife Winnie. The story could seem seriously dated and improbable, but only if you forget how really terrifying the anarchists of that time were. They were that era’s terrorists, and they struck with great violence and cruelty. Crude bomb-makers blew themselves up in crowded trains and cozy cafes in Paris, crackpots from obscure political sects took potshots at crowned heads and political figures. And more victims fell than just the Archduke and Archduchess of Austria at Sarajevo. William McKinley, the U.S. president, was assassinated, as was an Austrian empress, a French president, an Italian king and a Spanish prime minister. The crimes were vicious, shocking and deadly, just like today.
Conrad conjures up this time of paranoia, delusion, cruelty and stupidity with all his considerable powers. He takes the reader deep into the criminal mind at work, with great subtlety and art. It is all very chilling and macabre, but at the same time it is so fascinating that you cannot avert your eyes.
Much of the story concerns a plot to bomb the Greenwich Observatory outside London, designed to be a symbolic attack on knowledge itself. But the real meat of this story is what is going on inside the heads of these odious characters; Conrad takes the reader on an intimate interior tour of their thoughts and calculations. It is a psychologically horrifying tale, but it is told in an old-fashioned, Hithcockian way. Only three people die in this tale, but the level of suspense is kept at a crackling level and the narrative bowls along at a pressing pace. The story unfolds with a sly, almost lewd sense of humor and an unhealthy relish for the macabre. It is a great story, told with unfailing skill and a blood-curdling charm.
"The Secret Agent" is a beautiful example of the third-person omniscient point of view. Conrad seamlessly moves in and out of different characters' perspectives. Without getting so close to each person's inner desires, it would be impossible to understand the contrast between what they say out loud and what they hold in. At times, the author makes it hard to discern whether a line of dialogue is spoken or merely thought, deliberately adding to the confusion. The novel is more daring -- it expects more of readers, and acknowledges more possibilities for empathic imagination -- than the work of many contemporary writers.
For four years he found work on various boats involved in gunrunning, smuggling, gambling, love affairs; many of these experiences are fictionalized in his stories and novels. This was a rough life, but he made friends with two Englishmen, and in 1886 Conrad earned his master seaman's certificate and became a British citizen, He also wrote his first story at this time, amazingly in English, because he wanted to reach a broad audience. There is much more to his life and writing, culminating in his best known work, "The Heart of Darkness," based on his experiences in the Belgian Congo.
"The Secret Agent" is a a story set earlier (1886) telling an allegory of terrorists and anarchists based in Edwardian England. The agent is secretly employed by a foreign embassy, probably Russia, to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. The complicated plot is masterful, the prose sophisticated, and the characterizations full and engrossing. The death of an innocent is heartrending. Joseph Conrad is often considered the best writer of the 19th century.
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"The Secret Agent" is a lesser Conrad work, but also one of his most accessible. It also has his most interesting female character.Read more