The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad. A review.

[CATEGORIES: Literature, Lapham’s Quarterly, Reading, Book Review]
[Click HERE to see my previous posts referencing Lapham’s Quarterly.]
[Some of LQ’s contents are available free.]

Speed reader though I am not, I recently inhaled this book, reading it devotedly and continuously.  Preceding and inspiring perhaps the spirit of modern day spy and mystery novels, Conrad weaves various characters and plot lines superbly.

However this is not a book to be read too quickly.  Conrad spends much more time introspecting his characters than many modern authors.  Such careful analysis is not to be glossed over lightly.  I often have the impression today’s writers are more interested in the outward action, racing along adventurously, almost as if they are writing an outline for the screenplay they hope will be picked up by a major movie studio.  Not so Conrad.

Further, the descriptive quality of his writing is highly enviable.  What is this doing in a spy novel?!  Many authors today seemingly dismiss description as unnecessary.  (Let the screenwriter fill that in later.)

Conrad is better know for his novels Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim.  He wrote some 20 novels and quite a few stories and essays.  Born in Poland and living in England he wrote in the English language, his grasp of which is obviously outstanding.  As always, Wikipedia enlightens.

I obtained and read this book, published in 1907, for free via Apple’s iBooks.  Like many e-readers it allowed me to highlight passages, a few of which I will share with you to support my previous assertions of his quality.


“In front of the great doorway a dismal row of newspaper sellers standing clear of the pavement dealt out their wares from the gutter.  It was a raw, gloomy day of the early spring; and the grimy sky, the mud of the streets, the rags of the dirty men, harmonised excellently with the eruption of the damp, rubbishy sheets of paper soiled with printers’ ink.  The posters, maculated with filth, garnished like tapestry the sweep of the curbstone.  The trade in afternoon papers was brisk, yet, in comparison with the swift, constant march of foot traffic, the effect was of indifference, of a disregarded distribution.”  (Chp. IV)

“While he was speaking the hands on the face of the clock behind the great man’s back—a heavy, glistening affair of massive scrolls in the same dark marble as the mantelpiece, and with a ghostly, evanescent tick—had moved through the space of seven minutes.” (Chp. VII)

“The cabman looked at the pieces of silver, which, appearing very minute in his big, grimy palm, symbolised the insignificant results which reward the ambitious courage and toil of a mankind whose day is short on this earth of evil.” (Chp. VIII)


“I have always dreamed,” he mouthed fiercely, “of a band of men absolute in their resolve to discard all scruples in the choice of means, strong enough to give themselves frankly the name of destroyers, and free from the taint of that resigned pessimism which rots the world.  No pity for anything on earth, including themselves, and death enlisted for good and all in the service of humanity—that’s what I would have liked to see.” (Chp. III)

Unknowingly prescient of our current destroyers, or were some of their ilk always around?

“He saw Capitalism doomed in its cradle, born with the poison of the principle of competition in its system.  The great capitalists devouring the little capitalists, concentrating the power and the tools of production in great masses, perfecting industrial processes, and in the madness of self-aggrandisement only preparing, organising, enriching, making ready the lawful inheritance of the suffering proletariat.” (Chp. III)

Hmm, ‘…the poison of the principle of competition’.  There is food for thought.

Authors such as Conrad are the reason I read Lapham’s Quarterly.  Had I not been exposed to some of his writing there he would have remained an author of whom I had heard but had not read.  I am grateful.

I recommend this book.  It will be a quick read if you have read this far already.

Drats!  What, no photos?  There goes 95% of my readers, though YOU know I admire photography as much as anyone.  This will have to do:


8 thoughts on “The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad. A review.

  1. I am so glad I was not born in 1907

    and yet it is hard to believe that someone else will say that about 2016–

    What is normal?

    Does he spend much time (movements of the clock hand) discussing what has always been ?

    On Thu, Mar 24, 2016 at 11:19 AM, Johns Space ….. wrote:

    > JohnRH posted: “[CATEGORIES: Literature, Lapham’s Quarterly, Reading, Book > Review] [Click HERE to see my previous posts referencing Lapham’s > Quarterly.] [Some of LQ’s contents are available free.] Speed reader though > I am not, I recently inhaled this book, reading it ” >


    1. I didn’t think he spent much time waxing (or waning) philosophical about what has always been. He kept it within the tenor of his times (turn of the century) a la socialism and anarchy. Personally I laughed at ‘…the poison of the principle of competition’. Oh that nasty competition, rearing its ugly head!!!


  2. I read this when I was about 16 and on reflection I’m not sure I appreciated it fully. Not that I can really remember, as it was twenty bloomin years ago, but what I’m saying is that your review makes me think I should read it again as A Proper Grown Up! Bronte

    Liked by 1 person

      1. As Lewis Lapham notes in his Preamble in L.Q. Arts and Letters: “When I was twenty I didn’t know how to read Ford Madox Ford or George Eliot. By the time I was fifty I no longer could read J. D. Salinger or Ernest Hemingway. I’ve yet to learn how to read Finnegans Wake.” I like John Ruskin’s admonition for reading, which I quote longer in Pt. I of my Arts and Letters review: “you must get into the habit of looking intensely at words, and assuring yourself of their meaning, syllable by syllable – nay, letter by letter…” Ford Madox Ford coincidentally was a colleague of Joseph Conrad’s and it is said gave him an idea for part of the character and plot line in The Secret Agent. (Search for Ford in the Wikipedia entry for The Secret Agent.)


    1. Thank you for commenting. A quick perusal indicates Heart of Darkness is much shorter than The Secret Agent so I may have to dive into it very soon. In reading Wikipedia about Conrad I saw that Darkness is not without some modern-day controversy. Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe wrote a 1975 essay soundly criticizing Conrad’s treatment of the African natives in the story. In my mind Conrad’s era were different times and different attitudes. It’s the excellent writing in which I’m interested, though if Hitler had been a great writer I wouldn’t be so eager to pursue his work. Coincidentally Achebe has an insightful and well said side quote from 1964 in my brand new issue of Lapham’s Quarterly Spring 2016: Disaster on that topic: “When suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat left for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool.” (p. 189) Hmmm.


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