The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale

The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale

The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale

The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale

Synopsis

In the only novel Conrad set in London, The Secret Agent communicates a profoundly ironic view of human affairs. The story is woven around an attack on the Greenwich Observatory in 1894 masterminded by Verlac, a Russian spy working for the police, and ostensibly a member of an anarchist group in Soho. His masters instruct him to discredit the anarchists in a humiliating fashion, and when his evil plan goes horribly awry, Verlac must deal with the repercussions of his actions.

Excerpt

Conrad is probably unique among novelists, even expatriate novelists, in that he never wrote a story about his own country or his own people. No scene is set in Poland or the Ukraine, no Pole appears as even a minor character in any of his stories, not even in the Russia of Under Western Eyes, where a Polish presence would have been natural enough--Poles had appeared, and been slandered, in the stories of Dostoevsky.

No doubt this can partly be accounted for by the fact that Conrad had left his homeland at the age of sixteen, and would hardly see it again, while his books were written for English readers at a time when their confident contempt for lesser breeds would have made it difficult for them to identify with a Polish hero, or even to admit the right of a Polish author to assess a British hero. One of the uses of Marlow as narrator, perhaps the primary one from Conrad's point of view, was as lightning conductor: he allowed Conrad to become, in effect, an Englishman writing about Englishmen, and thus avoid the otherwise unacceptable situation of a man who was a 'bloody foreigner' attempting to dissect a hero who was 'one of us'.

Nevertheless, one's inheritance is not so easily disposed of, and there is another, and obvious, sense in which it could be said that every one of his major characters is something of a Pole and that all his more serious stories have their Polish reference. Whether or not, by simply leaving his native land, Conrad could fairly be said to have 'betrayed' it, the accusation was made, and whatever degree of guilt he may have . . .

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