My first read for the Through The Decades Reading Challenge is a novel I have been meaning to reread for ages. I enjoyed it as a teen – how does it fare now I’m at the wrong end of my forties?
Very well, indeed, as it happens.
It’s not a thriller in the modern sense for the lens is not focused on the derring-do of spies and terrorists. It’s an examination of the fallout of a terrorist act gone badly wrong. More I cannot say without spoiling what is actually an intriguing and horrifying set of circumstances. And though the title points to Mr Verloc, The Secret Agent, as the prime character, the story is really that of his wife, Winnie. And what an emotional rollercoaster that turns out to be.
Winnie and her dim-witted brother, Stevie, are the only characters painted positively in Conrad’s novel. The Victorian anarchists are a bunch of immoral and incompetent ne’er-do-wells; their outer appearance as repulsive as their morals. Yet the world in which they operate is quite often as amoral. The halos of embassy officials and the police force have slipped also. Thus the novel retains its currency for a contemporary audience.
The core of the novel lies in the examination of the relationship between Mr and Mrs Verloc – a marriage of convenience for both. Verloc marries Winnie to give himself an edge of respectability and a front for his activities. Winnie marries him to provide a safe-haven for her brother and doesn’t look too closely at her husband’s habits, preferring to turn a blind eye to his unsavoury associates. Neither does she tell him of everything she does. The arrangement works well enough for 7 years, when the unravelling begins ….
Much is made of Conrad’s use of complex sentences with unwieldy vocabulary. Fortunately the plot is such that the pages turn themselves at times. I was particularly engrossed in the final scene between Verloc and Winnie. They are at complete cross-purpose. The damage is done and yet Verloc’s self-confidence remains undented. Winnie is his wife. Ergo she is fond of him. Yet she does not seek solace in his arms. Verloc “was disappointed. There was that within him which would have been more satisfied if she had been moved to throw herself upon his breast. But he was generous and indulgent. Winnie was always undemonstrative and silent. Neither was Mr Verloc himself prodigal of endearments and words as a rule. But this was not an ordinary evening. It was an occasion when a man wants to be fortified and strengthened by open proofs of sympathy and affection. Mr Verloc sighed and put out the gas in the kitchen. Mr Verloc’s sympathy with his wife was genuine and intense.”
And, it must be said, fake at the same time. For Verloc simply doesn’t understand his wife’s viewpoint. The reader does. In the same scene Conrad dissects Winnie’s mental state with real sympathy and acute psychological insight. While Verloc’s incomprehension and self-justifications make Winnie’s blood boil, the reader is laughing at his bumbling idiocy.
Conrad, writing in his 3rd (!) language, has other stylistic tricks up his sleeve, including tight control of the timeframe. The identity of one key figure remains hidden, revealed only to the reader as it is revealed to the characters. Thus are the suspense and the horror magnified.
Final Analysis: I’m really pleased I revisited this novel, which is now confirmed as one of my favourites.