Saturday, February 12, 2011

Pacing and poignancy in The Secret Agent

I'm in the middle of reading The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad, and enjoying it, but stylistically it is very different from contemporary writing - to the extent that the impatient modern reader might - mistakenly - say it is overwritten.

One passage, in particular, exemplifies this. Things are unravelling for the central character, Mr Verloc, the secret agent of the title. Against his will, he has been forced to act as an agent provocateur and the resulting escapade has gone badly wrong. At this stage, we don't realise how badly wrong, but it is clear that Mr Verloc is in some distress. He returns to his wife in agitation and talks of fleeing for the continent.

At this point in modern novels we would expect a ratcheting of pace. There is a climax coming, and we expect the action to speed up accordingly. Here it doesn't. If anything, Conrad slows it down. Verloc's wife talks to him quietly and gently. Then we have this scene:

She glanced all round the parlour, from the corner cupboard to the good fire in the grate. Ensconced cosily behind the shop of doubtful wares, with the mysteriously dim window, and its door suspiciously ajar in the obscure and narrow street, it was in all essentials of domestic propriety and domestic comfort a respectable home. Her devoted affection missed out of it her brother Stevie, now enjoying a damp villegiature in the Kentish lanes under the care of Mr Michaelis. She missed him poignantly, with all the force of her protecting passion. This was the boy's home, too--the roof, the cupboard, the stoked grate. On this thought Mrs Verloc rose, and walking to the other end of the table, said in the fullness of her heart:

"And you are not tired of me."

Mr Verloc made no sound. Winnie leaned on his shoulder from behind, and pressed her lips to his forehead. Thus she lingered. Not a whisper reached them from the outside world. The sound of footsteps on the pavement died out in the discreet dimness of the shop. Only the gas-jet above the table went on purring equably in the brooding silence of the parlour.

That single scene, of Mrs Verloc leaning over and kissing her husband's forehead, is breathtakingly poignant. It is beautiful, a perfect snapshot of a turning point in these people's lives. It is of just such tender moments that great art is made. It is, for example, immediately reminiscent of paintings by Vermeer or Hammershoi, small, domestic interludes which reveal the universal glory of human passion through the entirely personal. In one respect, of course, this scene is different from anything in Vermeer, a Dutchman bound by seventeenth century conventions, or Hammershoi, similarly constrained by late nineteenth century Danish conservatism: Mrs Verloc is brave enough, in love enough, melancholy enough, to breach those unwritten barriers of etiquette and actually make contact with her husband. Love in a kiss, silent, unambiguous, total.

That kiss is essential. It is what gives the scene its power. It is far removed fromt the typical Victorian melodrama we would associate with the period in which The Secret Agent is set. It is real. It makes Mrs Verloc real.

Such poignancy would be utterly impossible without the lengthy set-up established by Conrad, the slow unfurling of this couple's moment of crisis. It is an example of genius.


John Philip Johnson said...

You're right, Tom. Good point.
~ John Johnson

Tom Conoboy said...

Hello John, and thanks for commenting. Glad you agree.

I actually develop this in a later post by comparing it to another scene later in the novel. You can see that here:

thanks again