Joseph Conrad and Fyodor Dostoevsky are at one in their abhorrence of anarchists and social revolutionaries. In them, they see a nihilism which ends only in the self-fulfilment of Silenus’s words of wisdom – existence itself is tainted, and the best thing to be done with it is to be done with it. Thus, the conclusion of Conrad’s The Secret Agent takes place in a beer-hall called, ironically, the Silenus. The world those revolutionaries Ossipon and The Professor are seeking to transform is itself already sordid – late nineteenth century London, down among the lower orders, wallowing in the murkiness of espionage and paid agents provocateur – and therefore, it seems, whatever the outcome of their anarchistic endeavours, be they successful or otherwise, the world will be no less and no more sordid, only different.
Mr Verloc, the central character of The Secret Agent, is someone engulfed by indolence. He has the air of ‘having wallowed, fully dressed, all day on an unmade bed.’ He is an agent provocateur, what we would nowadays call a sleeper, in the pay of a foreign power and providing information, waiting to act as required but, in fact, doing an absolute minimum to earn his pay. A change in personnel at the embassy forces his hand: he is impelled by his new boss, Mr Vladimir, to engineer a terrorist outrage, a meaningless explosion at the Greenwich Observatory – an attack on the first meridian, that potent symbol of science and progress. Mr Verloc is unhappy with his assignment, but he has no option but to obey. Tragedy ensues.
In his time in England, Mr Verloc has inveigled himself into English (lower order) society. He is married to Winnie and shares her house with Winnie’s mother, a frail and fading woman, and Winnie’s brother, the slow-witted Stevie. Ostensibly, he is the proprietor of a shop which has a reputation for dealing in unusual and illicit, probably pornographic material smuggled in from the continent. It is a comfortable living, requiring no great effort on Mr Verloc’s part, and this forms part of his irritation at being forced to act on behalf of his paymasters. Thus, the character of Mr Verloc comes under Conrad’s critical gaze twice over: as a reckless anarchist and as a laggard whose indolence results in moral apathy. His response to the tragedy he provokes is one of vexation, momentary shock, fleeting regret, but his overriding impression is that it was inconvenient, and not his fault, and something that had happened which simply had to be overcome. His inability to comprehend the emotions of his wife are symptomatic of a morally casual, reprehenisble nature. Mr Verloc is found wanting, in almost every respect. But he is not an evil man, he is merely banal; and through him, and those like him, Conrad argues, evil is allowed to flourish.
Around Verloc is a small congregation of fellow anarchists and revolutionaries – Michaelis, Yunt, Comrade Ossipon – who share his outlook and demeanour. They are not an attractive group of people. Future society would not be safe in the hands of such immoral louts, one must suppose. And what is the alternative? Conrad offers little hope in the figures of authority who are ranged against the anarchists. Mr Vladimir, Verloc’s master at the Embassy, is a calculating, manipulative man, callously indifferent to anything but the cause. The police investigation is hampered by protocol and hierarchy and suspicion. Verloc, we discover, as well as being an agent of a foreign power, is also a double agent providing information to the police, who are happy to use him and turn a blind eye to the illicit wares he peddles. These are two sides of a single coin, then, Conrad suggests.
And Mrs Verloc is little better. She is resolute in her refusal to see anything that is happening around her, to probe for questions or meanings, to wonder at any events which may unfold. She deliberately encases herself in a cocoon of ignorance, as though she can somehow remove herself from the mortal fray. As the novel proceeds, both she and we learn the futility of such an approach. Another individual found wanting, then. Indeed one of the few moments of genuine altruism in the novel arises when Winnie’s mother decides to move out of the family home into an almshouse, in the hope that this will make life easier for Winnie and, in particular, Stevie. We are left in little doubt that this will not be a happy retirement for the old woman – their progress as they take a cab through the streets of London towards the almshouse on the day of her departure is described almost in terms of a descensus. It is a low point for the family, but one wrought by goodness. Thus, there is an almost unbearable poignancy later in the novel when the family sinks even lower, towards its nadir, this time not as a result of failed goodness, but of Verloc’s moral vacuity.
And this gets to the heart of The Secret Agent, what makes it a great novel. Yes, it is an insightful analysis of terrorism, as has been much discussed in the years since 9/11. Yes, it offers a perspective on anarchism and revolutionary socialism which, however caricatured, does present a cogent critique of modern thought. One may or may not agree with Conrad’s analysis – for me it is overly pessimistic – but it is undoubtedly brilliantly written.
But what makes the novel great is the way he melds the political with the personal, the public with the private. Because the events which Verloc unleashes as a result of his terrorist act undoubtedly have their public repercussions, but no act can ever be played out purely in the public arena: there must always be a private dimension. In 9/11 or 7/7 there was the political reality of those terrorist acts, certainly, and they will not be forgotten in our generation, but there were also hundreds of private tragedies, families torn apart, lovers lost, families bereaved. For them, for those who survived, there was no 9/11 or 7/7 as such, only the moment that their darling died and their lives changed. Their understanding of what those events mean is inherently different from the understanding of those of us not directly affected. And this is what we see powerfully in The Secret Agent. Verloc is not only an agent provocateur, he is a husband. He not only works as a terrorist but as a shop owner, with his family around him. And that family life is irrevocably violated. In a harrowing episode, Mrs Verloc overhears the terrible truth of what has happened. The moment circles around her and we are taken on a dizzying swoop around her emotions:
In that shop of shady wares fitted with deal shelves painted a dull brown, which seemed to devour the sheen of the light, the gold circlet of the wedding ring on Mrs Verloc's left hand glittered exceedingly with the untarnished glory of a piece from some splendid treasure of jewels, dropped in a dust-bin.
From that moment, the symbol of their marriage consigned to a dustbin, there is no hope for the Verlocs. The personal has been devastated. There is, then, little cheer in The Secret Agent. Throughout, it reveals a world of grim failure, a society hurtling towards a nihilistic end. And this is symbolised most effectively by the final scene, with Ossipon and The Professor leaving the Silenus. Ossipon walks blindly, ‘feeling no fatigue, feeling nothing, seeing nothing’, while The Professor averts his eyes from the ‘odious multitude of mankind.’ He has, we are told, ‘no future.’ The obvious question that Joseph Conrad is posing, of course, is ‘do we?’