Thursday, March 03, 2011

A Diptych

A few posts back I wrote about a superb moment in The Secret Agent, a frozen instant of pure, melancholy humanity. In it, Mrs Verloc leans over and kisses her husband's head. It is a perfect encapsulation of human love, capturing one of thoses moments that define our lives. I compared it to a painting by Vermeer or Hammershoi, an intimate snapshot of other people's quiet lives. It is a beautiful scene, quite perfect.

Later in the novel there is a second scene which forms a diptych with this scene, the nadir which follows this zenith. Mrs Verloc's simple-minded brother has been killed while carrying explosives on the instruction of Mr Verloc. Mrs Verloc is distraught. Mr Verloc is trying to rationalise the episode and remove himself from culpability. The two occupy the same room, ostensibly are in conversation with one another, but in reality they have long ceased to communicate on any practical level. Conrad writes:

Mr Verloc] was tired. The last particle of his nervous force had been expended in the wonders and agonies of this day full of surprising failures coming at the end of a harassing month of scheming and insomnia. He was tired. A man isn't made of stone. Hang everything! Mr Verloc reposed characteristically, clad in his outdoor garments. One side of his open overcoat was lying partly on the ground. Mr Verloc wallowed on his back. But he longed for a more perfect rest--for sleep--for a few hours of delicious forgetfulness. That would come later. Provisionally he rested. And he thought: "I wish she would give over this damned nonsense. It's exasperating."

There must have been something imperfect in Mrs Verloc's sentiment of regained freedom. Instead of taking the way of the door she leaned back, with her shoulders against the tablet of the mantelpiece, as a wayfarer rests against a fence. A tinge of wildness in her aspect was derived from the black veil hanging like a rag against her cheek, and from the fixity of her black gaze where the light of the room was absorbed and lost without the trace of a single gleam.

Again, Conrad has established a painterly scene, one of complete disconnection. Mr Verloc is lying on the settee, Mrs Verloc leaning against the mantelpiece. An unbridgeable gulf lies between them. There is a black veil hanging loose around Mrs Verloc's face and the room is shrouded in gloom, literal and metaphorical.

While the first scene, of the loving kiss, evokes a Vermeer or Hammershoi, this second scene could easily be a description of some Victorian era painting, something by Sir David Wilkie, or Augustus Leopold Egg or Waterhouse or GF Watts. It is intensely powerful but, to modern tastes perhaps, verges on melodrama, and it is, in truth, the last great moment of The Secret Agent before it does begin to slide into a melodramtic and, finally, didactic conclusion. In that, then, this is a final moment of genius. It is a perfect example of capturing a defining moment in words.

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