Review: The Secret Agent – Joseph Conrad

the-secret-agent-joseph-conradMy version:
Genre: Fiction Domestic terrorism, anarchy
Penguin Pocket Classics
First published: 1907 (2016)

Set in an Edwardian London underground world of terrorist bombers, spies, grotesques and fanatics, Conrad’s dark, unsettling masterpiece asks if we ever really know others, even ourselves.

Where to start?

The description above is right and it is wrong. ‘Underground world,’ is only right in that the people involved are of the lower end of the working class and therefore below notice of the majority of those who ‘matter’ at the time. They are, what you would meet today, in pubs, putting the world to ‘rights,’ over a pint of bitter they can make last all day, if no one comes and buys them another. When you left, after having overheard them talking at the table next to you, you’d say ‘they certainly talk a good fight, eh?’ The terrorist world they inhabit, is totally within their own minds. As soon as something happens and they may perhaps get noticed by others, they run away. The one who supposedly makes the bombs, imagines himself something of a bomb-making genius, is clearly doing it just so he can talk about it to impress the others.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is squeezing all there is to squeeze out of this book. What it is, clearly, is Joseph Conrad’s attempt to show how many words he can cram into a book. However, take all the verbal diarrhea out and what of a plot have you left? Nothing. I tried, I really tried hard, to see what the thing might be about that would have so many others frothing at the mouth over. The ‘dark’ bit is maybe ok, but the ‘really know others’? No way. And the ‘even ourselves’? Fuck off!

Joseph ConradHe squeezes in so many words, verbs adjectives into every sentence, every description, that by the end of a sentence, you’re screaming ‘get on with it!’ and have totally forgotten – your mind numbed by the sheer unnecessary bollocks of it – what it might have been he started out trying to say. Joseph Conrad, if I remember rightly, was a Hungarian immigrant to England, grew up speaking Hungarian (as you would), so to have learned English well enough to write novels in English, is an incredible feat. But…and I read and hated Heart of Darkness many years ago, he clearly is trying to impress his new circles, with how many words he knows. He clearly cut every single word out of a Thesaurus and put them in a bag, then emptied them over the pages and called it a book.

The characters aren’t interesting in the slightest. I didn’t give a tinker’s cuss about any of them – even the one with my name. Their inner turmoil, no matter how thoroughly described and discussed, isn’t interesting. Isn’t relevant to any of the plot. The more layers he tries to add, the more layers of what I’m sure he thought was insight, just obscures what has gone before. The more he adds, the less interesting it becomes and the more I’m wondering what I’m having for tea tonight.

If he wanted to say that these were anarchists in their own minds, then maybe he did succeed. But then, that’s the old ‘teacher’ in me, looking at a 14-year-old’s art work thinking “where on earth do I find something encouraging to say to this one to encourage them and not have them start crying?” If he wanted to say these people are desperately poor and…well, they’re not, are they? Verlock has money enough. And ‘poor people are poor’ isn’t really social commentary, is it Joseph?

Oh, look. I cannot for the life of me, see the point in writing this book – apart from to show off and if that’s not the point, then he failed, eh? If you have to read this for school or something, please accept my heartfelt condolences. Otherwise, don’t even touch the bargepole…

If you’re sado masochist, you can buy The Secret Agent at

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