I’ve been slacking quite a bit on the reading aspect of my 50 year challenge. I started the year off well and then hit a wall. Part of the problem was I started reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau. It turned out to be the wrong book. I read at night to unwind and Walden is not the type of book that helps me unwind. Usually I hate to set a book aside, especially when I like it, but I needed to since I wasn’t reading for this challenge.
I picked up The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad. I hadn’t heard of this novel before moving to London and last year when I was in a bookshop in Bath I stumbled upon a decent used copy so I purchased it. This novel is about Mr. Verloc, who is a secret agent. Mr. Verloc’s employers want him to make a statement by destroying a building. The secret agent sets out to blow up the Greenwich Observatory and everything goes wrong. Drastically wrong.
When the novel was first released in 1907, the action in the story takes place in 1886, it didn’t fare too well. In fact, during Conrad’s lifetime the sales picked up some, but not a whole lot. Today many think The Secret Agent is one of his best novels.
Personally I can see why it didn’t sell all that well when it was first released. For me the issue is that Conrad understands human nature. There’s a reason why I hate watching the news since each evening there are stories about how humans can be so deplorable. This novel demonstrates this. Conrad wrote at a time when terrorism was on the rise and maybe the public wasn’t ready for such an honest portrayal of terrorism and anarchism. Today terrorism is such a constant in our lives, however it doesn’t make the subject matter easier.
This doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy the novel. I did on a certain level. It’s the type of work that really makes you stop and think. It also made me cringe. I didn’t like many of the characters in the novel and I’m pretty sure we aren’t meant to like them. And the descriptions of life in London are difficult to read.
I noticed on Wikipedia that Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was a huge fan of Conrad’s novel. He identified with the Professor, who is an anarchist who specializes in explosives. Kaczynski asked his family to read The Secret Agent so they could understand him. After his arrest the FBI learned that Kaczynski actually used Conrad, including different variations, as an alias.
Would I recommend this novel to others? Yes and no. It’s a difficult novel to read due to the subject matter. However, it is insightful. It’s hard to avoid all things that are ugly and maybe we shouldn’t. This novel is referred to a lot and if you’re curious to know why, then I say give it a go.