Rereading Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent in the weeks after the Paris terrorist murders was sobering. Rereading it while living in Brussels during the ‘lockdown’ while the Belgian police searched for terrorist cells before they blew anyone else up (apparently five potential attacks were prevented) was too close to say ‘I enjoyed it’, but it is an excellent novel. The Secret Agent was published in 1907, with a central event – an accidental death by explosion in Greenwich, London – based on a similar catastrophe of 1894, one of many anarchist attacks that had become fashionable in extremist circles in northern Europe from the 1880s. Two circles of characters in the novel interlock: the anarchists, and the authorities. Conrad’s descriptions of his fictional anarchists are contemptuous but also wary: people with a deranged sense of self-importance are terrifying and dangerous. The authorities are also not spared for their foolishness, self-importance or blinkered sense of the world, but at least they don’t murder anyone.
Mr Verloc runs a seedy little pornography shop in Soho in central London, and is married to his former landlady’s daughter Winnie. The landlady and her son Stevie live with the Verlocs, because Winnie’s mother is long past supporting herself, and Stevie has what we now call learning difficulties, but which Conrad and the characters in the novel call by many other, far less acceptable words. Part of Stevie’s trouble is that he suffers from an excess of compassion. This sensitivity combines with his limited understanding to make him a passionate supporter and believer in whatever he is told that touches his imagination: the sufferings of a horse, the cruelty of the police, the goodness of his brother-in-law. Mr Verloc is an anarchist in the pay of a Foreign Power, who has been instructed to cause a senseless and destructive act that will cause chaos in the British public’s trust in their authorities. Mr Verloc takes Stevie to Greenwich Park, hands him a parcel of extremely unstable explosive, and instructs him to take it to the Observatory and drop it. Obtruding tree roots get in the way, and Stevie’s certain death – for Mr Verloc has not troubled to think how Stevie might get away from the explosive once dropped – comes sooner than planned. There the matter might have ended, had it not been for the strong stomach of the police constable instructed to recover all of the body parts, because he finds a scrap of Stevie’s overcoat, with his address written on a label.
Winnie wrote the address, because Winnie’s constant care is to keep her brother safe, and make sure he can be brought home even if he loses himself. Winnie has devoted her life to her mother and brother, first by running their Belgravia boarding house as their family business, and then by marrying Mr Verloc so she will have a secure home for her ageing mother and incapable Stevie. When her mother takes herself off to an almshouse, trying to take one of the burdens off Winnie so that Mr Verloc will consent to keep Stevie under his roof, Winnie cannot understand her desertion. When Chief Inspector Heat asks her about the scrap of cloth, she crashes into a catatonic state of shock. Time now slows down. The chapters that describe her realisation of how and why Stevie has died are written to show the agonising slowness of trauma in the making. If anything, these show Conrad to have been a modernist before the word was invented: stopping time, turning the reader’s eyes to look unwillingly at personal devastation, and inhabiting the interior thoughts of a character under terrible stress. It’s appalling to read, and stunningly powerful.
These last chapters are also so important in how Conrad makes us feel about terrorists. They destroy lives and they don’t care. They also don’t understand, so deficient are they in social norms. Verloc is self-interested and self-absorbed to the exclusion of anyone else in the world. Michaelis is a hanger-on in high society, where he scurries when not in prison for terrorist offences. He is also writing his memoirs, after having done nothing with his life except threaten other people. Karl Yundt calls himself a terrorist but does nothing but spit bile. The Professor experiments with explosives, badly, and carries them on his person at all times, ready to detonate should a policeman even touch his shoulder. Ossipon is a failed medical student and a writer of shouty pamphlets, who lives off gullible women and steals where he can. Their degraded existences are the most Conrad can do to warn that even those we are scornful of can do dreadful damage.