Monday 31 August 2015

The Secret Agent

Joseph Conrad, 1907
(August 2015)

A slightly bizarre reading experience, this. While continuing the slow migration of my library from the UK to Japan (i.e. going through boxes of books in Mum's loft) I found an old copy of this with a bookmark wedged about forty pages from the end.

The bookmark in question was a train ticket from 2006, and to the best of my recollection I stopped reading simply because I moved flats and it got lost in the churn. So what better way to appreciate a literary classic than by abandoning it right at the onset of the dénouement and picking it up again after a pause of almost a decade?

Almost any other way, clearly, but this is what we've got to work with. After a brief skim of the introduction to regain my bearings I found that I remembered quite a bit of the plot, and once I'd got back into it all the main pieces fell back into place pretty quickly. I didn't remember it being quite so grimly funny though. At the risk of sounding a bit wanky, I think this is at least in part due to my maturation as a reader; I simply wasn't so good at picking up the irony in older works back in the day, especially those we might classify as capital L Literature. Ossipon especially is a darkly comic grotesque, even if I'm having to take the humour in the rest of the book somewhat on trust at this point.

In an effort to get a bit more perspective, I then went back and read the intro (by Martin Seymour-Smith) in full, and was reminded of how much of a mixed bag these things can be. This one was dates from 1984, and has aged much worse than the book it introduces. Not only does it fall victim to the recondite academic nitpicking that's sadly common for the genre (Seymour-Smith seems to have had it in for Conrad's biographer Norman Sherry in particular), but it's also marked by what we might call, if we were being very generous, a kind of scholarly patrician bluntness:

Jessie was a good wife [to Conrad], who, rather like Winnie Verloc, dealt with her impossible husband by seldom saying anything… She was also stupid,

There's plenty more in that 'wince inducing elderly relative at a family gathering' vein. It seems newer versions of the Penguin Classics edition have an updated introduction, which is probably for the best, all things considered.

1 comment:

  1. I rather resent Conrad for writing better in his third language than I do my first.* A friend's wife once told me I should write a book, and I said, "What am I going to write that Conrad [quality] and Orwell [politics] haven't already?"

    Read 'Victory'.

    *There is a theory much is owed to his wife's 'editing' (co-authoring).