August, 2010: I was short of a book to take with me on my travels (entirely on land! – foot, train, and hire-van: from Sydney to Melbourne to Daylesford, back to Melbourne, to Adelaide, to Broken Hill, to ass’d western NSW towns, then back to Sydney), so I cast my eye over my own bookshelf. I have read a lot of Joseph Conrad’s work, but mostly back in the dark ages, when I used to read books quickly, passing my eyes over the pages, and often unable to remember anything about them except, “I liked it/didn’t like it”. So I looked at The Secret Agent (1907) and couldn’t remember a single thing about it, but I knew I’d read it because it had a bookmark in it (a Scrabble score-sheet, with several games documented on it, including one where my grandmother played, just for one turn, and another where I played against myself).
Phew! It is a relentlessly ugly book. There are so many depictions of London of this period (late nineteenth century) where outrage at its ugliness, its new, industrial-revolution ugliness, is a loud subtext (or, in Dickens’s case, an overt theme). The ugliness made The Secret Agent a hard read.
Here’s our main character (I can’t describe him as a hero), Verloc:
“His eyes were naturally heavy; he had an air of having wallowed, fully dressed, all day on an unmade bed.” “His big, prominent eyes were not well-adapted to winking.” “Undemonstrative and burly in a fat-pig style…”
Every character we meet, even incidentally, is unalluring:
“The bald top of a head, and a drooping dark whisker on each side of a pair of wrinkled hands.”
“…a face of pasty complexion and melancholy ugliness surrounded by a lot of fine, long, dark grey hairs, barred heavily by thick and bushy eyebrows. He put on a black-framed pince-nez upon a blunt and shapeless nose…”
The hideous physical descriptions aren’t done with relish (as they are by Dickens), or fascination (Patrick White), but doggedly, with a refusal to shy away from the truth. I don’t know about the rest of the population, but when I look at people’s faces and try to describe them, generally I end up making them sound grotesque. It’s easier to describe an ugly face than a beautiful one. Several years ago, a painter, who is less notable for his social graces than for his blunt honesty, took it upon himself to describe my body; to him, his description was a rhapsody, yet what he had actually chosen to mention were what could be considered flaws. And when I think of faces and bodies I’ve known, it is equally the white splotch on the front tooth, the pink scar on the forehead, the raspberry with hairs sprouting out of it, the dry, grey patches on the knees, as it is the round, hazel eyes that are often bright with what seems to be the beginnings of a tear, or the warm, brown skin (much more livingthan mine, which is white, cold and clammy, as though just cut out of a plaster cast). It would almost be fun to write a novel where I put to paper all the hideous observations I make (and tend to suppress) as I go about my day. Not fun to read. Joseph Conrad reaches the pinnacle of ugliness about three-quarters of the way through the novel:
“The conveyance awaiting them would have illustrated the proverb that ‘truth can be more cruel than a caricature’, if such a proverb existed. Crawling behind an infirm horse, a metropolitan hackney drew up on wobbly wheels and with a maimed driver on the box. This last peculiarity caused some embarrassment. Catching sight of a hooked iron contrivance protruding from the left sleeve of the man’s coat, Mrs Verloc’s mother suddenly lost the heroic courage of these days. She really couldn’t trust herself. “What do you think, Winnie?” She hung back. The passionate expostulations of the big-faced cab-man seemed squeezed out of a blocked throat. […] His enormous and unwashed countenance flamed red in the muddy stretch of the street. […] The man slowly turned his bloated and sodden face of many colours bristling with white hairs. His little red eyes glistened with moisture. His big lips had a violet tint. […]
“I’m a night cabby, I am,” he whispered, with a sort of boastful exasperation. “I’ve got to take out what they will blooming well give me at the yard. I’ve got my missus and four kids at ‘ome.”
The monstrous nature of that declaration of paternity seemed to strike the world dumb. A silence reigned, during which the flanks of the old horse, the steed of apocalyptic misery, smoked upwards in the light of the charitable gas-lamp.
The cabman grunted, then added in his mysterious whisper:
“This ain’t an easy world.”
It’s a novel about lazy, inept revolutionaries, and the bureaucrats, diplomats and policemen who waste their lives manipulating and managing these harmless old men. Conrad is in no doubt that the society he’s describing needs a complete overhaul, but he is equally contemptuous of the people who have put themselves in charge of effecting this revolution, as he is of those whose job it is to maintain the status quo. I have the feeling that it was a novel written with a pressing sense of purpose, one for the time and place, and one that is not quite relevant to a reader in 2010; perhaps the threat of revolution (and blood-thirsty, violent revolutionaries) was one exploited by the government of the day, and Conrad sought to defuse it, as it was a mere decoy of public attention away from the desperate need to improve life for the impoverished majority. The Secret Agent seems to say, “This is not an abstract question of politics, revolutionary or counter-revolutionary – plain and simple, it’s about being humane!”