27 November 2008

46. Joseph Conrad, THE SECRET AGENT

Here's what my Goodreads friend Liz, proprietress of Footloose Fish, had to say about Joseph Conrad with regards to THE SECRET AGENT:
"I'm better at reading Conrad in the summer, when I can lie on the beach and just get lost in long descriptive paragraphs about people arguing in embassies and parlors."
Perhaps I should have waited. This is my second Conrad experience in the LN VS. ML project, and unfortunately my second underwhelming experience. HEART OF DARKNESS I was willing to chalk up to my own inexperience with him (or perhaps the fact that I'm a little rusty with my close reading), but having now finished THE SECRET AGENT and being thoroughly underwhelmed, I'm not sure Conrad and I can be friends any more -- although I know there are two more Conrad books lurking in the Modern Library list.

This relatively short novel is subtitled "A Simple Tale," which must be old Joe's idea of a good joke considering how befuddled I was for about half the book as we follow the day-to-day errands of Monsieur Verloc, a London shop owner who is also involved in various but colorless unsavory activities. I got lost, the way Liz describes, but not in the good way. When I wasn't completely confused by what was going on, I was waiting for characters to stop obfuscating and do something. Maybe it's because
I read this book for free in my e-mail using Dailylit, but I felt as if I were being dragged along on errands like a little kid, waiting in the car outside an unknown building where every second's an hour.* If I hadn't had this list to fulfill, I would have given up on this book very early on.

There was one thing I liked about the book, and that was the ending. From the moment that Verloc enters his house to the final scene, I was struck by how Conrad raised up a previously undefined character -- Mme. Verloc -- and (in contrast to this passage I quoted from THE SECRET AGENT) made her predicament interesting and urgent in a way that the rest of the book adamantly wasn't. By then, though, it was too late for me. English teachers look away: If I had to do it over again, I would probably just skip to the hilarious-looking 1996 Depardieu-Broadbent adaptation, which apparently features not only Serious Robin Williams but a young Christian Bale as Stevie. Now I must hide, lest my comparative literature degree be taken away from me for writing that sentence.

Progress of LN VS. ML: 49 read, 51 unread.

Next up: John O'Hara's APPOINTMENT IN SAMARRA (#22), which is not available on Dailylit but which I am bringing in dead-tree form on my trip tomorrow, since I didn't get around to reading it last time.

*Why yes, this is probably why I no longer leave the house without a book. Usually two. Also, when my mom asks me if I want to go somewhere with her I immediately demand a full itinerary. Sorry, Mom.

1 comment:

Wade Garrett said...

The Secret Agent was a page-turning adventure story by 1907 standards. I hope this doesn't make me sound like too much of a philistine, but I'll take John Le Carre every day of the week and twice on Sunday.