conspiracy

THE SECRET AGENT BY JOSEPH CONRAD

In the aftermath of a tragedy people often look towards artists, towards novelists, musicians and poets also, for comfort, the kind of comfort one finds when someone is able to capture an event, or feelings, that you yourself find incomprehensible or unfathomable or inexpressible. For example, after 9/11 there was a rush to proclaim certain kinds of art as speaking for the time[s], and it was then that Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent received a lot of attention, it being a novel concerned with a plot to blow up a well-known building. Subsequent to the attacks on the Twin Towers, this book has now come to be known as The Great Terrorism Novel, and is seen as a kind of prophetic/prescient work. Yet, there is something about the The Secret Agent, something about the particular brand of terrorism that it deals with, that people often choose to ignore or simply misunderstand; or perhaps, if one was being especially cynical, which I almost always am, one might wonder if a lot of the journalists who put the book forward have actually read it.

Adolf [yes, Adolf] Verloc has two jobs. One is to run a seedy shop in London with his wife and her simple-minded brother, and the other is as the secret agent of the title. However, Verloc is no James Bond; he is an observer, and informer; that is, until one day he is told, by the shady Mr. Vladimir, who is some kind of foreign ambassador, that observation is not enough. He must, says Vladimir, prove to be indispensable if he wants to remain on the payroll. This being indispensable involves blowing up Greenwich Observatory, the aim of which is to stir England into decisive, even extreme, action against criminal/revolutionary/terrorist elements or organisations. It is Vladimir’s idea that in order to do this one must get the attention of, to wake up so to speak, the middle classes.

‘The imbecile bourgeoisie of this country make themselves the accomplices of the very people whose aim is to drive them out of their houses to starve in ditches. And they have the political power still, if they only had the sense to use it for their preservation. I suppose you agree the middle-classes are stupid?’

Mr. Verloc agreed hoarsely.

‘They are’

‘They have no imagination. They are blinded by an idiotic vanity. What they want just now is a jolly good scare.’

This is blistering stuff. The terrorists are not crazy Arabs hellbent on destroying democracy and taking over the world, as some commentators would have you believe was the case with 9/11, this is violence and terrorism used against an ignorant or complaisant people in order to enrage them, in order to manipulate them into doing what you want them to do. So, far from providing balm for the masses, The Secret Agent is actually more likely to fuel conspiracy theories; its take on the political world is, in fact, far closer to the popular conspiracy theory that the World Trade Centre attacks were an inside job, that they were brought down in order to give the US government a reason to wage war in the Middle East.

‘You give yourself for an “agent provocateur.” The proper business of an “agent provocateur” is to provoke.’

One of the first things you will notice about The Secret Agent is that although the novel is purported to be set in London, there is not a great deal that is recognisably English about it. All of the revolutionaries, for example, have continental-sounding names – Ossipon, Verloc, Michaelis, etc – despite it being the case that they are meant to be British citizens. Furthermore, Conrad’s capital city is a particularly gloomy place; even taking into account that London may have been dirty and so on, there is something almost phantasmagorical, but certainly very odd, about the way the Pole presents it. In Bleak House Dickens writes about the fog and such, but Conrad’s London appears to be permanently in darkness, with a palpable threat of violence or madness always in the air; Indeed, the sense of madness or mental strain that pervades the work is reminiscent of Dostoevsky [although Conrad was, apparently, not a fan].

A blank wall. Perfectly blank. A blankness to run at and dash your head against.

For a novel so obviously, relentlessly, political and satirical it would be easy to see the characters as mere symbols, or representations, or one-dimensional puppets. Yet there is also a strong human aspect to the work. First of all, there is the conflict resulting from the task given to Verloc, by which I mean that of the observer who is forced to be an active participant. It takes a special kind of person to do this sort of thing, to bomb a building; most people are capable of standing by and letting it occur, but it’s a different thing, takes a different kind of personality, altogether to be the one holding the explosive, to detonate it. As one would imagine, if you force someone to act who is more suited to observing the consequences are likely to be disastrous.

Secondly, there is the relationship between the simple-minded Stevie and the Verlocs. Stevie does have a representative or symbolic function in the novel: he is innocence and confusion and, one could also say, chaos [at least mentally/emotionally]; he is, in a sense, both the moral conscience of the novel and a human mirror of the emotional state of Mr. Verloc himself [as well as perhaps all revolutionaries]. Yet he also provides the most tender moments in the book, such as his sympathy for the whipped horse and the poor driver of the horse, and all of the tragedy. Stevie is a tragic figure because he is a wholly trusting and loving brother and brother-in-law. Mrs. Verloc sacrifices herself in order to provide a safe and comfortable home for him, while Mr. Verloc ultimately takes advantage of him in an apparently mindless, yet cruel manner.

I hope that so far I have gone some way to summing up some of the book’s strengths and points of interest, yet it would be remiss of me not to mention that many readers raise serious objections. Of these objections most are related to Conrad’s style. On this, there is no doubt that The Secret Agent is at times a mess of adverbs and repetition; no character does or says anything in the book that isn’t, in some way, over or unnecessarily described and repeated. For example, Verloc is said to ‘mumble’ or speak ‘huskily’ with such frequency that it is liable to cause mirth or extreme irritation in the reader. Indeed, if you were to be brutally honest, this over-reliance on certain words, and excessive number of adverbs, is the kind of thing you would expect from the most amateur of YA authors, not one of the most renowned novelists of the 20th century.

So, does this mean that Conrad was a bad writer? Or that The Secret Agent is a badly written book? That is certainly one way to look at it. One might say that as Conrad was a Pole writing in English it is understandable that his vocabulary would be limited and his sentences idiosyncratic. Yet I don’t quite agree with this. All of his novels are dense and difficult but, unless my memory is faulty, this is the only one written in this particular way. Furthermore, some of the repetition, for example ‘Ossipon, nicknamed Doctor’, occurs on subsequent pages in the text, and, for me, it is absurd to think Conrad wouldn’t have noticed. This suggests that these flaws were perhaps intentional, that it was a style choice. However, one is then, of course, faced with coming up with some way of justifying that style choice.

The Secret Agent features intellectually dull men, incompetent revolutionaries with radical ideas or, in Verloc’s case, an incompetent secret agent. As with Stevie, Conrad’s banal yet convoluted style in a way mirrors the mental, intellectual state of these characters. Furthermore, as previously noted, the novel’s atmosphere is that of confusion and anxiety and potential violence. The repetition, the overall strange writing style, to some extent, makes the reader feel how the characters themselves feel; it is, whether one likes it or not, disorientating, and that does not strike me as a coincidence. Indeed, it is worth noting that the novels that The Secret Agent most closely resembles, to my mind, are The Foundation Pit by Andrei Platonov and Petersberg By Andrei Bely, both of which are also written in a bizarre style that some readers have wanted to proclaim as bad writing [or translation].

While many argue that The Secret Agent’s style is unsophisticated the same could not be said of the structure. In the early part of the novel each new chapter deals with a different character, often introducing a previously unknown one. Rather than follow Verloc as he carries out his assigned task, the narrative moves around, shifts perspective; and during each of these shifts characters will discuss both past and present events, thereby only gradually revealing what is going on. For example, one finds out during an early chapter featuring Ossipon and the Professor that someone has blown themselves up, and that it is assumed that it is Verloc. But you never see the event itself, and you don’t find out what actually happened until much later. There is, therefore, no linear timeline of events; much like a detective, you have to piece together the timeline yourself, and this is particularly satisfying.

However, towards the end of the novel the focus narrows, and in the last 50 or so pages Mrs. Verloc comes to the fore. There is a long passage between her and her husband that is difficult to discuss without spoilers, but it is a truly brilliant piece of writing. Conrad manages to show grief and shock in a way that is more accurate and moving than I thought possible in a novel. For me, it is worth reading The Secret Agent for this long passage alone. Yet, that is not necessary, one need not only read Conrad’s work for this passage, because it gives you so much more: farce, tragedy, murder, satire, mystery, and so on. It may not be The Great Terrorism Novel, it may not comfort the masses the next time a bomb explodes, scattering far and wide the flesh of hundreds or thousands of destroyed bodies, but it is a fucking great book.

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THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY BY HENRY JAMES

This is the sexiest novel of all time. You’re screwing up your face right now, I can tell. It is though, it’s sexy as fuck. People often want to tell you that Henry James’ greatest flaw was his lack of passion. Nabokov, If I recall correctly, labelled his work blonde. I don’t think he meant that in the way that modern readers would understand it i.e. as a synonym for dumb, but rather as one for bland. Katherine Mansfield once said of E.M. Forster that he was like a lukewarm teapot [ha!], and that description also seems to nicely sum up the prevailing attitude towards James. It’s wrong though, that attitude; I’ve read numerous Henry James novels and I am of the opinion that he was a firecracker, a sexual viper.

Read the first 100 pages of Portrait of a Lady and then try and convince me that the male characters don’t all want to bash Isabel’s doors in; and that she, likewise, wants them to, or enjoys giving the impression that she wants them to. You won’t succeed. I’m serious. If you can’t see it then I conclude that you can’t recognise extreme sexual tension when it’s under your nose. The flirting is outrageous! You might think all this is cute, like oh [P]’s being theatrical. I say again, I’m serious. It’s not as though I consider all so-called button-down and stuffy lit to be, in reality, hot shit; I mean, I’ve never claimed that Pride & Prejudice is really all about rimjobs and teabagging. There’s something about Henry James’ work, and this novel in particular, that seethes, writhes with unspoken frustration and desire. James’ art, the one thing that makes him stand out for me, is in how he somehow suggests, hints, implies but never outright tells you the juiciest bits of his story. It’s pretty magical really; I don’t know how to explain it; there’s a whole world beneath the surface of his work. In Portrait of a Lady I believe that world to be a sexual one. Why do all the male characters fall for Isabel? Because she is charming and pretty? Is she really all that, looks-wise? No, it’s because she gives the impression of being up for it; she’s, to put it more politely, sensual. She has great sex appeal, which is why she was not right for Lord Warburton, who is a bit of a sop and would make a conventional woman of her; by conventional i do not mean that he will not allow her to be herself, that he wishes to clip her emotional and intellectual wings, but that the match he is offering is conventional i.e. he is rich and handsome and terribly nice, and only a fool would turn him down.

Some people say that Portrait of a Lady is about freedom, and I agree, it is. But I think that involves sexual freedom also, although, of course, as stated, that is not made explicit. There’s a lot written in the beginning of the novel about Isabel’s independent spirit, about how she does not want to be tied down. Before she takes up with Gilbert Osmond the novel is strongly feminist in tone. This is because Isabel regards marriage as an impediment to her freedom, she rejects marriage [literally, she receives two proposals early on] as a barrier to her gaining experience [what kind of experience, huh? Huh?] and knowledge of the world. However, I would argue [as I am sure many would argue to the contrary] that the second half of the book, and by extension the whole book obviously, is feminist, because Isabel makes her choice, the one to marry Osmond, freely. It does not matter that it may be a bad choice, the important thing is that she rejected more beneficial matches in favour of the one that most pleased her. In fact Isabel says at one stage ‘to judge wrong is more honourable than to not judge at all.’

Isabel is one of the most fascinating characters I have ever encountered, because she is so extraordinarily complex, complex in a way that fictional people seldom are. She is strong-willed, arrogant, and yet thoroughly nice; she is perceptive and yet makes poor choices; she is warm and charming and yet sometimes stunningly cold; indeed, her rejections of Lord Warburton are flawless examples of smiling iciness, of jovial dismissiveness. Isabel falls for Gilbert Osmond, to my mind, partly because he does not mindlessly adore her, does not fawn over her. He is mysterious, indolent; there is the hint of a darker side. He appears to be tired of everything, bored of everything, and so that he is interested in Isabel seems like a huge coup; it speaks to her ego. It’s pretty straightforward psychology to want most the thing that appears to be able to live without you with the least trouble. Isabel also credits herself with an original intelligence, therefore one could perhaps say that she likes Osmond, sees something great in him, precisely because others do not. However, the irony, the tragedy of their union is that Osmond is himself utterly conventional and tries to force Isabel to be so; Osmond, out of an anti-conventionality sentiment, demands that she be the most conventional wife.

Madame Merle, who first earmarks Isabel for Osmond, is often regarded as one of literature’s great villains, which is not really the case, because James’ novels don’t contain true villains. Having said that, however, there is something vile about her, despite her never really doing anything to deserve the charge. It’s James’ great art again; he makes Madame Merle a masterpiece of quiet menace. You are dangerous, the Countess Gemini declares, as they chat together about the prospect of Osmond and Isabel uniting, and you quite well believe it, even without the accompanying evidence. Her entrance into the novel, her unannounced [to Isabel] presence in the Touchett’s home is strangely chilling. She is first encountered, sat with her back to Isabel, playing the piano; she strikes you as almost girlish, initially, despite her age. It made me shudder, and I don’t think I can express why that is. Ralph describes his aversion to her as being due to her having no black specks, no faults, and one understands that what he means by this is that only bad people appear to be perfectly good.

If Portrait of a Lady does not have a true villain, in the Dickensian sense of that word, it does at least have someone who it is very easy to hate [which is, of course, not quite the same thing]. As Isabel herself admits, Gilbert Osmond does not do a hell of a lot wrong – he does not beat her, for example – but there is certainly something disquieting about him, something not right. One only has to look to how he treats his daughter Pansy; he sees her as a kind of doll, one that is absolutely submissive to his will. She is entirely artless, which is interesting because Osmond approaches her like a work of art, as something that he has created, has formed out of his imagination; it is not a coincidence that Osmond is both an artist and a collector [he creates Pansy; he collects Isabel]. Pansy is, for me anyway, a little creepy; she is so in the way that dolls themselves are, in that they give the impression of being human, of being alive, and yet are lifeless. It is fair to say that while he may not be a wife-beater, Osmond’s attitudes towards women are suspect; he is a kind of passive-aggressive bully, a subtle misogynist.

Amongst other things Portrait of a Lady is a classic bad marriage[s] novel. The earliest indication of this is the relationship between Isabel’s Aunt and Uncle; the Uncle lives in England, and the Aunt in Florence. What kind of a marriage is that? Then there is, of course, Isabel and Gilbert. Isabel, as stated, marries Osmond, I believe, because she thrills to think that such a man might pay court to her, might be interested in her, when he takes so little interest in the world at large; she finds his attitude heroic, and his interest in her, therefore, as a boon to her sense of self-worth. Osmond, on the other hand, sees in her something that will do him credit, both financially and socially. He appreciates her, for all that she will benefit him, rather than truly loves her. This appreciation does involve admiring certain qualities she possesses, but he wants those qualities to work on other people, not on himself; for himself he would like her to be another Pansy [i.e. entirely submissive] and appears to think he can train her to be so. He enters the marriage, in a way that a lot of people do even now, believing that he can smooth her rough edges, make her perfect for him, instead of accepting and cherishing what she is. Finally, there is the courting of Pansy by Rosier and Warburton; Warburton as a Lord is, obviously, favoured by the girl’s father, but Pansy does not love him, she loves Rosier. While I won’t give away the outcome of this little love triangle, what is most interesting about it is that it again raises the question of whether one should marry to make the best match, or for love; should one use one’s head or heart when making the decision? Isabel used her heart, and came a cropper, but perhaps that was still for the best; it is better to choose with your heart and fail, than to choose with your head and benefit from it.

LIBRA BY DON DELILLO

I’ve always thought the idea of political paranoia [or conspiracy-theory, if you prefer] absurd, which is not to say that I don’t think it exists.Your government* is out to get you! Will do anything [aaaaanything] it considers in its own interests! Will stop at nothing [naaaathing] to cover up the mess they make! Yeah, and? Paranoia is a word that suggests a lack of reason, a looking over your shoulder, a constant vigilance or ultra-awareness; a paranoiac is someone prey to visions, ghouls, and monsters in the closet and under the bed; and, well, all that, the suggestion that to your government you are at best little more than currency and at worst an easily expendable nuisance, that your government would quite happily throw you or anyone else off a cliff to further their own projects, seems self-evident to me, natural almost, certainly undeniable. Paranoia? Whatever, dude. It’s not paranoia when the evidence is so compelling.

Recently there has been a high-profile case in the UK involving  an ex-undercover agent. This man claims that he was asked, by the government, to dig for dirt on the family of an entirely innocent murdered black teenager who had been the victim of a racist attack. To what end, you might ask? Well, to discredit them [the family] of course, to turn public opinion against them if necessary, to sow seeds of doubt if such seeds are needed at any time. While they may not need it, this potential dirt-information is worth having in reserve if one should want to quell public passions, because, y’know, the death or murder of an innocent person, or the reputation and grief of their family, pales in comparison with the interests and standing of your democratically elected leaders and the faceless people behind them and working for them. Was I shocked by these revelations? Outraged? No. I’d expect nothing less. So the idea that a government, or shadowy forces within a government, might participate in, or arrange the assassination of a president, or that it/they would allow a plot to proceed, sanction it almost, and then help to cover it up are not things I have trouble believing. My hard-earned cynicism is at such a pitch that I would be surprised if this hadn’t happened at some point or other; indeed, I consider governmental forces to be capable of much much worse.

6.9 seconds of heat and light is how Don Delillo describes it. The murder of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th president of the United States of America. A man whose life and death is so fabled, so subject to mystery and conjecture that it’s easy to forget that he was flesh and blood and bones [it slips one’s mind even while one watches grainy footage of this flesh and blood and bone seemingly spontaneously explode; yes, I have, shamefully, seen the Zapruder film too, a film that I consider, by the way, to be the birth of the 21st century]. But this book, Libra, isn’t really about John Kennedy, nor, really, is it about Lee Harvey Oswald. Is it about the end of innocence, the moment the world, or America at least, woke up? You could say that; It’s certainly a convenient, albeit arbitrary, event to point to as some kind of watershed moment in the collective human consciousness, a moment when the scales fell from the eyes, when shit got real. Yet, while it’s true that a high percentage of Americans at the time thought there was more than one gunman, that there had been some kind of cover-up, the problem with being awake is that it is, ironically, tiring, that eventually you’ll need a rest, want to go back to sleep; and so I would say our awareness, and understanding, of what goes on, the workings of the political machine, the state, in our own countries and in others, is as bad as it has ever been. So, what, really, is the book about for me? It’s about the darkness at the centre of the human heart, about power and greed and manipulation; it is about dislocation, alienation, despair and fear.

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You’ll have your own ideas, I’m sure, your own favourite theories, about what happened in Dallas Texas at 12:30pm on Friday November 22nd 1963. The most popular theories appear to centre around organised crime, Teamsters, or the CIA. Delillo takes all of those and cooks up a complex noirish thriller with two dominant strands, the life of Lee Harvey Oswald and a plot by disgruntled CIA agents [and associates] to wound the president in order to justify and bring about the forceful reclaiming of Cuba. The structure of the novel resembles a V, with Oswald and the CIA men etc starting at two opposing points only to slowly converge, to close on each other until the fateful, fatal, finale. If you’ve seen the TV show 24 then you’ll pretty much know what to expect of this novel, which ramps up the tension in a similar way [only this time there is no Keifer, no hero, no one to foil the plot]. Delillo often uses dates as his chapter titles, and so readers will find themselves counting down to kick-off, in full knowledge that the awful, inevitable moment is getting closer as you turn each page. It’s a neat trick.

While the plotting, structure, and detail is almost faultless, the real selling point is Delillo’s pugnacious prose. I’d read one of his novels prior to this, White Noise, which I thought was fun enough but a bit of a mess [the final third of that book spoiling my impressions of the whole thing by being just too silly]. But even at its best I never got the impression from that novel that Delillo was/is a great writer, or capable of great writing. His writing is great here; it’s heartfelt and atmospheric, hard and yet dreamy, and never resorts to cliche or melodrama [there was one moment, a paragraph, where I cringed, which was, predictably enough, a sex scene]. I could pick out stacks of lines or passages in order to illustrate how impressive the writing is, something from every page even, but, as I’m obviously not going to do that, here are three chosen at random:

There’s always more to it. This is what history consists of. It is the sum total of the things they aren’t telling us.

The truth of the world is exhausting.

If the world is where we hide from ourselves, what do we do when the world is no longer accessible? We invent a false name, invent a destiny, purchase a firearm through the mail.

There are, however, a few minor issues, or missteps [not quite boom moments], that it would be remiss of me not to mention. Firstly, a small part of the novel is given over to Branch, a man writing a report, or conducting an investigation, into the assassination; he is a man over-burdened by data, swamped by documents, unable to tease out the important information, wondering how all of the evidence and information he has to hand is relevant or how it fits in [Oswald’s pubic hair is one piece of evidence]. As a point about unravelling history, about how the truth is a cloud of blue smoke on a windy day, it is well done and interesting. Branch sees in all this data America itself, it is, he claims, the Joycean book of America, and that is very nice idea too. But this strand of the book feels unnecessary, tacked on. Delillo needed to develop it, make it a larger, more important, part of the story for it to work. You completely forget about Branch’s existence for the most part; indeed, 300 pages in and he had reared his head only three times, on each occasion with no more than a page dedicated to him.

What else? I praised Delillo’s prose earlier, and stand by that wholeheartedly. Yet, it is also undeniable that it has its flaws, mainly in relation to character. I’ve read a few times that the characterisation in Libra is excellent, especially Oswald. I don’t quite get that, because Delillo’s characters all pretty much think and speak in the same way. The most passionate politically motivated books tend to be like that, it’s almost as though the author takes over or dominates, is always a recognisable and strong presence; it is their vision, their need to get this stuff out of themselves. American Pastoral by Philip Roth is like that too; it is Roth’s book more than it is Zuckerman’s or Swede Levov’s, just like this is Deilllo’s not Branch’s or Oswald’s. Personally, I didn’t have a problem with that, not here and not in American Pastoral, because the passion and the momentum is hypnotic, exhilarating.

*I should point out that I use the term government in the broadest sense. Maybe everyone reading this intuitively knows what I mean, but, at least here in the UK, for many people it seems to put them in mind of a supreme leader and a handful of their most trusted and important minions. I don’t mean that, I mean all government employees; the machine is possibly a better phrase, but it’s ambiguous to say the least.