I haven’t slept properly for weeks. I lay on damp sheets, my hair on end. I peel myself, and check my phone. I dive into it, as though it were a dream. 4am. 5am. 4am. Circling time, I perceive the screen like a wildcat does a fire bristling in the distance. I lay back, conscious of my dreaming. Always dreaming; always awake. This is not insomnia, which sits on your chest and reads to you, politely pausing on occasions to allow you to interject and ask questions. This is life now. Always dreaming; always awake[…]Sometimes I see tiny, naked figures running along the carpet of my room, and hiding in the corners and behind the chest of drawers. I beckon them toward me, so that I can eat them, and re-emerge, and breach the surface of my unhappiness, for they were part of me once; but they are wise to me; they like me this way[…]For the first time I feel incapable of reading in a way that would allow me to write coherently about what I read. Every book that I pick up becomes part of the landscape of my dreams, of my dream-life, rather than another world into which I consciously escape[…]I had tried a number of times before to finish The Lime Twig, losing patience somewhere around halfway. This time, I didn’t finish it either, for you can’t finish something that is part of the fabric of your existence, or at least not until you too are finished[…]It was written by John Hawkes, a man about whom I know very little, and I like it that way. What I do know is that he is an American, and yet The Lime Twig is set in England, and feels English in the same way that Patrick Hamilton’s novels do[…]There is a dreary, grimy atmosphere throughout the book that is familiar to me, from my childhood especially, before the bleak northern city in which I was raised was redeveloped to resemble some fictional European tourist spot, some quaint idea in the mind of an outsider[…]There are references to ‘oily paper,’ to a mother’s ‘greasy bodice,’ to ‘premises still rank with the smells of dead dog or cat.’ There are smells everywhere, such that you experience The Lime Twig with your nose as much as with your eyes. With all your senses, in fact. Holding it, it feels sticky to the touch, dirty, oppressive, like blindly immersing your hand in a sink full of unwashed dishes[…]Oppression is the point, I think. The dreariness is simply one aspect of an overriding atmosphere of unease and uncertainty[…]From the opening paragraph, Hawkes begins to build the tension. When discussing Hencher’s pursuit of lodgings, Hawkes wonders: ‘what was it you saw from the window that made you let the bell continue ringing and the bed go empty another night.’ Suggesting that it was something unnerving, something intangible perhaps, a gut-feeling, an inexplicable foreboding[…]The nature of lodging is, when you think about it, mysterious and disquieting. A lodger is a stranger, someone without a home of their own and, it seems, neither family nor friends upon whom they can depend. Yet they too are potentially vulnerable, entering the home of another, or other strange persons[…]The word ‘nightmarish’, or some variation, is invariably used to describe the book, and for once that feels valid[…]While there is violence, including death, there is nothing about The Lime Twig that is genuinely frightening; plot-wise, in terms of action[…]Although it isn’t always clear what is happening[…]There is a sense of suspended time, or of ‘time slipped off its cycle'[…] The characterisation is thin, with the only one of note – Hencher – early killed off. Hencher, the only one with a story to tell, of life with mother and the war; and it is told wonderfully in the opening section, which Hawkes presents in the first person[…]The nightmare is in the uncertainty, in the murkiness out of which a plane can fall and land at your feet. But most of all it is Hawkes’ imagery that provides the cold water shock[…]The horse is not only a prop the author uses to make of his novel a kind of crime caper, it is ‘the flesh of all violent dreams’, it is an ‘animal whose two ears were delicate and unfeeling, as unlikely to twitch as two pointed fern leaves etched on glass, and whose silver coat gleamed with the colourless fluid of some ghostly libation and whose decorous drained head smelled of a violence that was his own.'[…]One way of looking at the novel would be as a cautionary tale, or as a comment on the humdrum, involving a couple – the Banks – who become embroiled in something dangerous, beyond their abilities and limited emotional scope, a modest wife who waits up for her husband, whose worst nightmare is that he not come home; but for that to work one would have to believe in the couple, and I didn’t. I did, however, believe in the horse, in its potency and magic, and, consequently, ultimately, in Hawkes himself, his imagination and ability to manipulate the English language into sinister and beautiful shapes[…]
Read it, they intone. Not as a distraction from the chaos but as an explanation. Everywhere you look: bodies crushed under avalanches of snow; hardy men torn apart by a substance as soft as tissue paper; babies blue, and harder than stone, ripping through the air like bullets. I have seen so many things. Awful things. They call it the end of the world. But this is not the end, this is still something. The end will be a relief. The end, the end. I’m fooling myself. There is no end. I am the cockroach. I have survived; I will survive. Soon I will be the only one left. The bitter wind that carries their voices to me will then be mute.
Read it, the cold wind says, and then you will understand. What will I understand? There is no place for that now, for the goal of understanding is progress. And we are going nowhere, not even backwards. The only movement comes from the ice and the snow, that constantly shifting, vertical and horizontal, oppression. An arctic prison, built around a void. They have public readings. For an hour or two they stop killing each other, or digging, and read together; or one reads and the others listen. The book begins, I have been told, ominously. A man is lost, hopelessly lost, and he is almost out of petrol. It is night-time, and this is telling, for isn’t the dark traditionally where danger lurks? The man drives into a petrol station and is issued a warning. A real bad freeze-up is on the way.
Read it, and all will become clear. Yet everything is murky. Who is he? Where has he come from? Where is he going? You are aware that something bad has happened, something irreversible, but details are sketchy. A ‘disaster’ is mentioned, which has ‘obliterated the villages and wrecked the farms.’ Later, it is suggested that there may have been ‘a secret act of aggression by some foreign power.’ A nuclear explosion, perhaps. Confusion, rumour, theory. The truth is you will never know. And what good is knowing anyhow? There is then, and there is now. No one in the book is named; no countries are identified either. Instability, uncertainty dominates. But you must deal in certainties, if you are to stay alive. There is the ice, and there is the girl. And these two things are connected. Of this much you can be sure.
Read it, they chant day and night, although, strictly speaking, there is no night-time anymore. There is no darkness, no rest. There is bright icelight, and no one can put it out. The earth is a giant glittering discoball. The girl. She is, the man admits, an obsession. He is infatuated; he could think only of her. In fact, the man is only really interesting in relation to how he views, treats, and thinks about, her. Throughout the book he is intent on finding her. This is, essentially, the plot: he finds the girl, and then he loses her again. He finds, he loses. He finds, he loses. It should be tedious, but it is oddly moving. And often disturbing. He wants to save her, from the disaster, from the warden.
Read it, for the girl. She is important, of course. She has a body ‘slight as a child’s.’ It is repeatedly emphasised. Her physical immaturity, and vulnerability. She has thin and brittle wrists. She is almost weightless. She is neurotic, fearful, mostly silent. She is emotionally vulnerable too. To be frank, the repetition in the first half of the book seems artless. She is weak; she is otherwordly. You wonder how many times you need to be told. Yet you must remember that we only have access to his words, that this – like a child – is how he sees her. Isn’t it – her childish, delicate appearance – his obsession, not the author’s? The man needs her frailty, in order to justify his need to feel protective of her.
Read it, and perhaps you will make up your own mind. I don’t know. I have little interest in books. I will not yield to their demands. I simply listen and I observe. And I endure, like the cockroach that I am. There is a point in the book when the man speaks of the girl as though she is a dog. I believe that this is significant. He had to win her trust. She comes when she is called. Isn’t it the case, therefore, that he sees himself as the owner, the master, of this timid animal? The relationship between the girl and the man is not based on love, but power. He credits himself with the power to save and also the power to destroy. The girl is destroyed, or hurt, numerous times throughout the novel. By the ice. By a dragon. By the warden. By the man himself, of course. In the first half, she is repeatedly persecuted, killed. She submits to it without resistance.
Read it, and you will agree that it is a novel about systematic abuse, about victims and victimisers. This is why they like it, why it speaks to that gang out there, outside my window. It isn’t the ice, it isn’t the parallels between that and this; Anna Kavan could not see into the future, she did not predict what was going to happen. Not even they believe that. It speaks to their now unleashed desire to crush and maim those who are weaker than they are. If the world is a nightmare, if unreality is reality, then anything is permissible. The girl wasn’t born to be a victim, she was trained, you might say, by her mother, who kept her ‘in a permanent state of frightened subjection.’ And as a victim she needs the man, and the warden, as much as they, as the victimisers, need her; they sustain each other.
Read it, they demand, not once, but repeatedly, until the words become your words. Bearing all this in mind, you understand the man’s actions, his mission, differently; he is not simply searching for the girl, he is stalking her. He is a sadist. He finds her bruises ‘madly attractive.’ He argues that her ‘timidity and fragility seems to invite callousness.’ He derives an ‘indescribable pleasure from seeing her suffer.’ And you, as the reader, feel complicit because you enjoy it too – when the ice overwhelms her, when it entraps her – as these are the moments when Kavan’s writing truly astonishes. It is beautiful only in these moments. Her death: over and over again. I don’t know if that was intentional.
Read it aloud, so that those who are within earshot can also be redeemed. The ice! The ice! Sometimes I feel as though it lives, it breathes, and we are simply performing rituals, and sacrifices, in order to please it. You can draw comparisons between the girl and Kavan herself; both silver-haired, both with mother issues. The author was a heroin addict, and the girl’s appearance is certainly consistent with that. Thin, pale. And the ice, of course, and the snow, which engulfs, and entraps. You might argue that this – the ice – is her addiction; that it is the drug that is destroying her. There is a dragon, remember. A dragon. The level of self pity, and self-obsession, is incredible. To write a novel about one’s own destruction and link it to the fate of the world. No, I find that the most uninteresting theory of all.
Read it, study it, and memorise it. Almost all copies were submerged under the ice. What we have has been rewritten, from one or two master copies. Still, teams of men and women are excavating as I speak, chipping away at the glass that mirrors their toil. An Original is precious. It could buy you life, or death. I prefer the latter. The man is dreaming, terrible dreams; they are a side effect of the drugs he takes. He admits this early on. There is no mystery. The girl is ‘the victim I used in my dreams for my own enjoyment.’ Case closed. There is reality and lucidity; there is unreality and hallucination. The warden with his ‘vicious scowl’, his ‘aura of danger.’ The man and the warden [and her husband] are the same man. The man and the warden and the ice. The black hand. The dragon. All one and the same. Am I spoiling things? Who am I spoiling it for? You all know the book better than I do, for I have never even glanced at a page.
A while ago I was in heated conversation with a man, a British man, about the subject of immigration and asylum, and at the end of this conversation he said something like ‘obviously coming here is better for you lot.’ It became clear to me at that point that he was under the impression that I wasn’t English. It is better for me and my kind? Better in what way, sir? ‘Nicer, not like where you came from.’ Putting aside the insignificant detail that I am actually English, the suggestion was that uprooting yourself and moving to a different country, a superior and more civilised country[!], is always an entirely positive endeavour. It is the unfortunate locals who have to put up with us – and our weird rituals, food, smell, etc. – and whose jobs we steal – that one ought to consider and sympathise with.
Perspective is a strange thing. There are some that appear incapable of seeing things through the eyes of others, who seemingly cannot comprehend that one’s cultural practices and values – i.e. what seems right and normal to you – are subjective, are related to your upbringing and experiences; and that to someone else, who has had a different upbringing and experiences, your practices and values may seem equally absurd or immoral. It strikes me that were I to have told this man – who, I am sure, wasn’t trying to offend me – that actually many people who come to England prefer their home countries, and in some cases did not want to come here at all, and that for them this – being in England – is not akin to winning the lottery, but often a sad, yet necessary event, he would not have believed me. Because, well, being a foreigner, my word is hardly the most reliable, is it?
“By the standards of the European industrial world we are poor peasants, but when I embrace my grandfather I experience a sense of richness as though I am a note in the heartbeats of the very universe.”
Tayeb Salih’s The Season of Migration to the North begins with a return, with the unnamed narrator, or partial narrator, discussing his arrival in the ’obscure’ village of his birth after seven years abroad, in England. He returned, he says, with ‘a great yearning’ for his people; he had ‘longed for them, had dreamed of them.’ At home, he re-familiarises himself with ’the room whose walls had witnessed the trivial incidents of my childhood and the onset of adolescence’ and the unique sound of the wind as it passes through palm trees. There are so many novels written from the European perspective, that focus on what it is like, as a European, to visit such a place, and the majority of them accentuate the hostility or strangeness of the landscape and people, and so it is refreshing to read something that provides an alternative point of view, one that is positive and loving. For the narrator this is where he has his roots, and where he feels once again as though he has ‘a purpose.’
While there is much in the village that is familiar, there is one thing, a man, that is new and unknown, and, perhaps because he stands out in this way, the narrator is excessively curious about who he is and why or how he came to be there. I use the word excessively, because, at least initially, Mustafa Sa’eed does nothing to raise suspicion; he, we’re told, ‘kept himself to himself,’ and always showed extreme politeness, as one would naturally expect of someone who has moved to a new place. In this way, Salih subtly probes the concept of ’the outsider,’ for even in a village of men of the same race, religion, etc, Mustafa Sa’eed is viewed as not quite ‘one of them.’ However, one day he mentions that he has a secret, and it is this secret that provides Season of Migration to the North with one of its two compelling central storylines.
When the two men get together to discuss the secret, Mustafa Sa’eed begins by relating some details of his childhood, details that, I think, say much about his character and give strong hints as to his future behaviour. He was, he says, essentially given the freedom to do as he pleased; he had no father, and his mother was emotionally distant. Of more significance, he describes himself as emotionally distant also. When he is given a place at a school in Cairo he leaves home with little more than a shrug of the shoulders and later admits to feeling no gratitude towards those who help him. Indeed, the more the highly intelligent, but strangely cold Mustafa Sa’eed says, the more it becomes clear, long before the big reveal, that he is at least a sociopath, but probably a psychopath. In this way, the novel could have become simply another in a seemingly endless line of existential dramas focussing on intense, disturbed loners – such as Camus’ Mersault or Sabato’s Juan Pablo Castel – and their terrible crimes, and on the most basic level it is one of those, but it is also much more besides.
I flippantly said to someone the other day that Tayeb Salih must have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for magic literary powers. This, I joked, was the only explanation for what he was able to achieve in Season of Migration to the North in approximately 130 pages. However, I am going to overlook, or only briefly touch upon, many of the complex and challenging themes and ideas present in the novel, not because I am not interested in them, but simply because I have to maintain control over my work and not allow it, as I said in a previous review, to mutate into a dissertation. Therefore, although colonisation, and the effect upon those who are subjected to it, certainly underpins much of the action I am going to leave it for others to tackle, aware that this is generally what reviewers focus upon. I, on the other hand, prefer to look at the more controversial, or uncomfortable, elements of the book.
“He used to say “I’ll liberate Africa with my penis” and he laughed so widely you could see the back of his throat.”
For large parts of Season of Migration to the North Tayeb Salih investigates and challenges liberal and conservative, Eastern and Western, attitudes towards sex and race; indeed, the nature of Mustafa Sa’eed’s ‘villainy’ is both sexual and racial, and even political [but, as stated, I am not going to linger over that]. When he moved to England his chief aim was to bed as many white women as possible, in the process playing up to the stereotype, and playing upon the fear of conservative white Europeans, of the savage, sex-obsessed invading African black male. Yet Salih takes this one stage further, for the women who succumb to his charms do so with his race, and the accompanying stereotypes, at the forefront of their minds, even when they believe that they are dismissing it or ‘accepting’ of it.
For example, one woman appears to be under the impression that Mustafa has just crawled out of the jungle, wearing a loincloth and smelling of mangoes. For her, this fantasy, which he encourages, adds an exotic flavour, an alien quality, something quixotic, to the proceedings. Another of the women imagines herself, and calls herself, Sa’eed’s slave, a woman who wants to be dominated, of course, and who clearly associates the subjugation of women with Arab culture. Words and phrases such as ‘savage bull’ and ‘cannibal’ are thrown around; and Jean Morris outright calls this ‘showpiece black man’ ugly. Yet, once again, Salih wasn’t satisfied with presenting only one side, for he makes it clear that Sa’eed also finds the novelty of these kind of couplings exciting [he comments on their bronze skin and the intoxicating but strange ‘European smell’]. All sexes, all cultures, all races can experience the allure of ‘the other.’ This is fascinating, thrilling stuff.
The only criticism I have to make of the novel, which is as beautifully written as it is brave, is in relation to the murder of Jean Morris, which is preposterously melodramatic, although I guess it is purposely reminiscent of the conclusion of Othello. Regardless, this act is not, for me, the most heinous in the novel, nor is this death [or Sa’eed’s fate] the most tragic. Throughout Season of Migration to the North one is led to believe that the European women, with their sexual rights and freedom to choose [even a black man], are a symbol of modernity or modern attitudes. In contrast, when the aged lothario Wad Reyyes falls in ‘love’ [which for him is the same as lust] with Hosna Bint Mahmoud, who outright refuses him, he declares, ‘She will marry me no matter what you or she says.’ In this village, he continues, men make the decisions. In short, Reyyes wants to fuck the woman, and so she will be fucked. However, when he, with great violence, attempts to take her by force, and Bint Mahmoud follows through on her promise to kill Reyyes and herself, one comes to realise that it is she who is the modern woman, not the so-called liberal, free Europeans. Why? Because Bint Mahmoud kills to make a statement, to say no when no is not permitted.
Escape. For a while this was my favourite pastime. When things went wrong, I would flee, with a fleeting moment of joy and optimism in my heart. Things were always going wrong. Of course. Because I was unstable. I gave up everything. I quit a good job. I broke up with my girlfriend. A nice vase isn’t safe on a rickety table. London had done me in. I had done London in. I needed to hide, so I escaped and I went home and I hid. This all seems funny to me now. I started a casual thing, because that was all I was capable of. I borrowed money from my brother. I ran up a debt with the bank. Student overdrafts are marvellous. So I had this casual fling, back home, in hiding. It is easier to hide in pubs and clubs. The lighting is perfect. She invited me to meet her friends, and I did, only I turned up with a bottle of whisky, of which I had already drunk three quarters. She thought it was quixotic, bohemian. You can get away with this sort of thing when you’re twenty two, and they still think you’re cute.
It lasted longer than it should have. I was no good to anyone at that time, except as perhaps the subject of an anecdote. I went back to her room one night. She had text me and asked me to come. We had both been out, in different places. I sat on her bed, and I was sure we were going to fuck. That was the point and that was what I was geared up for. But then I burst into tears. Sobbing uncontrollably. Ugly tears that contort your face and your voice until you no longer look or sound human. I’m not a crier. I very seldom cry. I was drunk, certainly, but I’m not an emotional drunk either. This isn’t exactly fun, she said. This is not what I had in mind. Well, quite. I can’t help but laugh as I write all this down. Who in their right mind would have wanted that? It was mortifying. A first-year university student. She was, at last, nose-to-nose with the unpleasant reality of what she had been dabbling in. So, anyway, we tried, but it was impossible, and so I left. And as soon as I got out of there I calmed down, as though it had all been a show. But it wasn’t that, it was because I knew this was the last time I’d see her. I had escaped again.
“My life, which seems so simple and monotonous, is really a complicated affair of cafés where they like me and cafés where they don’t, streets that are friendly, streets that aren’t, rooms where I might be happy, rooms where I shall never be, looking-glasses I look nice in, looking-glasses I don’t, dresses that will be lucky, dresses that won’t, and so on.”
I am desperate to move away from writing these kind of reviews, but unfortunately I can’t help but look for myself in the books I read. Of course, I don’t always succeed, and I don’t always enjoy it when I do. Sometimes I worry that my self-obsession is out of control. Why would I want to search for myself in books like this? Maybe it’s a solidarity thing. Oh look, they are as wretched as I was, at this time or that time. I don’t, however, think I was ever as wretched as Sasha Jansen, the narrator of Jean Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight. Small mercies, and all that. Yes, I do see some of myself in her, but it’s more like looking at my reflection in a dirty, cracked mirror. Maybe that is the point. Comfort yourself with the knowledge that no matter how low you got once upon a time, you never got that damn low. Alike, but not that alike. The novel opens with an already broken Sasha preparing to move to Paris, to, specifically, return to Paris. Escape is important to her too, as is hiding. She says so frequently.
Sasha was not born Sasha. She was born Sophia. This is also part of the escape, the hiding. She tried to reinvent herself. Sasha sounds like more fun than Sophia. Sasha is a sassy sort. Sophia sounds serious. This changing of name is also a way of breaking from her family, her parents, who named her, of course. Sasha’s parents would have preferred her to have drowned herself in the Seine, so putting some distance – literally and symbolically – between her and them makes a lot of sense. At one point in the novel Sasha dreams of a place with no exit sign. “I want the way out,” she says. Her hotel looks onto an impasse. The novel is full of this stuff. Escape, exits, hiding, dead ends. Her hotel room is dark. Her dress ‘extinguishes’ her. As does the luminol – a barbiturate, popular in the 1930’s, that was prescribed to combat insomnia and anxiety – she takes at night.
[Paris in the 1930’s, photographed by Brassaï]
What is ironic about the Paris trip, which is meant to help her, is that it is probably the worst place in the world for her to be. Because hiding is not possible there. A return, as I found myself, is not an escape. She is oppressed by her memories, is forced to relive these memories as she stumbles around Paris, from one familiar place to the next. Here, she did this, my God; and there, well, there is where such and such happened. Yet Sasha’s anxiety is more complex than embarrassment or shame at having shown herself up or been shown up in certain restaurants or cafes; it goes beyond having her nose rubbed in her past experiences. Sasha’s anxiety extends to pretty much every sphere of her existence. If she goes somewhere she is convinced that people are looking at her, and talking about her, and judging her. She thinks herself old, and not attractive. Conversation, all interaction, is excruciating, for her and for the reader. I have come across very few characters that are as relentlessly terrified and lonely and unhappy as this one. She’s not a hot mess. She’s just a mess, period. The only reason she is still alive, she says, is because she doesn’t have the guts to end it all.
Yet she hasn’t given up on herself, she wants to look and feel nice. She wants new hair, a pretty dress, a flattering hat. These things don’t or won’t help, but she wants them. Not for a man, either. For herself. Men play a strange role in the novel. They seem to almost emerge out of the shadows, taking Sasha and the reader by surprise. The gigalo. The Russians. The man in the white dressing gown. Strange men approach her, and us, out of the blue. Perhaps they smell the desperation. But then I guess this kind of thing happens to women a lot in real life. You’re walking down a street, feeling lousy or great or whatever, and some guy makes himself a fact, a part of your day. I’ve always thought that must be exhausting, to be a woman and be expected to give every sleazy Tom, Dick and Harry your attention merely because they want it, to be forced to give it even in telling them to fuck off. No man knows what that is like, no matter how good-looking. The problem for Sasha is that she has no defence system against this sort of thing. She’s easily manipulated because, despite her bitterness, she, ultimately, wants to be liked, she wants company.
To state the obvious, Good Morning, Midnight is not an upbeat book. It is a book to drag through your hair. Sasha isn’t likeable. No one in it is likeable. There isn’t a single hint at redemption or possible happiness. The ending is awful; it is, in fact, the worst part. I wouldn’t, however, want to call it an authentic portrayal of serious depression, of someone staring into the abyss, because what is authentic? I shy away from the word autobiographical also, despite being aware of some of the similarities between her character and Rhys herself. To talk in that way suggests that the author simply spewed her life and experiences onto the page. No. Anyone can be depressed, anyone can be suicidal, but not everyone is talented enough to have written this book. It is important to point out that there is method here, there is artistry. There are some great lines, for example, things like “there must be the dark background to show up the bright colours.” There is style too, which I would compare to Louis-Ferdinand Celine, a man who also wrote caustic, near-plotless monologues, rife with ellipses…although Rhys’ ellipses suggest broken trains of thought, confusion, sluggishness, rather than, as with Death on Credit, recklessness, tension, and breakneck speed. As with Celine, I’m sure many will liken Good Morning, Midnight to writers like Henry Miller. But that doesn’t stand up. Miller was a publicist, a myth-maker, a self-aggrandiser. Which is part of the reason why I so dislike his work. Not everyone takes stock of their life and finds that, actually, it’s full of booze, whores and good times. And, sure, not everyone finds that it is hopeless either, but I’d rather attend a pity-party [and Sasha is absolutely self-pitying] than drink down Miller’s balls-sweat.
Earlier this year I was in Prague visiting a friend of mine. My personal circumstances haven’t been the best for the last twelve months and I had slipped into a state of deep depression without realising it. The purpose of this trip was to get away from everything, to drink a lot and lose myself in that beautiful city. One afternoon my friend and I were in a bar, six drinks deep and thrillingly relaxed. That is, until a group of Americans arrived. They took the table behind us, and began to fight for each other’s attention like a bunch of rambunctious puppies. ‘I hate them,’ my friend said quietly, and at first I thought he meant only this particular group, until he followed up with ‘fucking Americans, I can’t stand them.’ It wasn’t the first time I had heard someone dismiss an entire nation, but I was still surprised by this passionate outburst. Of course, I was aware of the stereotype of the brash and grossly impolite and uncultured American, but I had never really given it much thought, and, with ‘yanks’ being in short supply in Sheffield, I certainly hadn’t before heard such vitriol directed at them. ‘They’ve probably come over here to start a war,’ my friend seethed.
Since returning from Prague, and now particularly sensitive to it, I have come to realise that this negative stereotype is fairly common amongst the English, and this was at least partly the reason why I have been so interested in reading Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, The Quiet American. It is worth noting in this regard that the title itself could be interpreted as a sly form of mockery, in that it speaks with an element of surprise, as though a quiet American is a rare thing. The American in question is Alden Pyle, a young man with an ‘unused face’, who arrives in war-stricken Vietnam, seemingly as some kind of charity or aid worker, and quickly befriends an Englishman, Thomas Fowler, and his native girlfriend, Phuong. This triangle comes to dominate the novel, and has both political and personal repercussions.
The Quiet American is narrated by Fowler, and he describes Pyle numerous times as naïve and innocent. Moreover, the young man himself admits that he lacks experience, especially with women. In his early interactions with Phuong he is excessively polite. He pulls out her chair for her in a bar and, as they sit around a table, he objects to what he considers to be indiscreet conversation, the kind not suitable for a woman’s ears. It is clear that for Pyle women, or Vietnamese women at least, ought to be protected, that he sees them as delicate creatures or even almost as children. Indeed, he is disproportionately affected when one of his fellow countrymen visits a brothel. This man, Granger, is the archetypal loud American, a straight-talking, bullish and arrogant Philadelphian, with whom Fowler occasionally locks horns.
While it seems as though Pyle is a sweet, harmless, candid, heart-on-the-sleeve kind of guy, with his whole life ahead of him, Fowler is an ageing journalist with a developing paunch and a wife back in England. In contrast to his starry-eyed young friend, Fowler’s predominant attitude is a kind of disgruntled world-weariness. Indeed, he claims to only want 18 year old Phuong in order to fight off the loneliness of old-age. To this end, the arrival of Pyle is the worst thing that could have happened to him, because his new friend falls in love with her and becomes intent on marrying her. Predictably, Pyle’s love for Phuong is idealistic, as is his approach to his rival. He claims that he wants to do the right and honourable thing, for example, he undergoes extreme danger in order to go to Fowler and reveal to him his feelings for the man’s girlfriend. Significantly, both in terms of understanding Pyle and the novel as a whole, Fowler asks him why he doesn’t just leave without telling Phuong about his love, why he doesn’t want to avoid causing trouble, and Pyle responds by saying that this wouldn’t be fair.
“I wish sometimes you had a few bad motives, you might understand a little more about human beings.”
For Alden Pyle the consequences of his actions are less important than his intention. His intention is to do the right thing, and so if people get hurt that is simply an unfortunate, regrettable, but unavoidable form of collateral damage. What is paramount is that he acted in accordance with his principles. Fowler, on the other hand, understands that things are never that clear cut, that a good man trying to do good can, as a result, do bad things, can cause harm, which in this instance would be to hurt Fowler and possibly Phuong also. I found all this fascinating. One never doubts that Pyle is in earnest, that he is on the level, that he is a nice guy, he is simply “impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance.” His chief character flaw is refusing to accept, or to see, the world as it is.
I wrote earlier about personal and political repercussions, and it is interesting, and satisfying, how Greene uses this love triangle to mirror the political situation in the country. Both Pyle and Fowler are outsiders, or invaders if you like, fighting over a Vietnamese, and while the American may be frequently described as innocent, the only real innocent in the situation is Phuong, who comes to represent the ordinary civilian during the war. Moreover, it is not surprising that Pyle brings the same attitude towards his job, which, we come to realise, is not as an aid worker, but a kind of terrorist working for the American government. Again, Pyle’s dangerous idealism, his naivety, means that he harms while trying to do good or he justifies harm in the name of what is good. The line between terrorist and liberator is, for him, not a thin one, it is clear and pronounced. Greene’s point appears to be that this is the American mind-set, that America wades into conflicts with the best intentions in the world, without comprehending the extent of the damage they are causing or likely to cause.
“Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”
However, while I can see why he thought this, and I agree to an extent, I, ironically, think he was being too naive himself [unless of course I have misunderstood him]. In terms of individual soldiers, then, yes, I’ve met quite a few and they have all been absolutely convinced that what they are doing – in Iraq, Afghanistan etc – is entirely positive, that they are helping these poor downtrodden countries, that they are bringing democracy to them, and that this is a wonderful thing, even if they have to kill thousands of innocent people in order to do it. What I don’t accept is that the real people in power in America, the people who sanction these conflicts, who send these individuals into these countries, are like Pyle, I don’t buy that they are the Goofy, ‘aw shucks’ variety. I believe that the people who sanction war know exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it. Power, greed, money, these are the things that drive foreign policy. Oh sure, we’ll get told that, for example, communism is a threat to world security, but the real threat it poses is to certain people’s bank balances; likewise, human rights violations are never the reason we engage. The American [and British] government don’t give a single, shiny fuck about human rights violations.
One further potential flaw with The Quiet American is that the friendship between the two men comes across as forced, certainly on Pyle’s side. He speaks about Fowler being his best friend, even though they have known each other for only a very short time. He compliments the man frequently and claims to understand him, to such an extent that it just does not ring true. However, this isn’t necessarily a failure of Greene’s, it could be justified in line with the book’s themes. Isn’t Pyle’s insistence that Fowler is a good man, that the men have bonded and are great friends, a sign of his immaturity? One could even argue that it is the arrogance of the American, one that believes that he can make friends so easily and can understand other people better than they understand themselves. In terms of Fowler, his affection makes sense. He appreciates Pyle’s wide-eyed approach to life, which is so different from his own; but he never considers them to be bosom buddies like Pyle does.
I’ve written a lot about Pyle in this review, and I do think that he is a wonderful creation, but, for me, it is through Fowler that Greene raises the most engaging and important question. As previously noted, he is in Vietnam to report on the war between the French and the Viet Mihn communist-nationalist revolutionaries. Fowler, according to himself, steadfastly refuses to take sides, going so far as to say that he has no opinions on what is happening in the country. As The Quiet American pushes on towards its moving conclusion, Greene asks ‘is it possible to not become involved? Can you watch people being killed and not have an opinion?’ This is something that I ask of people all the time, most recently with the refugee crisis. Can you remain neutral in the face of overwhelming suffering? I know I can’t. And neither, ultimately, can Fowler, who is forced to throw off his moral cowardice and act. I won’t reveal what he does, or the consequences of what he does, but it is worth noting that the decision to act is justified in almost exactly the same way that Pyle justifies his own actions, in that it involves the sacrifice of life for, the argument states, the greater good. Perhaps then the only thing one can say with any certainty where war is concerned is that there are no absolutes, no easy answers, it is, and will remain, a messy, horrible, horrifying state of affairs. Much like love, I guess.
I am not, I must confess, terribly fond of Englishness. I suppose that being English I find it too familiar, and therefore unexciting. Or perhaps it is the case that my tough upbringing worked on me as a kind of aversion therapy, so that everything connected with my homeland strikes me as unappealing. I don’t know. Until I came to think about this review, I had never really sought to thoroughly explain to myself my preference for things foreign, a preference that extends to the women I have been in relationships with, landscapes [I find the English countryside incomparably dreary], art, film, and most other aspects of my private and intellectual life. One consequence of this attitude is that, I now realise, I’m particularly tough on English literature; I make fewer allowances, I let less slide. And so a novel written by an English person has a much steeper mountain to climb to reach the summit of my affections. Of course, some have managed it [Charles Dickens, for example, found the going relatively easy and has become a particular favourite; Jane Austen laboured somewhat, but got there in the end], but they are certainly in the minority up there. The purpose of all of this is to give some perspective to my claim that Middlemarch by George Eliot is not one of the finest English novels [a statement that coming from me would mean very little] but one of the greatest novels, period.
With Emma it was, apparently, Jane Austen’s intention to create a heroine that her readers might not like immediately, or at all. To some extent she was successful in this endeavour, for many appear to find the title character irritating. Yet I have never felt that way about her; she is too energetic and silly to engender any kind of antipathy. However, if George Eliot had ever had, while writing this book, the same aim in mind she absolutely nailed it. In the interests of fairness, one ought to point out that Dorothea Burke is not without positive traits, such as her desire to help the poor, but she is without charm. Indeed, if I were asked to choose a bunch of adjectives to describe someone who I would cross the street to avoid, those pertaining to Eliot’s heroine – pious, self-denying, proud, judgemental – would be high on the list.
For me it is these qualities that inspire her to forgo the more obviously appealing Sir James in favour of the musty Mr. Casaubon. In this respect, I was reminded very much of another strong-willed young woman, Isabel Archer from Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady. Both women, to themselves, justify their strange choices as wanting to be useful or challenged. Dorothea, in fact, likens Casaubon to Locke or Pascal; she thinks him a superior soul who will instruct and lead her, while she will aid him in his work. Yet, as the reader, one can’t help but think that marrying him is a kind of sacrifice, or martyrdom. She prides herself of not valuing frivolous things, and of being able to give them up [like horse riding, or jewels]; she doesn’t admit it to herself, but in picking Casaubon she gives up physical attraction, or at least trades it so that her intellect, her soul, can be, ahem, given a good seeing to instead. But even in this, even in denying herself, one could argue that there is a kind of vanity or egotism, that, just like Isabel, she chooses one, Casaubon, over another, Sir James, in order to show that she knows better, that she can make her own obscure choices, will go against the grain.
That Eliot allows her heroine to get off on the wrong foot, so to speak, with her audience was a brave move. I can imagine some readers clapping the book shut and throwing it away from themselves, in order to be rid of the haughty Miss Brooke. However, if you do persevere I am confident that your attitude will change towards her, or will soften at least. The reconciliation between the reader and Dorothea is most likely to take place during her disastrous marriage to the mummy [as Chettem calls Casaubon]. Before the couple tie the knot one might have been in two minds as to whether it would be a success, because, although the ageing clergyman, who is not in the best health, may strike you as unsuitable for marriage with a young woman, Dorothea’s personality is such that the union does, on the surface, pretty much make sense. Even her Uncle concedes that it is not sheer folly, and that Sir James would not have been a good match; but once Dorothea is alone with her husband she quickly comes to realise that life with him will be a lonely, frustrating, and unhappy one. And Eliot uses the contrast between the husband and the wife to expose aspects of Dorothea’s character previously unknown to the reader, making her much more agreeable.
Edward Casaubon, is, quite rightly, one of the most well-known and cherished characters in English fiction. Of all the people who feature in this vast novel, he was the one I best remembered from my first read, the one I would reference in conversation with others. Yet it was interesting to note during this reread that, while Eliot’s reputation is as a fair-minded author, a creator of finely crafted, sympathetic, flawed but human characters [and it is a deserved reputation], she is fairly relentless in mocking Casaubon, at times reaching Dickensian levels of satire. He is a terminally boring, self-absorbed and passionless man. Eliot makes this clear in numerous ways, but a number of his speeches [one about painting in particular – where he speaks about admiration without ever giving the impression that he feels any himself], and his letter to Dorothea asking for her hand in marriage, are almost painful to read in their formality and dryness.
“MY DEAR MISS BROOKE, — I have your guardian’s permission to address you on a subject than which I have none more at heart. I am not, I trust, mistaken in the recognition of some deeper correspondence than that of date in the fact that a consciousness of need in my own life had arisen contemporaneously with the possibility of my becoming acquainted with you.”
Perhaps the deepest thrust Eliot delivers is in relation to Casaubon’s work, his life’s work, called the Key to all Mythologies. It is an ambitious, comprehensive study that he is, of course, incapable of bringing to completion. He isn’t, then, only self absorbed, monomaniacal, and emotionally limp, but also completely ineffectual. I have known a number of people like this, such as my friend’s father, who left his wife, isolated himself from his friends and family, and then spent the next two decades faffing about with complex computer programmes and photography equipment, never getting within even sniffing distance of achieving anything. Or, to call forth a more famous example, what about Austrian author Robert Musil, a man of questionable temperament apparently, who dedicated the majority of his career to writing The Man Without Qualities, and yet died leaving the work unfinished? Indeed, what Eliot most impressively nailed with Casaubon is a particular kind of male behaviour or psychology or approach to the world. Many men are, to some extent, obsessive, are prone to cutting themselves off and getting lost in their hobbies or projects, be that football, gardening, or whatever. Moreover, a lot of us do not have a sense of our own ridiculousness, of how tedious we can be when we hold forth on these subjects; nor do we understand our own capabilities or limitations. This is especially true of men who are engaged in intellectual pursuits.
I must admit that I had an uncomfortable realisation during the book that there is a very real danger, not that I am a little bit like Casaubon, but that I could go full Casaubon. And you should never go full Casaubon. For example, one of my girlfriend’s once left me because I had stopped paying her attention as I worked my way through Cao Xueqin’s multi-volume Chinese novel, The Story of the Stone [totally worth it though]. Moreover, I once decided that I wanted to be able to name the greatest novel from each major country and spent at least two years engaged in research; and this is without mentioning the years I spent on my own writing projects, including a [never completed, of course] work that was meant to incorporate all of the [hundreds of thousands of] pieces and fragments of prose I have accumulated throughout my life, which I believed would, in toto, result in a bildungsroman for the modern age! Casaubon is, in this way, a warning to people like me. He is the ghost that visits you on Christmas Eve, proposing to show you who you could turn into if you are not careful.
In light of all this, it is not difficult to see why Dorothea suffers so much in the marriage. She thought she was aligning herself with a Locke, but instead got with an old man of no genius; she thought she would share in, and help with, his work, and yet she ends up being little more than an unpaid secretary or unvalued pupil.
“And certainly, the mistakes that we male and female mortals make when we have our own way might fairly raise some wonder that we are so fond of it.”
Since first reading Middlemarch I have, whenever the subject has arisen, claimed that it is the greatest novel ever written about love and relationships; and I have found, on this occasion, more than enough in the text to back that up. Indeed, while Casaubon and Dorothea are endlessly fascinating, I perhaps enjoyed the Lydgate and Rosamond storyline even more. As with the more famous couple, Eliot’s great skill is in being able to make you see the potential for success in the relationship, while also observing its possible flaws. Despite their age and attractiveness, Lydgate and Rosamond getting together isn’t mindless star-crossed lovers fluff; the coupling is psychologically sound. He thinks that her beauty and grace will enrich his life, which is understandable, and consistent with his personality, while her air of vulnerability, of needing to be looked after, is also consistent with his profession. Likewise, she wants a man who is not a Middlemarcher, who is superior, and Lydgate fits the bill. However, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that a marriage based on such superficialities will likely flounder.
As central as love and marriage are to the narrative, what unites or defines almost all of the couplings formed during the duration of the novel is a sense of eventual disappointment or, more precisely, disillusionment. Indeed, this feeling plays a part in many other aspects of the story, including, for example, Fred Vincy’s dreams and ambitions. In this way, I can’t help but think that, while the name Middlemarch has served the book adequately, the two most appropriate titles were already taken: Great Expectations and Lost Illusions. All of the major characters approach life hopefully, with expectations of success, and yet nearly all find their hopes dashed.
“Having once embarked on your marital voyage, it is impossible not to be aware that you make no way and that the sea is not within sight–that, in fact, you are exploring an enclosed basin.”
Again, Dorothea and Casaubon provide an interesting example. As noted, Dorothea finds that marriage is not all she thought it would be. Yet, crucially, she cannot really fault her husband; he did not make false promises, nor did he change upon signing the contract. It is more a case that Dorothea, like most people entering into relationships, took every small example of admirable traits or behaviour during the courtship to be but a taster of the huge amounts of such qualities the person in question would have in store. Likewise, Casaubon is also left disappointed; he imagined Dorothea would ease his strain, would support, rather than question, or make demands of him. To return to Fred Vincy, he considered it a fait accompli that old Featherstone would leave him a sizeable legacy, but things do not work out as he envisaged. In fact, the only people who avoid disappointment are those who never had ideals for living, or great hopes, in the first place, such as Mary Garth. As a consequence, I’m not quite sure what the novel’s message really is. Do not hope? Have small ambitions? Be sensible? Maybe. Or perhaps to speak about a message is to turn down the wrong road. I prefer to believe that Eliot wasn’t interested in pedagogy, that her novel is simply showing you life: in its smallness, its meanness, its disappointments, as well as its joys and its successes.
While there isn’t an out-and-out message, Middlemarch does engage with important issues, such as the women question, as I have anachronistically heard it called. As one progresses through the book one comes to realise that Dorothea could be viewed as a kind of unassuming feminist icon. What defines her character is a desire to be active and useful; she draws plans for poor housing and wants to donate to the local hospital. She may not want equality, or never voices that idea, but she does want to do good, to contribute to society. On the other hand, many of the male characters treat her as ‘a vulnerable little woman’; her uncle, for example, worries about her overtaxing herself, and thinks that too much knowledge is bad for a woman; Sir James Chettam thinks that she ought to have been given stronger guidance [i.e. be told what to do and what not to do] when weighing up Casaubon’s proposal, indicating that he believes her unfit to make this so important decision. It is vital, for me, that Eliot allows Dorothea to be both feminine and strong; she is vulnerable, but no more than anyone else, than any man, and she is emotional. While her decision to marry Casaubon is shown to be a poor one, she at least made it herself and insisted on it in the face of opposition. Through her Eliot explores how difficult it was for women to find a useful place in society, one where she is allowed to be significant and make a difference. Lydgate is a doctor, her uncle dabbles in politics, and so on, but she is expected to be little more than a wife.
In terms of Eliot’s style, she has a fine authorial voice: frequently wise and warm, while also capable of irony and a kind of wry humour. I’ve read elsewhere that some find her omniscient, Godly approach not to their taste, and while there were occasions when she unnecessarily breaks the spell [for example, when she addresses the reader and notes that you may or may not be interested in so-and-so], I found it, generally speaking, not to be a problem. What certainly is worth trumpeting is her ability with metaphors. This is an area that I am particularly interested in, for I think that it is a dying, or dead, art [if you’re going to liken, say, a pale face to milk or ivory then you might as well have not bothered at all]. In fact, most rappers turn out better metaphors that this generation’s acclaimed novelists. Eliot’s, however, are supreme; they are constantly surprising and illuminating [which is the point of a metaphor – to enable you to better understand, or appreciate, the thing that is being described by way of comparison].
Before I conclude, I want to outline some minor criticisms. I said at the beginning of this review that you will probably come to change your mind about Dorothea, that although she seems unlikable at first, I am confident that you will come to like or admire her. Yet one of the failings of the novel, for me, is that her character changes too abruptly, that, more specifically, she loses her illusions regarding Casaubon too suddenly. It is not that Eliot does not provide justification, it is simply that the reasons she gives are not entirely consistent with the character of the Dorothea that we meet in the opening stages of the book. For example, during the marriage Casaubon is shown to be lacking passion, and this dismays his wife. Yet she never indicated a desire for passion prior to the marriage, only intelligence and learning [which he has]. Furthermore, by the end of the book Dorothea has become a kind of Jesus figure; forgiving, full of love and understanding. That’s lovely and all, but it just seems too epic a journey, too big a change, to have undertaken in the course of the novel. Another problem with the book is that Will Ladislaw, who is the closest Eliot comes to a romantic hero, is dull as shit. Seriously, I yawned my way through almost all his bits. In any case, none of that was enough to spoil my enjoyment or to dampen my affection.
Finally, then, if this review seems somewhat confused or poorly structured [I hope it doesn’t but I fear it does], or far too long, that is because I struggled to write and edit it. However, I struggled not because my ideas wouldn’t come, or would not allow themselves to be moulded into coherent sentences and paragraphs, but simply because I had so much I wanted to say, because every time I started to lay down my thoughts and feelings I was aware that there were other fascinating aspects of the novel that I could be engaging with. I felt, as I wrote, always as though I was grappling with something bigger than me, like a fisherman trying to land a shark. That, for me, is the sign of a truly great book – one that will not politely submit itself to a nicely-formed, perfectly manageable 1000 word review. Oh no, Middlemarch made me drag this this out of myself, all 3000 words of it.
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 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.