Uncommon Classics Book Club: "Secret Agent" by Joseph Conrad

Uncommon Classics: A book club celebrating lost, forgotten, or underappreciated works from the past that could easily be on any high school syllabus.

This month's book club pick is The Secret Agent by Joeseph Conrad.

Inspired by an actual attempt in 1894 to blow up London's Greenwich Observatory, here is a chillingly prophetic examination of contemporary terrorism and the literary precursor to today's espionage thriller. The Secret Agent communicates a profoundly ironic view of human affairs. The story is woven around an attack on the Greenwich Observatory in 1894 masterminded by Verloc, a Russian spy working for the police, and ostensibly a member of an anarchist group in Soho. His masters instruct him to discredit the anarchists in a humiliating fashion, and when his evil plan goes horribly awry, Verloc must deal with the repercussions of his actions. While rooted in the Edwardian period, Conrad's tale remains strikingly contemporary, with its depiction of Londoners gripped by fear of the terrorists living in their midst. Slighted and ignored upon its initial release, Conrad's story of terrorism and political espionage has become one of his best-loved novels. Early detractors maligned it for its "unpleasant characters and subject." After the 9/11 attacks, it was one of the most cited books by the media. This edition of The Secret Agent contains a chronology, further reading, notes and maps of London and Greenwich. In his introduction, Michael Newton discusses London's real-life world of political anarchy, and Conrad's portrayal of the Verlocs' marriage.

"The Secret Agent is an altogether thrilling 'crime story' . . . a political novel of a foreign embassy intrigue and its tragic human outcome." -- Thomas Mann

"[ The Secret Agent] was in effect the world's first political thriller--spies, conspirators, wily policemen, murders, bombings . . . Conrad was also giving artistic expression to his domestic anxieties--his overweight wife and problem child, his lack of money, his inactivity, his discomfort in London, his uneasiness in English society, his sense of exile, of being an alien . . . The novel has the perverse logic and derangement of a dream." 
--from the Introduction to the Everyman's Library edition by Paul Theroux

Joseph Conrad (originally Józef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski) was born in the Ukraine in 1857 and grew up under Tsarist autocracy. In 1896 he settled in Kent, where he produced within fifteen years such modern classics as YouthHeart of DarknessLord JimTyphoonNostromoThe Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes. He continued to write until his death in 1924. Today Conrad is generally regarded as one of the greatest writers of fiction in English--his third language. Many of Conrad's novels have been adapted for film, most notably Heart of Darkness, which served as the inspiration and foundation for Francis Ford Coppola s 1979 film Apocalypse Now.

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Email stephen@citylitbooks.com with any questions about the club.

Event date: 
Tuesday, September 10, 2019 - 6:30pm
Event address: 
City Lit Books
2523 N. Kedzie Blvd.
Chicago, IL 60647
The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale Cover Image
By Joseph Conrad, Michael Newton (Editor), Michael Newton (Introduction by), J. H. Stape (Editor)
ISBN: 9780141441580
Availability: Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Penguin Classics - September 25th, 2007