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JOSEPH CONRAD (1857-1924)



Joseph Conrad was born the only child of Polish parents in the Russian-controlled Ukraine. His father was involved with the covert national Polish movement and was arrested by the Russian authorities for patriotic conspiracy, so they were exiled to Northern Russia. His mother died during this period in 1865 and his father died two years. Conrad was left orphaned and the ward of his maternal uncle. Often the young Conrad spoke of a desire to go to sea, so pursuing this dream, he left for Marseilles to become a trainee seaman in the French merchant navy. He was a talented linguist as he proved later in his novels.


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Published in 1907, The Secret Agent concerns a group of spies and anarchists who meet in the Soho shop of Verloc unbeknown to his wife Winnie who married him mainly to look after her simple younger brother Stevie. Verloc’s acquaintances are not joined by a shared vision but by their political fanaticism. Verloc is a lazy but not unmoral man, and a double-agent in many senses. The key figures in the group are Ossipon, who makes money from seducing women, and ‘the Professor’ who is a genuinely terrifying American terrorist who walks the streets with a bomb strapped to his chest so he will never be caught. The latter is a parasite on society and proud of it, while the others, including Vladimir, Yundt and Michaelis, show varying awareness of their common immorality. Largely this is a comedy of errors, and we see the almost absurd ruin of Verloc who takes on a ridiculously ambitious terrorist job to blow up the Greenwich Observatory against his will. He uses the naïve Stevie to plant the bomb but the boy is blown up and Winnie, learning of this, murders Verloc. She plans to leave the country with Ossipon but inevitable all goes horribly wrong and suicide follows. Although the subject matter is consistently dark Conrad, showing his suspicion about the worth of radical politics and anarchism, handles it almost sardonically. The events are exciting and in Conrad’s terms a genuine page-turner of a book.

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