Joseph Conrad – The Secret Agent

Joseph Conrad – The Secret Agent

Well, you see, I knew this man. This man was very confident. He was a great speaker, a fluent and funny man. Actually, maybe not funny. He wasn’t funny. He was witty – acerbic even.  And he was tall and wore black (you know, that might have been a clue, had I been looking for clues) even in summer. Not ‘Man in Black’ type black, but a lot of black, a lot of the time.

I wanted to win this man’s attention. I wanted him to think well of me. Did I mention he was very good-looking? Well he was, but that wasn’t particularly germane – it was his intellectual calibre that mattered most. You see, he seemed rather dismissive of me; he didn’t seem to rate my intellect as highly as I did his.


Looking back, what this man didn’t like about me was everything that made me and my life worthwhile. He didn’t like what I read – he particularly didn’t like H E Bates and Nabakov and Colette, all the earthy, vital, life-enhancing writers (well, I accept that Nabakov is somewhat dubious as ‘life-enhancing’ and maybe not even earthy, but vital, yes … read Lolita and feel America thrum through their mad road trip like an electric current) I loved. He didn’t like that fact I wore red. He didn’t like it when I laughed.

He suggested I read Simenon and Conrad. He didn’t go quite as far as suggesting I buy a black roll-neck sweater and read Ginsberg, but he wasn’t far off. I think the only reason we didn’t get to the sweater moment is that it would have hidden my cleavage which was largely on display when he was around. He did like my cleavage.

I liked Simenon – in translation and in the original French. I didn’t notice at the time that the man didn’t appreciate that I could read Simenon in French – but he didn’t like it at all, it turned out. He couldn’t read French, you see.

I didn’t get on so well with Conrad. I tried. I really tried. But both The Secret Agent and Heart of Darkness were so unremittingly unpleasant that I struggled to feel any connection to the narrative at all. I liked the brevity of Conrad’s prose and I found the subject matter he chose powerful. There’s no way that you could have visited most African states in the 1990s, but Somalia and Niger in particular, and not have found Heart of Darkness surrounding you whenever you stepped out of the International airport terminal. I went to those places, and I saw Conrad’s fiction in reality.

I got the man. He wasn’t worth it. His cool rationalism extended into his (lack of) emotional life. It was like spending time with an alabaster egg: smooth, cool, pale, attractive – ultimately purposeless. Looking back, I can’t even remember him, only the desire I had to win his attention, which, once achieved, was a worthless achievement.

The man went. The book goes too….

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