May Books 25) The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad

I was moved to seek this out by F.R. Leavis’s praise, and because it’s often recommended on lists of Great Books. I enjoyed it, but I wasn’t blown away (so to speak) and wondered a little what the fuss is all about. It’s about a family where the husband is an agent provocateur in London working for a foreign power, unknown to his wife; he sends her brother (who has learning difficulties) to blow up Greenwich Observatory, and it all goes wrong. As a psychological study of people failing to communicate with each other, it’s rather good, and the husband and wife are realistically and somewhat brutally portrayed. But I found myself approaching it also through the lens of a hundred years of spy fiction written since it was published in 1907, and there are now various things that I expect from novels about spies and secret agents which this doesn’t have – in particular the police and security forces seem moored more in Conrad’s imagination than in the real British bureaucracy. (Not that James Bond is especially moored in reality, of course.)