Friday, June 26, 2009

Borrowed Fire: The Secret Agent: Mr. Vladimir

There's much more to learn from Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent.

As I've been rereading this brilliant! brilliant! book, I didn't expect to be thinking so much about characterization. I thought I'd be talking more about setting and atmosphere. My recollection of the book, which I first read 20 years ago, involves lots of shuddering and teeth clenching. Of course, as I discovered in writing the previous post on this book, characterization and setting are almost the same thing here.

My other recollection, oddly, is laughing out loud. Was I crazy back then, or deeply insensitive; or is The Secret Agent really funny? For some reason I find myself resisting the latter conclusion. In a 1920 preface to the book, Conrad makes it perfectly clear that he loathes the anarchist characters and the real-life movement they represent. They epitomize laziness and vanity, and express their own pointlessness in acts of pure evil, like the attempted bombing of the Greenwich observatory. And yet I've been laughing again as I reread. Clearly, if you do it right, you can use humor to excoriate. There's no contradiction, or shame, in laughing at evil. By laughing, we shrivel these evil men, even as we can't look away from their crimes.

Now, in creative writing workshops, we learn that an author shouldn't loathe his characters. One has to find some thread of sympathy for them, and thus allow them some complexity, or they'll be cardboard. But these workshops are teaching, for the most part, a different kind of writing that what Conrad's doing. Conrad is working on a larger canvas than we're generally encouraged to take on today. Through satire, he's trying to get at the very nature of good and evil. As you may have guessed, one reason I started Borrowed Fire was to make a case for returning to this level of literary ambition. And that return involves a different view of what constitutes character. Fictional characters do not need to be like real people. However, they must be interesting.

Conrad shows us that sympathy's not necessary to create interest, when you have a gimlet eye and an omniscient point of view. Here's our first look at Mr. Vladimir, a honcho in Verloc's secret gang, who's under cover as a diplomat:

Mr Vladimir, First Secretary, had a drawing-room reputation as an agreeable and entertaining man. He was something of a favourite in society. His wit consisted in discovering droll connections between incongruous ideas; and when talking in that strain he sat well forward of his seat, with his left hand raised, as if exhibiting his funny demonstrations between the thumb and forefinger, while his round and clean-shaven face wore an expression of merry perplexity.

Whenever I find myself stuck in a rut of character description (he had brown hair; she had blonde hair; he had green eyes and a great big smile), I'll try to remember this passage--specifically, Mr. Vladimir's thumb and forefinger. What's important here is the connection of Vladimir's self-image, which has been reinforced by the idiots who surround him in society, to his physical gestures. The omniscient point of view allows Conrad to leave the scene entirely and go out to another time and place (some drawing room somewhere) to sketch that connection for us. At this actual moment in the story, the only other character in the room is Verloc, who would not know these things about Vladimir, nor would he be clever enough to express them. The close-third point of view, common in contemporary fiction, hampers one's ability to describe characters in general; perhaps that's why we're told to make all our characters at least a little sympathetic. Sympathy creates a sense of complexity, which makes up for the limited information afforded by the close third (or first person) point of view. But if your narrator has access to other information, like how a character behaves when the main character isn't around, and how the character has carefully built a reputation among certain people over time, and how his thumb and forefinger function at those moments when he's conscious of that reputation and trying to enhance it further--then you have an interesting character.

No, you don't sympathize with Vladimir at all; Conrad doesn't want us to. He wants us to hate him, but we can only do that when we see his self-delusion compressed into a precise, unique physical gesture. I think this precision has something to do with why I'm laughing all the way through this terrifying book. When a phrase or an image is so surprising and so exact, it's funny.

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