The Secret Agent (Conrad)

Usually, I write reviews pretty soon after I finish a book or, as you can probably see in a few of my reviews, the details start to fade. But the school year has started, and so I’ve been carrying this one in my backpack for a few days.

My only previous Conrad experiences were with Heart of Darkness, both as a high school student and at least once as a teacher. I started Lord Jim at least once and made no progress. So I was a little uncertain as I approached this book club selection.

It was really, really good. Even if I didn’t know that Conrad learned English when he was 40, I would still have been very impressed with his detailed and engaging characterizations of a secret agent and the network of people who intersect with him. He brings every one of the dozen or so characters to life.

And the tone is remarkably sly. There are no good people here, and there are certainly no heroes. There is one innocent person and what happens to him is heartbreaking.

Mostly, though, Conrad humanizes and complicates (which might be two words for the same thing) everyone involved. People are, in Conrad’s world, quite petty, however much that might cloak themselves in slogans. And that seems right to me.

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Invisible Cities (Calvino)

I was in a bookstore and was struck by a title – If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler – and I opened it. The first line is something like, “You are probably in a bookstore right now.” I laughed. Out loud. And I bought the book.

It was a revelation. It was my first experience with meta-fiction, long before I even had any idea what that term meant. I loved it.

I’ve since read a few other Calvino titles. He, like Saramago, takes a certain kind of concentration. Invisible Cities is another delight. Esoteric and layered, it is a series of reports from Marco Polo to Kublai Khan about cities Polo has encountered in his journeys through Khan’s empire. Maybe.

Or is it a kind of Arabian Nights tale, in which Polo is making up these reports to present to a ruler who fears the slow destruction of his empire, in a language of gestures and words so insufficient that the two men spend a great deal of time in silence. Maybe.

Or is it a criticism and / or a celebration of the dichotomous nature of cities, of which, like and despite words, we can only ever gain a temporary understanding?

I’m not sure; I’m glad it’s a book club choice. I’ll be eager to hear what others offer.