The City in Fiction and Film, week 9: The Secret Agent, part one

41Pi137AB+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_week 8

We started this week with the material on the Situationists and the dérive that we did not have time to cover last week, before turning to the first half of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) – which to be honest I was a little anxious about, given the events in Beirut and Paris last weekend – and a very quick discussion of The Third Man (Carol Reed UK 1949), which we watched in the morning.

The Situationist International (SI) was a group of primarily Paris-based anti-Stalinist Marxists influenced by Dada and Surrealism, which existed from 1957-1972. Their key theoretical activity was to develop Marx’s ideas on alienation and commodity fetishism, broadly arguing that capitalism had become so extensive and intensive that life was no longer experienced directly but through commodities; and that it was necessary to find ways to shatter the commodified spectacle of everyday life. They brilliantly and correctly called for automation to be developed not so as to maximise profit but so as to liberate everyone into lives of freedom and leisure and creativity. And of greater relevance here, they developed a number of theorised practices or ways of critically intervening in the city, including détournement – turning the spectacle against itself through pranks, culture jamming, reality hacks – and such psychogeographical experiments as the dérive.

Differing from the journey (which has a clear destination) and the stroll (which is typically aimless), the dérive is concerned with movement through urban space with a kind of double-consciousness. On the one hand, it is about allowing the ‘attractions of the terrain and the encounters’ found there to organise your movement and experience of the varying ambiances of the city space. On the other hand, it requires a conscious attention to the effects this drifting and these shifting environments have on you. The dérive is both planned – you know your starting point, who your companions (if any) might be, you do not have a specific destination but you do have a broad aim – and unplanned, since you cannot know in advance precisely where your feet will be drawn and who/what you might meet. It can seem random, but the structures of the city also play a determining role, deliberately and accidentally guiding you through its ‘constant currents, fixed points and vortexes’ – physical routes and barriers, but also psychological ones. (It is instructive that Abdelhafid Khattib, the Algerian Arab who was part of the SI and one of the early psychogeographical experimenters was arrested by the police for activities his white French colleagues could undertake unchallenged.)

Returning briefly to Cleo from 5 to 7, we could see ways in which Cleo – who last week we considered as a potential flâneuse – might be thought of as underaking a dérive, more obviously in the second half of the film when an overheard conversation in a café reminds her of her friend, the model Dorothée, which leads her through different aspects of and locations in Paris and various unanticipated encounters. (We will return to some of these issues in a couple of weeks when we focus on Ladri di biciclette/Bicycle Thieves (De Sica Italy 1948).)

But this was obviously the point to clumsily segue into a brief introduction to Joseph Conrad, sketching in some biography, his early association with Impressionism (see the preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897)), his omnivorous  consumption and reworking of raw materials (autobiography, people he met, fiction he read – which lead to charges of plagiarism in Poland –  and real news events – including the French anarchist Martial Bourdin’s presumed attempt to blow up the Greenwich observatory on 15 February 1894, which inspired The Secret Agent).

Conrad is typically considered one of the first British modernist novelists, particularly in regard to his ironic style and the sense of scepticism, melancholy, pessimism, constraint and doom that looms over his fiction (putting him somewhere between Dostoevsky and Kafka).

To help establish this mood or tone, we took a look at this fabulous passage in a letter he wrote to Cunninghame Graham in December 1897 (if I was the kind of person who sent out a family newsletter with Xmas cards, I would be tempted to adopt this). Conrad says that the universe

evolved itself (I am severely scientific) out of a chaos of scraps of iron and behold! – it knits. I am horrified at the horrible work and stand appalled. I feel it ought to embroider – but it goes on knitting. You come and say: “this is all right; it’s only a question of the right kind of oil. Let us use this – for instance – celestial oil and the machine shall embroider a most beautiful design in purple and gold.” Will it? Alas no. You cannot by any special lubrication make embroidery with a knitting machine. And the most withering thought is that the infamous thing has made itself; made itself without thought, without conscience, without foresight, without eyes, without heart. It is a tragic accident –and it has happened. You can’t interfere with it. The last drop of bitterness is in the suspicion that you can’t even smash it. … it is what it is  – and it is indestructible!

It knits us in and it knits us out. It has knitted time space, pain, death, corruption, despair and all the illusions  – and nothing matters.

(Which always makes me think of The Clangers – and of that moment of sheer existential terror when the fabric of the universe rips apart in that episode of Button Moon. (I am so street! I am so down with the kids!))

In Conrad’s own description of the origins of the novel he describes how

the vision of an enormous town presented itself, of a monstrous town more populous than some continents and in its man-made might as indifferent to heaven’s frowns and smiles; a cruel devourer of the world’s light. There was enough room there to place any story, depth enough there for any passion, variety enough there for any setting, darkness enough to bury five millions of lives.

And our treatment of the city in the novel will largely focus on this depiction of London as a monstrous, indifferent and cruel place; as a dark grave in which its inhabitants are buried; as an exemplar of modern anonymity; as claustral and carceral; as somewhere that blurs the distinction between home and work; as an amoral structure inhabited by spectral, untethered characters trapped in death-in-life existences; as a place of darkness, secrecy, mechanisation, hierarchy and control.

[Page references are to the current Penguin Classics edition.]

The first passage we looked at, though, was the one in which Mr Vladimir outlines his rationale for targeting the Greenwich Observatory in the faked anarchist bomb outrage. He begins by dismissing the assassination of a head of state, because such actions are now so commonplace that they are no longer spectacular enough. Attacking churches would just muddy the waters with claims that such attacks are religiously motivated; attacking a theatre or restaurant would be passed off as a ‘non-political passion: the exasperation of a hungry man, an act of social revenge’ (26). Of the latter two options, Vladimir notes – with a timeliness the students also noted – that ‘every newspaper has ready-made phrases to explain such manifestations away’ (26).

Instead, Vladimir favours an attack that defies such easy narrativisation – it must be something so irrational-seeming as to defy our capacity to explain it away. You could attack art – plant a bomb in the National Gallery – but the only people who would cause a fuss would be ‘artists – art critics and such like – people of no account’ (26). But if you could find a way to attack science – ‘any imbecile with an income believes in that. … They believe that in some mysterious way science is at the source of their material prosperity’ (26-7). And if you could find away to attack the purest, most abstract-seeming of science – ‘if one could throw a bomb into pure mathematics’ (27) – it would be so ‘incomprehensible, inexplicable, almost unthinkable’ as to be ‘truly terrifying’ (27).

Attacking the Greenwich Observatory is not just an attack on astronomy, the next best option after maths, but also on the global order. It is an attack on the Greenwich meridian, on the military and commercial imperial web imposed upon the world. It is an attack on the seat of power.

And it is a plan conceived from the lofty view, the god’s-eye perspective, we discussed last week in relation to the de Certeau observing New York from the top of the World Trade Centre. The remainder of Conrad’s novel is set down on street level, in the grubby poetry written by his characters transiting through, and pausing to rest in, the city.

Next we took a look at the way in which Conrad depicts the anarchists: the fat, pasty, wheezing, resigned martyr, Michaelis; the grim, giggling, toothless, balding, goateed, dry-throated, deformed-handed, malevolent-eyed Karl Yundt, whose ‘worn-out passion’ resembles ‘in its impotent fierceness the excitement of a senile sensualist’ (34); and the ethnically ambiguous Comrade Ossipon, who has a ‘flattened nose and prominent mouth cast in the rough mould of the negro type’ and ‘almond-shaped eyes’ that leer ‘languidly’ (35).

Conrad’s descriptions draw upon cultural codes, familiar from popular fiction, yellow journalism and elsewhere, to construct images of unsavouriness and thus to link physical appearance to morality. This is not restricted to the anarchists; later, he describes Sir Ethelred, the government minister, in similarly grotesque terms. Indeed, most – if not all – of the characters in the novel are grotesques. They are the undead adrift in the city, trapped and deformed (physically and morally) by it.

At the end of the section in chapter 3 when the anarchists are described, Ossipon finds the idiot-boy Stevie obsessively drawing, as is his wont, circles. Alluding to Lombroso’s pseudo-science of ‘criminal anthropology’, Ossipon describes young Stevie as a perfect example of degeneracy. Verloc seems sceptical.

It is a curious moment. Conrad seems to be declaring that it is erroneous to make categorical judgments based on appearances even as he relies on his readers doing precisely that. Characters are trapped by their appearances into playing certain roles, just as the city entraps them, constraining and channelling them, serving them up to their fates.

We will return to the novel next week.

In closing, we had a very few minutes to talk about The Third Man. It is set in post-war Vienna, a city which was divided until 1955 into four zones, each governed by a different Allied nation (UK, US, France, USSR), with the international zone in the centre governed by all four powers. As with The Secret Agent, it makes apparent the complex governance structures of a particular which, as in M, is doubled by an underground that seeks to evade those overlapping, panoptical administrative structures. These representations can also help us begin to see the structuration of all cities.

Looking backward, the famous scene on top of the Ferris wheel, in which Harry Lime (Orson Welles) tries to persuade Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) of the statistical insignificance of individuals so as to justify his own monstrous crimes, recalls the view from atop the World Trade Centre that de Certeau talks about. Looking forward, it is a film set amid the rubble – a Trümmerfilm. It signals the ongoing presence of trauma and the urgent need for reconstruction that we will consider in relation to Bicycle Thieves and Passport to Pimlico (Henry Cornelius UK 1949) before the end of this semester, and which will inform our study of Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard France/Italy 1965), Le couple témoin/The Model Couple (William Klein 1977) and JG Ballard’s High Rise (1975) next semester.

week 10

Recommended critical reading
Anderegg, Michael A. “Conrad and Hitchcock: The Secret Agent Inspires Sabotage.” Literature/Film Quarterly 3.3 (1975): 215–25.
Bernstein, Stephen. “Politics, Modernity and Domesticity: The Gothicism of Conrad’s The Secret Agent.” CLIO 32.3 (2003): 285–301.
Harrington, Ellen Burton. “The Anarchist’s Wife: Joseph Conrad’s Debt to Sensation Fiction in The Secret Agent.” Conradiana 36.1–2 (2004): 51–63.
Kim, Sung Ryol. “Violence, Irony and Laughter: The Narrator in The Secret Agent.” Conradiana 35.1–2 (2003): 75–97.
Leitch, Thomas. “Murderous Victims in The Secret Agent and Sabotage.” Literature/Film Quarterly 14.1 (1986): 64–8.
Mathews, Cristina. “‘The Manner of Exploding’: Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Men at Home.” Conradiana 42.3 (2010): 17–44.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 5, “The City in Ruins and the Divided City: Berlin, Belfast, and Beirut.”
Shaffer, Brian W. “‘The Commerce of Shady Wares’: Politics and Pornography in Conrad’s The Secret Agent.” ELH 62.2 (1995): 443–66.
Sinowitz, Michael. “Graham Greene’s and Carol Reed’s The Third Man.” Modern Fiction Studies 53.3 (2007): 405–33.
Stape, J.H., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Recommended reading
Conrad’s Under Western Eyes (1991) is often seen as a companion novel to Secret Agent.
Novels of urban underworlds include Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer (1925), Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (1938) and The Third Man (1950), Gerald Kersh’s Night and the City (1938), Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm (1949), Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke (1952), Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers (1953) and Hubert Selby, Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964).
The criminalisation of sexual dissidence led to an often autobiographical fiction of queer underworlds and marginal urban existence, including James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956), John Rechy’s City of Night (1963), Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance (1978), Larry Kramer’s Faggots (1978), Alan Hollinghhurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library (1988), Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues (1993) and Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin (1995).

Recommended viewing
Conrad’s novel was filmed as Sabotage (Hitchcock 1936), which we will watch next week, and The Secret Agent (Hampton 1996).
Ambiguous underworlds appear in a vast array of films, including The Informer (Ford 1935), Pépé le moko (Duvivier 1937), Brighton Rock (Boulting 1947), The Blue Lamp (Dearden 1950), Night and the City (Dassin 1950), A Generation (Wajda 1955), Canal (Wajda 1957), Ashes and Diamonds (Wajda 1958), À bout de soufflé (Godard 1960), Hell is a City (Guest 1960), The Yards (Gray 2000), We Own the Night (Gray 2007) and Killing Them Softly (Dominik 2012).
Films about marginalised urban sexualities include Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger 1969), Working Girls (Borden 1986), Paris is Burning (Livingstone 1990), Young Soul Rebels (Julien 1991), The Wedding Banquet (Lee 1993), Exotica (Egoyan 1994), Beautiful Thing (MacDonald 1996), Nowhere (Araki 1997), Fucking Åmål/Show Me Love (Moodysson 1998) and Mysterious Skin (Araki 2004).

Loathe others, loathe yourself: the Gerald Kersh school of characterisation

Gerald Kersh does not like other people. Or himself. (Or cats.) Let us consider his classic novel of low-life London, Night and the City (1938).

Night-in-the-City-bookFirst, the grotesquerie of people glimpsed in passing. Harry Fabian, a ponce (i.e., pimp) living off the immoral earnings of a woman, Zoë, trails one of her blackmail-able gentleman callers to the Turkish baths. Looking around, he sees

An old gentleman, abominably naked, looking like a Surrealist vision of pumpkins, marrows and varicose veins, turned the steam on higher, and began to smack himself in the belly. Another man, young and exceedingly drunk, stood trembling under the cold shower and mumbled something about forgetting his umbrella. (57)

Kersh has a thing about booze – and about all of mankind:

Man spends the first half of his life trying to find himself, and the other half trying to lose himself. He runs in little circles, like a pup trying to nuzzle its own behind; he catches up with himself, sniffs, is disgusted, and runs away from his own smell. He fears life; he flies from it. … He can always kill himself, of course, but he never does. He lacks the courage to put his head in the gas-oven, so he says: ‘That’s the coward’s way out’ – and even thinks himself a hero for living on. … above all give him a drink. Stuff his howling mouth with the nipples of oblivion! … Anesthetise him: that is his greatest comfort – poor simulacrum; soft white maggot still unformed! (104-5)

Later, heartbroken night club owner Phil Nosseros will pour

out the brandy with the grim concentration of one who believed that truth, happiness and the consummation of human endeavour lie at the bottom of a bottle. (256)

Does Harry Fabian ever have any regrets about the life he has chosen for himself? Well, at one point he finds himself swearing to a woman ‘On my honour!’

As he said this, Fabian experienced a curious sensation of misery. What was it? Was it that for the first time in his life he had become aware of the appalling burden of accumulating lies with which he loaded his soul from hour to hour – the closing coils of deceit which he spun about himself day by day? There passed through his mind a vision of life free from vanity, fiction and subterfuge … But all this passed in the blink of an eye. (204)

As Greta, one of the novel’s several women working as prostitutes, says ‘philosophically’:

All men are marvelous till you find them out. (242)

Wait, there is more than one prostitute in the novel? Yes. This is how Kersh introduces Vi, a B-girl who sometimes goes a little farther. It initially seems like she will just be a bit of background colour but later she becomes one of the viewpoint characters

She was a tall, slender, red-haired girl in a black lace evening gown. Under her rouge, one could distinguish the papery greyish pallor of the night-bird – the dead opacity born of dark dance-halls, where, in thick blue smoke and the exhalations of steamy bodies, the crude, raw rhythms of red-hot gut-bucket jazz seem to shake the blood out of women. … Vi yawned, and from between her pale, painted lips there proceeded a breath such as might come from a pathological specimen in a jar when the alcohol is evaporating. (77, 87-8)

Kersh even has a low opinion of her wallpaper

It was lined with brownish paper – mottled, sickening brown paper with stripes like the tracks of balloon-tyres in rose-pink, and wide bands dotted with circles, crosses and things like broken fans in pale green. You can get such wallpaper for sixpence a roll in the region of Somers Town; but who can sit down at a drawing-board and actually design it? (89)

The virginal and financially struggling shorthand-typist Helen lives in the same boarding house as Vi, who eventually persuades her to make a quick buck as a B-girl, just until her situation improves a little… Helen falls for Adam, the nearest to a consistently decent person in the book, but by the time they finally get it on they are both caught up in and deeply conflicted by the life, so when they make love

They appeared like enraged enemies, locked in a last desperate struggle. (154)

While Adam tries to get out, Helen finds ways to justify abandoning her sense of decency and embracing a life she previously saw as degrading. She quickly learns to use sex to manipulate all men, including the one she loves:

She kissed him, pressing her whole body against him; and in spite of the fact this kiss, and Adam’s immediate response to it, stirred up in her a veritable maelstrom of desire, she retained, deep in her consciousness, a little cold corner from which her critical faculties watched him. (177)

Later she will say,

It’s all very well talking about prostitution, but is sleeping with a man for money any worse than marrying him for money? (262-263)

Which might have passed as Kersh being insightful if he had not already made such pronouncements as

The prostitute is sentimental and unhappy. Why does she walk interminably, in utter degradation, and then give all her money to a man? Because he … is, in her consciousness, the last human being in the world to whom, by virtue of her self-sacrifice, she can feel superior, and therefore she loves him with a curious desperate love.
And now,’ thought Zoë, ‘he’s got hold of somebody else with my money.’
Rage, the hysterical rage of the prostitute rose within her. (244)

Kersh loves to elaborate upon the grotesquerie of his characters, and has a field day describing the wrestlers Fabian recruits for his newest venture as a fight promoter. There is the Cypriot, Kration, a deeply conflicted character at war with himself, as his physiognomy and follicles attest:

as soon as his mouth closed his face changed. Savagery came into it. He looked strong and ferocious enough to tear himself apart. His hair crouched low on his forehead, trying to obliterate his eyebrows; his eyebrows, colliding over his nose in a spray of black hair, endeavoured to smother his eyes; and only the flat, heavy prow of his nose kept his eyes apart – otherwise, they would have snapped at each other. Meanwhile they waited, smouldering, while his upper lip snarled in triumph over the lower, which, from time to time, jumped up and clamped down on it. Turkey, Greece and Africa waged war in his veins. Even his hair carried on ancient warfare. There was antagonism in his very follicles, and the hair writhed out, enormously thick, twisted, rebellious, kinked, frizzled and dried up. (211)

Actually, Kration has no inner conflict whatsoever. Though, thanks to Fabian’s manipulations, he does have a conflict with aged ex-champion Charlie Bamboo, the Black Strangler. Kersh’s description of this ‘colossus’ is even more racialised – but the hammer is a great touch, even if I cannot quite picture the sausages:

The man whom Fabian called Strangler was a colossus. You must imagine the Farnese Hercules in ebony, dressed in a nigger-brown suit with a yellow-chalk stripe, a sky-blue shirt and a crimson tie with a greenish domino motif. He had an extraordinary head. You could reproduce it by shaving the head of a Neanderthal man, polishing it with stove-polish and then smashing up the features with a hammer. The ears no longer resembled ears – they had been beaten and rubbed into indescribable shapelessness – while the nose, a dozen times broken and never repaired, spread in a two-inch width almost flush with the rest of the face. Beneath it a pair of vast pink lips, remarkably pale and prominent and as thick as beef sausages, sucked at the sodden remains of a dead cigar. (41-2)

So is there anybody or anything Kersh does not loathe? No. Not even the earth, the moon or the night sky:

Outside, the dull moon – little, fickle satellite – trails after the advancing earth like a prostitute at the heels of a batter soldier, marching on in blind obedience to incomprehensible orders, across the desert of the skies. (276)

Coda – some amusing stuff for the film buffs out there
At one point, Fabian goes into a gentleman’s outfitters and finds himself discarding the ‘little pale green hat which he had bought only a week before: the Fred MacMurray, for which he had yearned with all his soul’ in favour of the Cicero, ‘exactly as worn by Al Capone’. The sales assistant also tempts him with ‘the Humphrey Bogart shirt, exactly as worn in The Petrified Forest’, but has rather less success when he asks ‘would you care to see the Stepin Fetchit bowtie? … the Barrymore sock?’ (240-241)

Clive Brook. Swoon.
Clive Brook. Swoon.

In an early conversation, Helen protests that unlike Vi, she’s got ‘high standards’ when it comes to men:

‘Ah,’ said Vi, with an air of infinite experience, ‘I used to talk like that, too. I used to be crazy about Clive Brook–’ (96)

And later, when Zoë admires Harry, we learn that

Robert Taylor. What women want.
Robert Taylor. What women want.

There is nothing a woman loves more in a man than self-confidence. A man who appears to know precisely what he wants, and how to get it, can win more hearts than Robert Taylor. (237)




Gerald Kersh on the subject of cats – no, really, it is only cats he is writing about, nothing else at all

imagesI have always been fascinated by the way Gerald Kersh describes characters. Descriptions full of loathing that very quickly slide into self-loathing. I’m currently part-way through Night and the City (1938) – the source of Jules Dassin’s rather good 1950 film with Richard Widmark and of Irwin Winkler’s rather terrible 1992 film with Robert De Niro – and cataloguing a selection I will share when I am done. But in the meantime, in one of Kersh’s rather characteristic digressions, he has decided to tackle the subject of cats in nighttime London.

I swear it is only cats he is talking about. Nothing else.

First, he obviously prefers dogs to cats. And to women from villages.

Cats may be terrible to mice, but they have no equipment for heavier game. If they had long claws, cats would be extinct: they dilate with hatred, they shriek with hatred – they want to rend, devour, torture, and obliterate each other; but they can’t. So they pour out all their venom in their voices, their howling and malevolent voices; exactly like the gossiping women of the villages. (80)

He then moves on to the subject of tom cats howling and shrieking in the night. Their motivations, their anguish. At no point is this about anything other than tom cats.

Why do tom-cats do this thing? For them, love is by no means all moonlight and roses. The genital organ of a tom-cat bristles with spikes, like a pip-scraper; it is a severe surgical instrument of reproduction, not pleasure. He loses blood and fur in frenzies of impotent rage, and almost bursts with bitterness, simply to achieve a torture-chamber.
What good does it do? It generates more cats.
Who wants more cats? (80)

But what, you ask, about the female of the species? Ah, there’s a grey female there. Let’s follow her for three pages, remembering at all times that this is only about cats, nothing else – not even the image of religious transcendence culminating in a pun you might not believe he could have got away with in 1938.

What did she not know about sex and motherhood? She had had fifty kittens and forgotten about them. Tom-cats … were all right; but for her part, she found more sensual pleasure in an empty sardine-tin…

The grey cat was unable to suppress a yawn. How monotonous, how miserably familiar, were the oscillations and outcries of these passion-intoxicated males! They were all alike…

It was impossible to embarrass this cat.
She was shameless and heartless, a cat of the city; elusive as an eel, resilient as rubber, indestructible and persistent as chewing-gum; a tile-begotten hybrid, born among salmon tins and broken bottles, whose pedigree had slunk in offal from dustbin to dustbin since Egypt. … Every muscle in her body seemed to have been designed for prowling, sneaking, ducking and running away. She lived for herself, parasitically … In hundreds of homes her presence had been suspected by a smell, proved by the disappearance of food and disposed of by hisses and blows. Ratepayers often took her in and christened her with fancy names; but in the end, they always gave her away, with false and hypocritical eulogies and regrets. She had no idea of the significance of a box of ashes, and regarded the practice of Rubbing Her Nose In It as a charming human eccentricity rather than a lesson, or punishment.

Why hunt mice? Only fools work. There is always food. The city is full of people, most of whom are mad. Poor crazed creatures – they give away food! The only proper thing to do with food is eat it all. Give nothing away. Preserve yourself! Preserve yourself! The world is your cat’s-meat. The Great Tom-Cat, who plays with the world like a ball of wool, created man to give you warmth, milk and chicken-bones, and put the sun in the sky to make you purr . . . You are the Great Tom-Cat’s Chosen Pussies. (81-82)

[Quotations from London Books edition, 2007]