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Propaganda of the deed

Terrorism depends on exploiting the imagination of its victims, as Joseph Conrad knew all too well, says Will Self
The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad Illustrated by Ben Jones (The Folio Society, £34.95)

There is a passage in Siegfried Sassoon’s wartime diaries in which he recounts the experience of sheltering in a dugout on the Western Front during a savage German bombardment, with a group of officers—and men— all of whom were reading the works of Joseph Conrad. At the time Conrad was one of a handful of writers capable of bridging the gap between paramount artistic ambition— repurposed for the machine age by Ezra Pound with his slogan, “Make it New!”—and the quotidian enjoyment of a rattling good yarn.

To read Conrad—and this is true in particular of The Secret Agent (1907)—is to find oneself, while apparently making clear headway, in fact, with all sails trimmed, beating hard against the wind.

In his most celebrated work, the novella Heart of Darkness, the novelist fashioned a tale-within-a-tale, in which the genocidal hell of the Belgian Congo was nested cosily on the deck of a pleasure yacht moored in the Thames estuary.

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In Prospect's June issue: