There's nothing wrong with a bit of baggy. And certainly there's little or nothing 19th century without that touch of cellulite. And that's mostly where all the masterpieces live. No waste. But no bounty either. Conrad's prose is too parsimonious for anything to get very close to masterpiece status. I like him fine but he was a writer who tied his boots too tight almost on purpose. He wrote better about the sea than anything else and yet did relatively little of it. You're right (in a tiny, limited sense) in that the strangely neglected “The Secret Agent” is probably his best - full of surprises and real pleasures - does “Greenwich” like no one ever did. But to call it a masterpiece is to seriously abuse the term. Hush my moderation, it is to take the term out the back with a baseball bat and go all Joe Pesci on its ass. His prose is the diametric opposite of gorgeous (saying so makes me sound like a Banville-admirer). His prose was bullied at school and has been keen to avoid trouble ever since. I can understand that but it don't bring me no grandeur nor frisson.
I'm a big fan of “Notre Dame de Paris” (I've read it English, Portuguese and German). But obviously I’m singing its praises to avoid the lurking presence of “Les Mis”. Because it gloriously proves my point about baggy masterpieces. “Les Mis” was pissed on at the time for its vulgarity and indiscipline. This is the stuff that makes a masterpiece. “Notre Dame de Paris” is a pretty little thing, but it's a run-up, a stretching exercise before the real thing. Hugo was a looper (try “Les Travailleurs de la Mer”). He spent the spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime Commune moment eating zoo animals and banging fans. This makes him lots and lots of things. Unbaggy is not amongst them. “Les Mis” changed everything. “Notre Dame de Paris” was a cartoon waiting to happen.
I'm not a fan of everything books-wise. And I also don't want to scatter the masterpiece medals too liberally. Though I admire some people’s generosity and enthusiasm. I'm just worried it's going to end up with J.K. Rowling as Nobel Laureate (she wouldn't be the worst). The sentiment is almost the opposite of masterpiece though. But then I'm a big fan of cowardice, so I'm bound to say that. The thing about Conrad? No funnies. Not once. Not ever. Even by accident. That's the Beckett kiss of death. I rest my case. Cry at your leisure. Don't forget, I'm a Conrad fan.
And I wouldn't dream of hurting someone, but look me right in the eye and tell me “Les Mis” is not baggy. Remember the chapter about the joys of human shit? Not even the tiniest bit discursive, that one? Really?