When war broke out in 1914, Somerset Maugham was dispatched by the British Secret Service to Switzerland under the guise of completing a play. Multilingual, knowledgeable about many European countries and a celebrated writer, Maugham had the perfect cover, and the assignment appealed to his love of romance, and of the ridiculous. The stories collected in Ashenden are rooted in Maugham’s own experiences as an agent, reflecting the ruthlessness and brutality of espionage, its intrigue and treachery, as well as its absurdity.
I have only read two books by W. Somerset Maugham, of which this is the second, and I can already proclaim without a shred of doubt that he’s one of my favorite writers. Everything about the way he writes appeals to me. He’s wry and keenly observant, with a knack for creating vivid portraits of his characters while wasting not a single word.
Here’s an example, taken from the story “A Chance Acquaintance.”
Mr. Harrington was devoted to his wife and he told Ashenden at unbelievable length how cultivated and what a perfect mother she was. She had delicate health and had undergone a great number of operations, all of which he described in detail. He had had two operations himself, one of his tonsils and one to remove his appendix, and he took Ashenden day by day through his experiences. All his friends had had operations and his knowledge of surgery was encyclopedic. He had two sons, both at school, and he was seriously considering whether he would not be well-advised to have them operated on.
Maugham’s writing is so wonderful that if I learned he’d penned a six-volume ode to cole slaw, I would grab it because I could be certain that it would be witty and somehow make me think of cole slaw in a way I never had before. The fact that the stories in Ashenden are actually excellent, therefore, is just icing on the proverbial cake.
Instead of being utterly disconnected, the stories here function as a string of vignettes in the life of Ashenden, a writer who’s been drafted as an agent of the British Intelligence Department during World War I. They’re at least partly based on Maugham’s own experiences in this capacity, though he hastens to impress upon the reader that this is a work of fiction.
Ashenden is recruited by a Colonel known to him only as R., and sent on a variety of missions that include playing escort to an eccentric Mexican assassin, arranging for a traveling dancer to betray her revolutionary Indian lover, ascertaining whether an Englishman spying for Germany might be recruited as a double agent, attempting to prevent the Bolshevik revolution, and more. Sometimes he succeeds, frequently with bittersweet results, and sometimes he fails. Occasionally his objective or the outcome is not known to the reader, since Maugham is more interested in describing the people Ashenden meets than in the specifics of his efforts.
It’s impossible to pick a favorite story, as each has its share of indelible moments to recommend it. Since the tales featuring the voluble Mr. Harrington are at the end of the collection and I have read them most recently, I feel a soft spot for those in particular, though “The Traitor” and “Giulia Lazzari” are each unforgettable.
If you’ve a particular interest in war-time Europe, Ashenden ought not be missed. Really, it ought not be missed in any case, but if the subject matter holds special appeal for you then you’ve really got no excuse!