Ashenden by W. Somerset Maugham: A

Book description:
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!

Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham: A

From the back cover:
Lionized by literary society, Edward Driffield is married to his second wife, a woman of iron will, indisputable rectitude and great charm. Her request to Alroy Kear, lightweight novelist, to write a biography of her husband seems both flattering and agreeable. But on delving into Driffield’s past Kear revives the spectre of his first wife, Rosie, delectable companion of less respectable days and the unlikely muse of his greatest work.

In this novel Maugham has created the unauthorized biography, the book that cannot be written for fear of offending Driffield’s unsuspecting public. And in Rosie he has given us his greatest heroine, luscious, inconstant and commonplace, yet lingering most persistently in the mind.

Prior to reading Cakes and Ale, my exposure to W. Somerset Maugham was sorely limited. I first heard of him during my teen years in the context of “the guy who wrote the book that became the movie that starred Bill Murray in his first serious role.” (I was a bit of an SNL fanatic in those days.) After reading Cakes and Ale, I wonder what took me so long.

Cakes and Ale will possibly sound disorganized when described, but flows logically when read. The narrator, William Ashenden, is a middle-aged author who’s approached by a more commercially successful peer, Alroy Kear, to help with a biography Kear is writing. The subject is Edward Driffield, a novelist with whom Ashenden was acquainted when he (Driffield) was married to a vibrant but unfaithful former barmaid named Rosie, but who spent his later years with a respectable second wife who struggled for years to make him fit the mold of a venerated elder statesman of literature.

Despite Kear’s assertions that he wants to know everything that Ashenden has to tell about Driffield’s former marriage, Ashenden realizes that, with the second Mrs. Driffield backing the biography project, there’s no way any of it would be usable anyhow. The fact is, Driffield wrote better books when he was married to Rosie and though she was wildly unfaithful, it wasn’t done from malice. Rather than tell Kear what he wants to know, Ashenden instead reminisces privately about his awkward first meeting with the Driffields as a boy of fifteen—during which period he obediently adopted the class prejudice of the aunt and uncle with whom he lived—and the later resumption of their friendship when he is a 20-year-old medical student living in London.

Maugham’s writing style is especially appealing to me, managing to be clever, witty, insightful, and concise all at the same time. There aren’t words enough to express how much I adore the passages about young Ashenden. He’s so self-conscious and awkward, and I love how Maugham depicts Ashenden’s struggle between the warnings he’s received about working-class people versus what he is actually seeing for himself. It’s a nostalgic sort of portrait, fond and sympathetic, of a boy who gradually sheds the things he’s been led to believe and learns to think for himself. This isn’t the only portrait to be found, of course. Both Rosie and Kear are quite extensively developed, and the reaction of other characters to them also allows for some wry commentary on communities both rural and literary. Oddly enough, the least developed character is probably Driffield himself, about whom the biography is being written!

The only complaint I have about Cakes and Ale is that it’s too short! That’s not to say that the story is incomplete, for it isn’t, but I enjoyed the book so much I could have gone on reading it for thrice as long! Happily, Maugham wrote quite a few other things, one of which is waiting for me at the library and another of which is on its way from Amazon at this very moment.