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.
©1955 W. Somerset Maugham (P)2012 Audible, Ltd.
as the author notes, right at the beginning, this set of stories is loosely based on his own experiences in the british secret service during world war one. now maugham is a very readable author, even at his unreadable worst, by which i mean to say that it is entirely possible to be bored by him and even put to sleep by him, but he's never bad company. his short stories, some of which run to 40 pages or so, are almost never boring, even if they are pretty predictable. they were written for the common man or common hausfrau of the times, and so they are rarely risking giving you a mental blow-out. his best stories are the spy stories about the writer/agent "ashenden", which together form a terrific spy novel. it's easy to see how this book formed the template from which eric ambler and ian fleming would take their inspiration for their respective spies. well, on the other hand it must also be said that at the time when maugham wrote these stories both the readers and the author were pretty discreet about some matters, such as their homosexuality, whereas a modern reader can't help but notice that all these characters in the book are manifest closet gays. well, much the same could be said about the characters in thomas mann's novels and stories, but "ashenden"'s 40 pages at the sanatorium beat mann's 1000-or-so pages of the "magic mountain" hands down, so don't allow this observation to ruin the fun for you. this IS a terrific book, and the audio reader here does it justice, very nicely. of course at some later date you should try and read it yourself. as i was saying, maugham is always very pleasant company, and this is probably the best place to start getting acquainted with him.
"Dryly witty, with a splinter of ice at its heart"
Maugham is a master of social observation and controlled exposition. Here he puts his talents as an author to work to write about his activities as a British Secret Agent during the First World War. There is little in the way of Bond-like derring-do in this collection of separate tales as Maugham was serving more as a spymaster safely ensconced in Switzerland for the duration. He speaks of his agents and the various schemes he became involved with, usually at the instigation of his piratical Chief, the redoubtable "R", who reminds one of the half-mad Brigadier Ritchie-Hook in Evelyn Waugh's "Sword of Honour" trilogy. He works to uncover double agents working in Switzerland or to lure dangerous enemies in Germany by enticing them with patient trickery to cross into Allied territory - where they are promptly snapped up by the waiting authorities and just as promptly executed. Maugham allows himself a little regret over this, but very little. and not for long. There is a marvellous sequence towards the end where Maugham finds himself despatched to Russia with enormous amounts of money in an attempt to prevent the government from collapsing and seeking a separate peace with the Germans. The characters are no doubt based on real individuals he encountered which adds considerably to the piquancy of these tales.
"Cold narrative. Fascinating insight."
I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys espionage, thrillers or history. It's both one story and a collection of short stories as Ashenden goes about his intelligence work first in Switzerland then in 'X' (Russia). As opposed to the derring do of Ian Fleming's Bond or the intricate plotting of Deighton or Le Carre, Ashenden shows the warts and all monotony, frustration and tedium of spying, which rather than being dull is brought alive by the clinical, matter-of-fact brilliance of the writing, often with biting humour. Somerset Maugham based the character on his own experiences of spying for Britain, and you get the feeling the author went through many of the events he describes in the book. The descriptions of characters are excellent and Ashenden's own feelings towards the shabbiness of the situations in which he finds himself ordered are captured superbly.
Difficult to give say without giving too much away. The way he handles and reads the two detectives he finds in his hotel room in the first chapter is a sound introduction to the book's suspense, humour and Ashenden's cool assessment.
Oxford's voice is brilliant for the lead character Ashenden. His depiction of 'R' is good too.
"“My name is Somerville,” said Ashenden."
Yes. The stories were left open and intriguingly ambiguous.
John Le Carre's "Secret Pilgrim" has a similar structure of linked stories about the underside of espionage, in Le Carre's case during the the Cold War, and in Somerset Maugham's case, during World War 1. The geography of the two novels and their views of Europe at a time of crisis also bears comparison.
The downbeat capture of a German spy at a lakeside port in France.
The above scene because the implication is that no one really wins in the spying game.
Somerset Maugham uses a technique, which is common in formula-fiction, in which character can be read off from external features and, especially, the eyes. And yet the stories that make up “Ashenden” are more subtle and open-ended, than one might expect. Possibly, the spy genre, to which Maugham makes such an important contribution in “Ashenden”, assists him in such indirection. There are the epistemological conundrums and double- and even treble-agents; but, more unusual for an age brought up on John Buchan, Dornford Yates and Sapper, these spy stories are downbeat and morally ambiguous. Stories end, sometimes as a chapter might end – up in the air or apparently in the middle of something. These moments are memorable and the form of loosely-linked stories contributes to the uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty that runs through the book, outweighing the surface characterisations, some racist or at least crass. Somerset Maugham is far less middlebrow than he liked to make himself out to be. And, in his use of Ashenden as a spy whose cover is that of a playwright collecting material for his plays, he remains as good as any writer in bringing geography into fiction, here Europe during the years of the First World War. Hotels, trains, steamers, frontiers, and towns and cities in supposedly neutral countries, notably Switzerland, which are full of spies and secret police. As in John Le Carre’s espionage novels, the routine of intelligence gathering and channelling it to the spy-masters is suddenly pierced by violence.
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