W. Somerset Maugham (1928) Ashenden, or The British Agent:
"There's just one thing I think you ought to know before you take on this job. And don't forget it. If you do well you'll get no thanks and if you get into trouble you'll get no help. Does that suit you?""Perfectly."
What a fabulous cover:
I've had this book on my wish-list for a long time but it has been out of print (and even the library didn't have it), so when I saw that it had been reprinted, I snapped it up. It was one of many classic crime/spy/thrillers noted by Julian Symons in Bloody Murder: from the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (3rd edn. 1992) which I want to read. I have found Symons a most reliable referee: this is how he saw the top 100 in 1957.
I also wanted to read this book because I loved Alfred Hitchcock's campy Secret Agent (1936: see imdb) which is based, very loosely, on Ashenden.
So, what did I think of this long-anticipated book? In short, absolutely wonderful.
Maugham has been back in the news recently, thanks to a recent revelatory biography by Selina Hastings. Ashenden is a accessible introduction to Maugham (as are his short stories).
Ashenden has a lot of the short story about it, but it stands as a novel thanks to its connecting links and developing personalities. Maugham's introduction sets the scene - and the tone:
In 1917 I went to Russia. I was sent to prevent the Bolshevik Revolution and to keep Russia in the war. The reader will know that my efforts did not meet with success.
The hero of Ashenden presents his stories with this same, unmistakably dry English quality and eye to the comic side of a time where external events were by no means funny:
Most of the hotels were closed, the streets were empty... and in the avenues by the lake the only persons to be seen were serious Swiss taking their neutrality, like a dachshund, for a walk with them.
We can read as much as we desire of the autobiographic into Ashenden. Events have been, as Maugham notes in the introduction, "rearranged for the purposes of fiction". Certainly, the hero Ashenden is a writer like Maugham, sent to neutral Switzerland in the first world war as a British agent. His boss "R." suspects that he may possess too much flippancy for the role:
...he wrote long reports which he was convinced no one read, till having inadvertently slipped a jest into one of them he received a sharp reproof for his levity.
The experience he had just enjoyed appealed to his acute sense of the absurd. R., it is true, had not seen the fun of it: what humour R. possessed was of a sardonic turn and he had no facility for taking in good part a joke at his own expense. To do that you must be able to look at yourself from the outside and be at the same time spectator and actor in the pleasant comedy of life. R. was a soldier and regarded introspection as unhealthy, un-English and unpatriotic.
Ashenden's character ("the amateur of the baroque in human nature") is presented to us in an emblematic fashion - we never really get to know this seemingly passionless figure (after all, he is a secret agent; later we discover he is not without some passions) but have to patch together a picture of him from little gems like the following:
Ashenden sighed, for the water was no longer quite so hot; he could not reach the tap with his hand nor could he turn it with his toes (as every properly regulated tap should turn) and if he got up enough to add more hot water he might just as well get out altogether. On the other hand he could not pull out the plug with his foot in order to empty the bath and so force himself to get out, nor could he find in himself the will-power to step out of it like a man. He had often heard people tell him that he possessed character and he reflected that people judge hastily in the affairs of life because they judge on insufficient evidence: they had never seen him in a hot, but diminishingly hot, bath.
Cursing, Ashenden turned on his light, ran a hand though his thinning and rumpled hair (for like Julius Caesar he disliked exposing an unbecoming baldness)...
Ashenden admired goodness, but was not outraged by wickedness. People sometimes thought him heartless because he was more often interested in others than attached to them...
In her dark melancholy eyes Ashenden saw the boundless steppes of Russia, and the Kremlin with its pealing bells, and the solemn ceremonies of Easter at St. Isaac's, and forests of silver beeches and the Nevsky Prospekt; it was astonishing how much he saw in her eyes. They were round and shining and slightly protuberant like those of a Pekinese.
All of the ingredients which will become familiar tropes in later spy fiction are present in Ashenden: the beautiful German spy, the dastardly English traitor, the exuberant talkative American, the temperamental foreign assassin (Peter Lorre's embarrassingly campy 'General' in Secret Agent is nothing compared to his original, the Hairless Mexican), et al.:
It appears that in Mexico it's an insult to get between a man and his drink and he told me himself that once when a Dutchman who didn't know passed between him and the bar he whipped out his revolver and shot him dead... The matter was hushed up and it was announced in the papers that the Dutchman had committed suicide. He did practically.
Maugham lays down masterful vignettes which capture everything salient about a character:
The old Irish colonel and his old wife rose from their table and he stood aside to let her pass. They had eaten their meal without exchanging a word. She walked slowly to the door; but the colonel stopped to say a word to a Swiss who might have been a local attorney, and when she reached it she stood there, bowed and with a sheep-like look, patiently waiting for her husband to come and open it for her. Ashenden realised that she had never opened a door for herself. She did not know how to.
The fact that before the war she had been secretary to an eminent scientist made her doubtless no less competent a housemaid.
It is not all fun and games though - there are a number of moving moments and the final chapter, set on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution, brings the book to quite an unexpectedly sombre conclusion.
I noted the emblematic quality of the characterisations in this book. It is also a work filled with wonderfully epigrammatic moments:
"In my youth I was always taught that you should take a woman by the waist and a bottle by the neck," he murmured."I am glad you told me. I shall continue to hold a bottle by the waist and give women a wide berth."
It is never very difficult to get to know anyone who has a dog.
I loved this book and I vow to read more Maugham, 'though I should admit that I loathed and have been unable to finish Of Human Bondage. Short stories though...
[Ashenden] passed a good deal of time in the book-shops turning over the pages of books that would have been worth reading if life were a thousand years long.
If you liked this... try the 1930s Eric Ambler books: by no means epigrammatic, but spot on with the atmosphere.