One unexpected pleasure of this project is delving into books written by authors I know by reputation, but never got around to reading. And so I welcome Somerset Maugham into my realm.
Maugham worked for the British Intelligence Department during WW1. Ashenden, or the British Agent is a series of related short stories based on his experiences. That said, Maugham is quick to note that the facts have been fictionalized:
Fact is a poor story-teller. It starts a story at haphazard, generally long before the beginning, rambles on inconsequently and tails off, leaving loose ends hanging about, without a conclusion. (preface)
Ashenden is said to be the first book about espionage written by someone who was actually a spy. The first mystery is that we never learn Ashenden’s first name. We do learn that spying is not an action-packed thriller à la James Bond.
Being no more than a tiny rivet in a vast and complicated machine, he never had the advantage of seeing a completed action. He was concerned with the beginning or the end of it, perhaps, or with some incident in the middle, but what his own doings led to he had seldom a chance of discovering. (p 7)
Ashenden is more an observer of the human condition and character than an adventurer. The hairless (and careless) Mexican, Americans, young Egyptian princesses, Indians, dancers, Russians, the intelligentsia … are all the subject of his scrutiny, badinage and scepticism. (On occasion, attitudes reflect stereotypes and prejudices of the time that we no longer tolerate.)
He puzzles things through during long train rides or long soaks in the bath. He is dispassionate, yet acutely aware of the morality of his work. Lives are lost or saved on the flip of a coin. Eggs are the catalyst for rejecting a potential mate. His fervent passion is reserved for hot baths.
I’ve not made up my mind whether the best men for this kind of job are those who do it with passion or those who keep their heads. … You look at it like a game of chess and you don’t seem to have any feeling one way or the other. (p 120)
Maugham’s writing is a delight to read. The style and vocabulary is smart and witty. Zingers pop up from nowhere: describing the people in a restaurant, for example, we encounter “a Swiss family (who knows, perhaps Robinson by name).” Maugham would be an entertaining dining companion.