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Ashenden, or, The British Agent by W.…

Ashenden, or, The British Agent (1928)

by W. Somerset Maugham

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This is volume three of Maugham's collected short stories. In this volume he has put his stories that have the same protagonist, Ashendan who is recruited to move to Switzerland where he will be a contact for British agents and an observer of German agents. In some of the incidents, he is successful but in others he or his assistants fail.

In "The Traitor" he must entice a German agent to leave the safety of Switzerland to go to England where he will be arrested and shot for being a traitor. As he becomes close to the man, he almost hopes he is not successful in tricking him.

In Mr. Harrington's Washing" he travels across Russia by train in the days leading up to the Revolution accompanied by an American salesman. They are Petrograd when the Bolsheviks take over. The American refuses to believe he is in danger and refuses to leave until he gets his clothes back from the laundry which turns out to be deadly mistake.

Maugham claimed that working in the Secret Service was mostly boring and that these stories were based on his experiences as an agent. ( )
  lamour | Mar 31, 2018 |
Collection of stories strung together about a man who was a collector of information, though he did get near the action on occasion. Like with the Hairless Mexican who was a killer who also thought women adored him, or the Russian patriot who delighted in extremes, or the British ambassador who told his story of wild untempered love that he had regretfully abandoned. The narrator is mainly an observer of humankind, though at times he gets drawn unwittingly into other people lives. ( )
  triciareads55 | Jan 9, 2018 |
Because this is a WW1 spy story, I have shelved it under thriller-suspense but it is not actually either thrilling nor suspenseful. Ashenden, like Maugham himself, is a writer drafted into the Secret Service but his job is more one of observation than of danger or action. As Ashenden says:

"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."

Thus the book is more a series of connected short stories than a single novel. Maugham's wonderful prose is a joy to read as usual. ( )
  leslie.98 | Oct 24, 2017 |
W. Somerset Maugham

Or: The British Agent

Doubleday, Doran and Company, Hardback, 1941.

8vo. xiii+304 pp. Preface by the author [vii-xiii]. Dust jacket.

First published by Heinemann, 1928.
First published in The Collected Edition, 1934 [new preface].
This edition first published, 1941 [preface slightly expanded].


The dust jacket blurb mentions a preface “especially written for this edition”. Preface there is, and it contains some fascinating things about the autobiographical foundations of these stories, but it was mostly written seven years earlier for The Collected Edition published by Heinemann, Maugham’s British publisher for most of his writing career. For this 1941 edition by Doubleday, Doran, his favourite American publisher, he simply expanded the old preface with three new paragraphs at the end. He speculates in them how espionage between the World Wars might have changed – “speculates” is right for he was deemed too old for a spy during WWII – and even pokes some fun at the venerable Dr Goebbels who was stupid enough to take one of these stories for literal fact and “gave it as an example of British cynicism and brutality”. Should you like to read more from these prefaces, I suggest you have a look at the review by Mr Maugham himself.

Before going any further, let’s clear another misconception which crops up surprisingly often in annotations, references, summaries and even reviews. It is worth writing thrice with increasing vehemence:

This is not a novel!
This is not a novel!
This is not a novel!

This is a collection of short stories. Six of them. They share the character of Willie Ashenden and nothing else. Everybody who claims this is a novel is guilty of gross misrepresentation. This 1941 edition is rather guilty, by the way. It lacks table of contents and gives the sixteen “chapters” prominent Roman numerals in the beginning, while the titles are discreetly tucked in the left corner of the first paragraph. Ten years later, in The Complete Short Stories (Heinemann, 1951), fifteen of the sixteen “chapters” – except No. 13, “The Flip of a Coin” – were merged into the six well-known, longish stories:

“R.” + “A Domiciliary Visit” + “Miss King” = “Miss King”
“The Hairless Mexican” + “The Dark Woman” + “The Greek” = “The Hairless Mexican”
“A Trip to Paris” + “Giulia Lazzari” = “Giulia Lazzari”
“Gustav” + “The Traitor” = “The Traitor”
“Behind the Scenes” + “His Excellency” = “His Excellency”
“A Chance Acquaintance” + “Love and Russian Literature” + “Mr. Harrington’s Washing” = “Mr. Harrington’s Washing”

Only the first of these stories is not much of a story[1]. It is obviously designed to set the stage, and it does that beautifully. We see how Ashenden is recruited to the Secret Service by one R. and we see something of his espionage routine. The scene with the two cops visiting Ashenden in his hotel room (“A Domiciliary Visit”) and the tense atmosphere of Geneva as a den of “agents of the secret service, spies, revolutionaries, and agitators” (“Miss King”) are Maugham at his finest, writing with gusto and creating characters in a few sentences. “The awe-inspiring voice of posterity”, as Maugham once dubbed the critics[2], have spilt much ink to degrade his writing as cliché-ridden and pedestrian, but in fact Maugham’s style is unique. Only here you can read bathtub reflections such as these:

Ashenden lay back, and as his body grew used to the heat of the water gave a sigh of satisfaction.
‘Really,’ he reflected, ‘there are moments in life when all this to-do that has led from the primeval slime to myself seems almost worth while.’


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. His mind, however, wandered back to his play, and telling himself jokes and repartees that he knew by bitter experience would never look so neat on paper nor sound so well on the stage as they did then, he abstracted his mind from the fact that his bath was growing almost tepid, when he heard a knock at the door.

Only in Maugham can you read of crossing a stormy Lake Leman amidst rain turning into sleet which “swept the deck in angry gusts, like a nagging woman who cannot leave a subject alone.” Only Maugham could get away with “serious Swiss taking their neutrality, like a dachshund, for a walk with them.” Only Maugham can find Lake Lucerne “absurd, the water too blue, the mountains too snowy, and its beauty, hitting you in the face, exasperated rather than thrilled; but all the same there was something pleasing in the prospect, an artless candour, like one of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words”. You may like or dislike this writing, that is a matter of personal taste that matters to you and no one else, but you can hardly call it hackneyed.

This round of re-reading – fourth or fifth, maybe sixth for some of the stories, I don’t really know – was prompted by my first, and for now if not forever last, meeting with James Bond. I keep reading how Fleming was inspired by Ashenden to create 007, but I have yet to see some confirmation by Fleming himself. If there is any truth in the rumour, it only goes to show the vast gulf between inspiration and the final product. It’s hard to think of greater contrast between two fictional spies. Bond is a professional spy without any literary pretensions, a rather troubled individual, a hopeless womaniser and generally involved in something like saving the world from a vast Communist conspiracy. Ashenden is a professional writer working as a spy for fun, a possessor of remarkably equable temperament, quite immune to women and working on a very small scale. Both are cool and cynical, but with Bond this is a working pose, while with Ashenden it is an essential trait.

I was rather curious about R. this time. How much he resembles Fleming’s “M” I will leave to Bond enthusiasts to find out. What I can say for certain is that Ashenden doesn’t think much of him. This is evident from the very beginning. The title character in “R.”, under the impression of providing Ashenden with good material for a story, relates a trite incident how a minister was drugged by a tart and robbed of some important documents. The conclusion is best left in Maugham’s words:

R. finished and looked at Ashenden with a gleam in his close-set eyes.
‘Dramatic, isn’t it?’ he asked.
‘Do you mean to say that happened the other day?’
‘The week before last.’
‘Impossible,’ cried Ashenden. ‘Why, we’ve been putting that incident on the stage for sixty years, we’ve written it in a thousand novels. Do you mean to say that life has only just caught up with us?’
R. was a trifle disconcerted.
‘Well, if necessary, I could give you names and dates, and believe me, the Allies have been put to no end of trouble by the loss of the documents that the dispatch-case contained.’
‘Well, sir, if you can’t do better than that in the secret service,’ sighed Ashenden, ‘I’m afraid that as a source of inspiration to the writer of fiction it’s a wash-out. We really
can’t write that story much longer.’

This is how R. is portrayed consistently throughout the book: smart, shrewd and capable in his work, but unimaginative, narrow-minded and really rather stupid outside of it. He is not devoid of some sense of humour, but this is rather blunt, coarse and amateurish. Ashenden, a professional humorist by his own admission, is amused by his chief’s harping on the same joke (“A Trip to Paris”) or his inability to take one at the expense of himself (“The Traitor”):

Ashenden reflected that this was the mistake the amateur humorist, as opposed to the professional, so often made; when he made a joke he harped on it. The relations of the joker to his joke should be as quick and desultory as those of a bee to its flower. He should make his joke and pass on. There is of course no harm if, like the bee approaching the flower, he buzzes a little; for it is just as well to announce to a thick-headed world that a joke is intended.

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, unenglish, and unpatriotic.

But the deadliest shot comes in “A Trip to Paris” when R. and Ashenden have lunch in a restaurant rather too fashionable for the humble background of the Colonel. The poor creature is dazed and dazzled. Again, however, no paraphrase can do better than the original:

It amused Ashenden to see R., so sharp, sure of himself and alert in his office, seized as he walked into the restaurant with shyness. He talked a little too loud in order to show that he was at his ease and made himself somewhat unnecessarily at home. You saw in his manner the shabby and commonplace life he had led till the hazards of war raised him to a position of consequence.
Luxury is dangerous to people who have never known it and to whom its temptations are held out too suddenly. R., that shrewd, cynical man, was captured by the vulgar glamour and the shoddy brilliance of the scene before him. Just as the advantage of culture is that it enables you to talk nonsense with distinction, so the habit of luxury allows you to regard its frills and furbelows with a proper contumely.

Maugham is on record that we may accept Ashenden as a flattering portrait of himself.[3] The trap is tempting and many have fallen in it.[4] Up to a point, it is a trap worth falling in. When Ashenden speaks of literature, raw material and human nature, it is almost safe to say that Maugham was speaking his mind word for word. The opening of “A Trip to Paris” is a classic example:

Ashenden was in the habit of asserting that he was never bored. It was one of his notions that only such persons were as had no resources in themselves and it was but the stupid that depended on the outside world for their amusement. Ashenden had no illusions about himself and such success in current letters as had come to him had left his head unturned. He distinguished acutely between fame and the notoriety that rewards the author if a successful novel or a popular play; and he was indifferent to this except in so far as it was attended with tangible benefits. He was perfectly ready to take advantage of his familiar name to get a better state-room in a ship than he had paid for, and if a Customs house officer passed his luggage unopened because he had read his short stories Ashenden was pleased to admit that the pursuit of literature had its compensations. He sighed when eager young students of the drama sought to discuss its technique with him, and when gushing ladies tremulously whispered in his ear their admiration of his books he often wished he was dead. But he thought himself intelligent and so it was absurd that he should be bored. It was a fact that he could talk with interest to persons commonly thought so excruciatingly dull that their fellows fled from them as though they owed them money. It may be that here he was but indulging the professional instinct that was seldom dormant in him; they, his raw material, did not bore him any more than fossils bore the geologist.[5]

It is much more difficult with general inferences about character. The author obviously modelled Ashenden on himself. But how much? It is not a photographic portrait for sure. After all, Ashenden, though a detached observer rather than an action hero, is still a character in these stories. It is often hard to tell whether Maugham drew on himself for the purposes of fiction or simply had fun at the expense of his critics. At one place, for instance, we are told Ashenden had in him “a strain of flippancy (on account of which, indeed, the critics had often reproached him)”. I am inclined to believe this is closer to the truth, but I think it’s easy to make too much of it. Another famous passage, this time from “The Traitor”, is as close as possible to Maugham’s personality (the only personality that matters) from The Summing Up (1938) and A Writer’s Notebook (1949), his two most personal books, but in the end it resembles more wishful thinking than autobiography.

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, and even in the few to whom he was attached his eyes saw with equal clearness the merits and the defects. When he liked people it was not because he was blind to their faults, he did not mind their faults but accepted them with a tolerant shrug of the shoulders, or because he ascribed to them excellencies that they did not possess; and since he judged his friends with candour they never disappointed him and so he seldom lost one. He asked from none more than he could give.

Sometimes Maugham’s opinions are exaggerated in Ashenden for certain dramatic effect. The stupidity of the human race is a case in point. Maugham’s opinion of our species in a nutshell was this: “Their heart’s in the right place, but their head is a thoroughly inefficient organ.”[6] This is rather milder than Ashenden’s reflections on the subject, one in “Miss King” and one in “A Chance Acquaintance”; the second example is quite brutal, but, alas, not quite as devoid of sense as die-hard humanists would have you believe:

But nothing is so foolish as to ascribe profundity to what on the surface is merely inept; it is a pitfall into which many an ingenuous reviewer has fallen headlong. Ashenden had a confident belief in the stupidity of the human animal, which in the course of his life had stood him in good stead.

Though he had both esteem and admiration for the sensibility of the human race, he had little respect for their intelligence: man has always found it easier to sacrifice his life than to learn the multiplication table.

In short, it’s difficult, doubtful and probably pointless to draw conclusions about Maugham’s character from that of Ashenden. At any rate, if that’s what you’re looking for, you should study The Moon and Sixpence (1919) and especially Cakes and Ale (1930), two novels in which Willie Ashenden is the first-person narrator and which are brimming with autobiographical asides. To my mind this is an entertaining parlour game, but nothing more. Ashenden is a great character and there is no need for him to be anything more than that. He would have been a different character had Maugham been a different man, but from that it doesn’t follow that both are interchangeable.

Even mundane details are seldom corroborated by Maugham’s non-fiction writings, which are not always factually reliable anyway, and still less often by independent sources. Maugham did spend some eight months in Geneva (1915/16) and did go to Petrograd in 1917, in both cases playing the spy, but pretty much all he did there remains a matter of conjecture. One of the few details Maugham did confirm was the play he, and Ashenden, wrote in Geneva, and which he was afraid he might not be able to finish courtesy of the Swiss authorities who had every reason to exchange his hotel for a prison. The play is not named in the story (“A Domiciliary Visit”), but Maugham reveals it was Caroline (aka The Unattainable).[7]

The one thing that continues to surprise me very pleasantly in these stories is how little they have to do with espionage. Maugham himself, in the additional paragraphs to the preface, tells us that he was told his book was required reading for persons entering the Intelligence Department. Even the omniscient dust jacket confirms this, but I find it hard to believe. One of the stories, “His Excellency”, has nothing to do with espionage. It is a disturbing tale of sordid, self-destructive, Of-Human-Bondage type of love and a wasted life masked by success. Quite haunting! The other five stories do have something to do with espionage, but only for “Miss King” it might be said to be a central theme. The plots in all cases are slight, predictable and completely unimportant.

It is the cast of characters, as always with Maugham, that makes these stories unforgettable. Who can forget the Hairless Mexican, that absurd and grotesque yet sinister assassin, “a purple patch on two legs”, armed with “revolver of formidable dimensions” and “a long knife of murderous aspect”, and the author of immortal aphorisms like “Anyone can pull a trigger, but it needs a man to use a knife”? Ashenden, like Maugham, is an “amateur of the baroque in human nature” (lovely phrase) and therefore considers the Hairless Mexican an oddity “to be considered with delight”. He is quite a bit larger than life, to be sure, but I don’t think he is untrue to life. And who can forget the voluble Mr Harrington, exasperating yet endearing, the male version of Miss Reid from “Winter Cruise”?

Grantley Caypor, “The Traitor”, is one of Maugham’s finest studies of the baffling complexity of human nature – the main topic of his complete works, to use only a slight oversimplification. Whatever his motives may be, money, envy, vanity or something else, Caypor does “his mean and despicable work with gusto” and he is never “disturbed by gnawing conscience”. Even Ashenden, tolerant to a fault, baulks at the idea of selling your country for cash. Yet Caypor is genuinely fond of his wife, immensely kind to just about anybody around, and quite ecstatic about Swiss wild flowers. No wonder Ashenden, or Maugham, should exclaim:

How much easier life would be if people were all black or all white and how much simpler it would be to act in regard to them! Was Caypor a good man who loved evil or a bad man who loved good? And how could such unreconcilable elements exist side by side and in harmony within the same heart?

(Caypor’s German wife is another piece of vintage Maugham. She is a despicable nationalist – she calls Debussy “the decadent music of a decadent nation”! – and her manners are obnoxiously conceited. Yet she is intelligent, conscientious, educated, loves her husband and is left speechless by the majesty of a Swiss landscape. And who can help being moved by her plight when Maugham draws the story to one of his most chilling conclusions?)

Improbable romances, sometimes but not always dysfunctional, were another subject Maugham deeply loved. Two of his most memorable achievements can be found in these stories. One is the affair of “His Excellency” with a vulgar slut that makes the Philip-Mildred debacle sound like blissful happiness. This harrowing story, almost too painful to read, is ingeniously told by the victim in the third person singular and in a flashback. It is even more ingeniously coupled with several other threads, past and present, but let me not spoil it for you.[8] The other bizarre romance is the one between Giulia Lazzari, a third-rate Italian dancer and prostitute, and Chandra Lal, a fat Indian fellow and a dangerous agitator with anti-British sympathies. We never see them together, but various letters and Ashenden’s insight as a novelist makes their passion more than palpable on the pages. The story ends with an ironic sting in the tail that can be interpreted in various ways.

In the third and last paragraph added to the preface for this 1941 edition, Maugham makes no bones about the purpose of these stories.

But it is not for any topical interest they may have, nor because they have been used as a sort of textbook, that I now offer to the public a new edition of these stories. They purpose only to offer entertainment, which I still think, impenitently, is the main object of a work of fiction.

Willie was being a little disingenuous here. He must have known there was much more in these stories, or he used the word “entertainment” in a very wide sense indeed. On the one hand, they are superb form of escapism that can take you to the Lake Leman, Lucerne, Geneva or Naples with vividness that no “real” going there would ever match. On the other hand, they are full with colourful characters, dramatic situations and atmospheric descriptions that leave a lasting and thought-provoking impression.

If you expect action-packed, Bond-like adventures, this is not a book for you. But if you are seriously interested in Maugham’s writing and his style appeals to you, you cannot afford to miss these stories. The more I read them, the better they become.

[1] The stitches are visible in a few other places, too. “The Flip of a Coin” was rightly excluded; it’s too short to stand alone. “Gustav” is really a separate story (charming one, too) from “The Traitor”, or at best a lengthy introduction tenuously linked to it. The same goes for “Behind the Scenes”, but this at least includes some important details from the character of Herbert Witherspoon (“His Excellency”).
[2] Preface to East and West [1934], Doubleday, 1952, p. viii.
[3] “The Sanatorium is a story founded on my own experiences, and if you like to take the character of Ashenden as a flattering portrait of the old party who stands before you, you are at perfect liberty to do so.” Trio, Doubleday, 1950, p. 102. The line is kept in the introduction to the movie version of Sanatorium.
[4] Maugham’s sage biographers (Morgan, pp. 233-4; Hastings, pp. 203-8, 224-5) join the exalted company of Dr Goebbels by treating these stories very much as non-fiction. They are aware of Maugham’s warning that his experiences were “rearranged for the purposes of fiction”, but they find the little he said in his non-fiction writings (e.g. Part II of “Looking Back”, Show Magazine, July 1962, pp. 43-44, 49, 95) quite insufficient.
[5] Another classic example is Ashenden’s discourse on vanity in “His Excellency”. It is quoted here. Extensive quotations from Maugham’s complete stories may be consulted here.
[6] The bibliographical biography of this remark is rather interesting. Maugham first used it in his uniquely confessional travelogue The Gentleman in the Parlour (1930), Chapter XLIV, where he made one argumentative Jew say it. Eight years later, in The Summing Up (1938), Chapter LV, he admitted this had been fiction, but he did agree anew with the remark: “The conclusion I came to about men I put into the mouth of a man I met on board ship in the China Seas. “I’ll give you my opinion of the human race in a nutshell, brother,” I made him say. “Their heart’s in the right place, but their head is a thoroughly inefficient organ.””
[7] Preface to The Collected Plays, Heinemann, 1952, vol. 2, pp. vii-viii.
[8] Samuel J. Rogal, a sorry excuse for Maugham scholar indeed, has made much of the completely superficial parallel with Of Human Bondage, concluding with this piece of pure wisdom: “Once more, this story reveals the extent to which Maugham recycled characters and narratives from one piece to another, clinging to the belief that if one first succeeds, then one tries again and again.” If you have time to waste, see A William Somerset Maugham Encyclopaedia, Greenwood Press, 1997, pp. 89-90. ( )
4 vote Waldstein | Jun 24, 2017 |
It's easy to see why this one is considered an archetype of espionage fiction. The fact that the book was first published back in the late 1920s means that some of the dialogue and narrative will appear dated and awkward by contemporary standards, but the tale of a British spy operating on the continent during World War I remains a classic. Alfred Hitchcock was behind a movie based on parts of the story, but I could just as easily see it being tackled by Orson Welles in his prime. A fun and interesting read throughout, with only a few minor pacing missteps, and with a memorable ending. ( )
  jimgysin | Jun 19, 2017 |
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It was not till the beginning of September that Ashenden, a writer by profession, who had been abroad at the outbreak of the war, managed to get back to England.
Death so often chooses its moments without consideration.
. . . man has always found it easier to sacrifice his life than to learn the multiplication table.
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.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0099289709, Paperback)

2000 Vintage(Random House Group) trade PB, 7th printing, British Import. Read Somerset Maugham?(The Razor's Edge,Of Human Bondage) Tremendously popular in his day as play-write and author, he was sent to Switzerland as an agent by the British Secret Service when WW I broke out. This collection of stories, in all their brutality and absurdity, is based on his experiences.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:28 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

A celebrated writer by the time the war broke out in 1914, Somerset Maugham was dispatched by the Secret Service to Lucerne - under the guise of completing a play. An assignment whose danger and drama appealed both to his sense 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 absurdity.… (more)

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