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Ashenden, or, The British Agent by William…

Ashenden, or, The British Agent (edition 2000)

by William Somerset Maugham

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6101515,985 (3.75)60
Title:Ashenden, or, The British Agent
Authors:William Somerset Maugham
Info:Vintage (2000), Editie: New Ed, Paperback, 326 pagina's
Collections:Your library, 2012
Tags:stories, english literature, british literature

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Ashenden, or the British Agent by W. Somerset Maugham



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A favorite of mine because it introduced me to Maugham. Loosely based on Maugham's own experiences as a British spy, the stories ring true in revealing the rather banal aspects of what it's really like. ( )
  dbsovereign | Jan 26, 2016 |
This 1960 Avon cover with a pistol and a young women is clearly trying to make this a James Bond story but it is nothing like Bond --the stories are realistically sordid and prosaic accounts based on Maugham's own experience as a British agent in World War I ( )
  antiquary | Aug 16, 2015 |
[Preface to Ashenden, Heinemann, The Collected Edition, 1934:]

This book is found on my experiences in the Intelligence Department during the war, but rearranged for the purposes of fiction. Fact is a poor story-teller. It starts a story at haphazard, generally long before the beginning, rambles on inconsequentially and tails off, leaving loose ends hanging about, without a conclusion. It works up to an interesting situation, and then leaves it in the air to follow an issue that has nothing to do with the point; it has no sense of climax and whittles away its dramatic effects in irrelevance. There is a school of novelists that looks upon this as the proper model of fiction. If life, they say, is arbitrary and disconnected, why, fiction should not be so too; for fiction should imitate life. […] They give you the materials for a dish and expect you to do the cooking yourself. Now this is one way like another of writing stories and some very good stories have been written in it. Chekov used it with mastery.


For it is quite unnecessary to treat as axiomatic the assertion that fiction should imitate life. It is merely a literary theory like another. There is in fact a second theory that is just as plausible, and this is that fiction should use life merely as raw material which it arranges in ingenious patterns.
The method of which I speak is that which chooses from life what is curious, telling and dramatic; it does not seek to copy life, but keeps to it closely enough not to shock the reader into disbelief; it leaves out this and changes that; it makes a formal decoration out of such of the facts as it has found convenient to deal with and presents a picture, the result of artifice, which, because it represents the author’s temperament, is to a certain extent a portrait of himself, but which is designed to excite, interest and absorb the reader. If it is a success he accepts it as true.

I have written all this in order to impress upon the reader that this book is a work of fiction, though I should say not much more so than several of the books on the same subject that have appeared during the last few years and that purport to be truthful memoirs. The work of an agent in the Intelligence Department is on the whole extremely monotonous. A lot of it is uncommonly useless. The material it offers for stories is scrappy and pointless; the author has himself to make it coherent, dramatic and probable.

[Preface to Ashenden, Doubleday, 1941:]

I have heard it suggested that the service is less efficiently conducted than it was when I was a very obscure and insignificant member of it, but whether this is so I have no means of telling. The circumstances are different and I daresay more difficult to deal with. At that time the nationals of neutral countries were allowed considerable liberty of movement and it was possible by their means to get much useful information; but now, taught presumably by past experience, the authorities are watchful and it would go ill with any alien who displayed unreasonable curiosity.


Though twenty years have passed since these stories were written I cannot think they are entirely out of date, since till quite recently, I am told, they have been required reading for persons entering the Department; and early in this war Dr Goebbels, speaking over the air, taking one of them as a literal statement of recent facts, gave it as an example of British cynicism and brutality.

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.
1 vote WSMaugham | Jun 15, 2015 |
“To drink a glass of sherry when you can get a dry Martini is like taking a stage-coach when you can travel by the Orient Express.” (p. 225-226)

Few literary sources are mentioned to explain Ian Fleming's creation of James Bond, although Eric Ambler's spy novels, published in the late-30s and onwards are sometimes mentioned. Another worthy contender would be Ashenden, or, The British agent by W. Somerset Maugham.

The truth behind the story is astonishing enough. In 1914, W. Somerset Maugham was recruited by the British Secret Service to stay in Switzerland, posing to work on a play, and in this disguise execute his work a a liaison and spy. The stories in Ashenden, or, The British agent are based on Somerset Maugham's own experience as an agent. The main character, modeled on the author, is an aristocratic, suave gentleman, ruthless enough to face blackmail, interrogation and murder, in the service of the Motherland.

Somerset Maugham cleverly borrowed Conan-Doyle's formula of a collection of loosely connected stories that each form an episode around the main character on an ongoing mission, similar to the The adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
John Ashenden might as well be the model for James Bond, perhaps a bit more aristocratic. Another similarity, is that, like in the James Bond novels, the chief of the secret service is never named other than merely by the use of an initial, thus Colonel R.

Ashenden, or, The British agent breathes the atmosphere of Conrad's Under Western eyes, in which foreign operatives, with long, foreign-sounding names meet in obscure hostels, plotting and conspiring to do mischief. The stories are not as exciting as later spy novels in the genre, but Maugham does bring an intriguing cast of characters together, Russian, Mexican and Indian, with characters such the hairless Mexican, The dark woman, or Giulia Lazzari.

Ashenden, or, The British agent was written and published in 1928, but based on Somerset Maugham experience during the Great War. It is a book that offers a different perspective of the First World War. ( )
1 vote edwinbcn | Jan 1, 2015 |
The writing is excellent but the stories conveyed very little. The television mini-series was in some ways more interesting...but also more casually plotted. Also, while the stories didn't struggle to link individual events the episodes did, making them, at some points, a bit preposterous.

The book is interesting for its portrayal of the static nature of WWI. People travel in Europe, indeed in France, with no real apprehension that any armies will show up or that they will be shot up. Meanwhile, the war in the trenches goes on, killing everybody of the appropriate age. In contrast, tt seems that WWII more or less saturated all Europe with its violence. ( )
  themulhern | Jul 28, 2013 |
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Series (with order)
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Original publication date
1941 ( [1934])
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To Gerald Kelly, R. A.
First words
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.
Last words
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
Please do not combine with vol. 3 from Maugham's Collected Short Stories. This contains one story more - "Sanatorium" - which features Ashenden but was not part of the original 1928 collection.
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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)

(summary from another edition)

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