Initially published in 1928, W. Somerset Maugham’s “Ashenden” is usually described as the first modern espionage novel. In reality, it’s a collection of linked stories based on the author’s actual experiences while running spies during World War I. The action opens with Ashenden’s recruitment into the Secret Service by R. — just the initial — and ends in 1917 with the outbreak of the Russian Revolution. While not in the least like a James Bond thriller, Maugham’s golden-age classic is equally compelling in its own way, just right for late summer escape reading.
In his autobiographical reflections, “The Summing Up,” Maugham recalled that “in my twenties the critics said I was brutal, in my thirties they said I was flippant, in my forties they said I was cynical, in my fifties they said I was competent, and now in my sixties they say I am superficial.” What all these judgments really mean is that he was a pure professional. A Somerset Maugham story is always a story, not a literary experiment or tendentious social document. More often than not, it takes the form of a confession.
Ashenden, for example, encounters both commonplace and supremely cosmopolitan men and women, nearly all of them living with broken hearts or broken dreams. They include the aged but enigmatic Miss King, who has spent decades as a governess in the family of an Egyptian prince; the dandyish assassin known as “the hairless Mexican”; an Italian prostitute who is callously manipulated to destroy the one man she has ever loved; and a quite amiable English traitor who adores wildflowers.
While no one denies Maugham’s gifts as a storyteller, his prose has regularly been dismissed as pedestrian. Not so. It is plain, direct, natural, the language of a well-educated, civilized Englishman. If you would write perfectly, Maugham once declared, you should write as clearly, as urbanely as Voltaire, which is just what he himself tries to do. Of the Baroness von Higgins, a seductive German agent with a flamboyant décolletage, Maugham notes that “the sight of her alone must have aroused, in anyone on whom she desired to exercise her wiles, the sense of prudence.” He can also be as worldly-wise as La Rochefoucauld: “It is very hard for a man, however modest, to grasp the possibility that a woman who has once loved him may love him no longer.”
Maugham’s particular strength as a writer lies in his establishment of a close intimacy between his viewpoint character — typically a version of himself — and the reader. We learn, for instance, that Ashenden’s favorite food is macaroni, that he enjoys daydreaming in hot baths and that he plays bridge and likes to read novels in the evening. He also values the perks of being a somewhat celebrated playwright and author, though there are drawbacks: “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 were dead.” In general, Ashenden-Maugham tries to be both spectator and actor in “the pleasant comedy of life,” which means that “people sometimes thought him heartless because he was more often interested in others than attached to them.”
To all his adventures and misadventures, Ashenden brings a cool, observational acuity. He notes R.’s gaucheness around upper-class women, recognizes that an Irish colonel’s wife has never in her life opened a restaurant door by herself, and quickly deduces that the British government’s best spy simply makes up his reports about German military operations while seated at his kitchen table. In one episode, Ashenden reluctantly listens as a stiff, middle-aged diplomat unexpectedly bares his soul. Wild, passionate love — for a vulgar third-rate actress named Alix — had almost wrecked his life, but he made the sensible choice and married the pretty blue blood who could help his career. “Oh, he made a success of life and there were hundreds who envied him. It was all ashes. He was bored, bored to distraction, bored by that distinguished, beautiful lady he had married, bored by the people his life forced him to live with; it was a comedy he was playing and sometimes it seemed intolerable to live forever and ever behind a mask; sometimes he felt he couldn’t bear it. But he bore it. Sometimes he longed for Alix so fiercely that he felt it would be better to shoot himself than to suffer so much anguish. He never saw her again. Never.” Disillusionment has always been Maugham’s chief theme.
In general, the stories in “Ashenden” fall into two types: Some show the influence of Maupassant and end with an unexpected shock, while others seem like almost Chekhovian portraits of human frailty and misery. Yet both types can come across, at the beginning, as lightly comic. On one occasion Ashenden spends 11 days on the Trans-Siberian Express in the company of an endearingly fussy American on a business trip to Russia: “Mr. Harrington was devoted to his wife and he told Ashenden at unbelievable length how cultivated and what a perfect mother she was. She had delicate health and had undergone a great number of operations, all of which he described in detail. He had had two operations himself, one on his tonsils and one to remove his appendix, and he took Ashenden day by day through his experiences. All his friends had had operations and his knowledge of surgery was encyclopedic.” Mr. Harrington ultimately pays a high price for his American innocence.
Like John le Carré, Somerset Maugham depicts espionage as tawdry, morally problematic, heartless and frequently ineffectual. But then, again like le Carré, he knows what he’s talking about. It’s been rumored that Maugham wrote as many as 14 additional stories about Ashenden’s war service, but that Winston Churchill told him they violated the Official Secrets Act. They were all burned.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
By W. Somerset Maugham