Scott's Reviews > Ashenden or: The British Agent

Ashenden or by W. Somerset Maugham
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Apr 26, 2011

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bookshelves: 1920s, spies, war, ww1
Read from April 26 to 29, 2011

If you like to seep into a book while you’re soaking in the tub, I think you’ll find that W. Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden (1927) mixes well with suds and hot water. Based on his experiences as a spy during the First World War, this collection of gritty stories shows Maugham as a connoisseur of odd human temperament. The book is Maugham’s tour through a grungy world of assassins, traitors, whores, bores, contortionists, conceited nitwits, passionate revolutionaries, and other semi-savory types that fill the real spy’s life. Plot’s not always paramount, but thanks to Maugham’s style, most of Ashenden is a compelling good read that will uncover the demimonde of the early 20th-century and keep you flipping pages long after your toes turn to prunes.
  First, be warned. Maugham doesn’t lace his chapters together in a series like pearls on a string; some chapters dovetail to make a cohesive story, but many others break off so precariously you’ll wonder what rolled under the couch. If you read Ashenden as a mystery or a thriller – hunting chapter by chapter for clues and weighing motives – you’re bound to be disappointed. And some of the stories aren’t about spying at all, or if so, only obliquely. Perhaps the best strategy for reading this book, the one closest to Maugham’s intentions, is to approach Ashenden not so much as plotted fiction as a series of character sketches on tenterhooks.
  And now another word of warning. Don’t expect Ashenden to have James Bond’s appeal or Richard Hannay’s pluck. Ashenden’s thinning hair and unassuming manners suggest a spy who’s a little past his prime, well suited for small talk in a setting of slight elegance in one of Europe’s great cities (Geneva, Naples, Paris, Petrograd) but not the sort to repell face first into the evil villain’s lair. For the most part, Ashenden is remarkable only in his willingness to show unlimited tolerance for trying personalities. His virtues are that he has no particular virtues, just a calm head, clean manners, and patience for being played as a pawn. It’s not difficult to see where Le Carré looked for his cues.
  Nevertheless, Maugham will keep you hooked on his hero without baiting you with explosions, high-speed chases, and a barely clad blonde. Maugham’s prose style alone is enough to carry the tale. Crisp, tidy, delicious to the eye, his storytelling entertains every page of the way. And the way Maugham develops his characters – each so bizarre or revolting and yet so warm-blooded – will fascinate you. Granted, the book could have been far more interesting if Maugham had made Ashenden the narrator. And some of the paragraphs tend to run long. But once the characters open up, they’ll beguile you into walking with them down any dark alley.
  Ashenden lends itself well to browsing and borrowing; there’s no need to read every story. For years after it was published, this book captivated the intelligence community. Neophyte spies dipped into Ashenden as a handbook of modern espionage, finding in each chapter a masterful portrait of at least one of the covert world’s principal players: the handler, the spy master, the pay master, the counter-espionage agent, the counter-revolutionary. A generation later, Ian Fleming, John le Carré, and Len Deighton trolled Ashenden to create their own fictional spy cycles. But even if, like many readers, you chose not to read all of Maugham’s stories, you owe yourself at least one long tale, one of Maugham’s masterpieces: ‘The Hairless Mexican’. Perfumed like death, his nails painted blood red, and perfectly hairless from heel to crown, this hunk of baroque grotesquerie will give you the heebie-jeebies. This story starts slow, but it builds to a whopping conclusion that will coax you to top off the tub and turn the page.
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