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Sunday, 23 November 2014

Ashenden

In the preface to his third volume of Collected Stories (1951), Somerset Maugham stipulated, ‘I wrote a batch of stories dealing with the adventures of an agent in the Intelligence Department during the First World War. I gave him the name of Ashenden. They are founded on experience of my own during that war, but I should like to impress upon the reader that they are not what the French call reportage, but works of fiction. Fact is a poor story-teller. It starts a story at haphazard long before the beginning, rambles on inconsequently, and tails off, leaving loose ends hanging about, without a conclusion. The work of an agent in the Intelligence Department is on the whole 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. That is what I have tried to do in this particular series.’


I first read these stories in the early 1960s and was impressed even then. As far as spy fiction goes, they are dated, and Maugham offends those editors and writers who decry long paragraphs and author intrusion; they are of their time, and none the worse for that. Maugham had the knack to write so that it seemed to the reader to be effortless; he mastered narrative flow. The late Martin Seymour-Smith observes that Maugham ‘was very prolific, and all his novels are readable and intelligent…’ while ‘his short stories are economical and superbly capture the sense of place, and always seem credible.’

Ashenden was an author recruited by a Colonel in the Intelligence Department known by the letter ‘R’. The mysterious ‘R’ is described as a man of ‘somewhat above the middle height, lean, with a yellow deeply-lined face, thin grey hair, and a toothbrush moustache. The thing immediately noticeable about him was the closeness with which his blue eyes were set. He only just escaped a squint. They were hard and cruel eyes, and very wary; and they gave him a cunning, shifty look. He was a man that you could neither like nor trust at first sight. His manner was pleasant and cordial.’

In the much published short story ‘The Hairless Mexican’ Ashenden accompanies the titular character under the cover name of Mr Somerville – which in fact is an alias Maugham used when secretly dealing with the Russian PM Alexander Kerensky in 1917, in the hope of keeping Russia in the war.

This collection consists of seven stories; there were thirty altogether; though fourteen were burned by Maugham as they infringed the Official Secrets Act: published under the title Ashenden, 1928. The stories in this collection are:

Miss King;

The Hairless Mexican;

Giulia Lazzari;

The traitor;

His Excellency;

Mr Harrington’s washing;

Sanatorium.

The Times Literary Supplement said in its review of the Ashenden stories: ‘counter-intelligence work consists often of morally indefensible jobs not to be undertaken by the squeamish or the conscience-stricken.’ Yes, that about sums up a secret agent.

Le Carré called Maugham ‘the first person to write about espionage in a mood of disenchantment and almost prosaic reality.’

2 comments:

Jack Owen said...

Hmmmnn. Wonder what REALLY happened to those 'burned' manuscripts. Do you suppose they might be stashed somewhere to be released 100 years after his death. Or, could they be in the safekeeping of his adopted 'son'?
Enquiring minds...
ps: Nice piece. How are YOUR SS Collections moving?

Nik said...

Hi Jack, glad you broke the code and got to comment! As to your questions, 'I couldn't possibly comment'... What SS collection? Super Spy?