Tag Archives: W Somerset Maugham

man has always found it easier to sacrifice his life than to learn the multiplication table.

Ashenden: Or the British Agent, by W. Somerset Maugham

Some books grow in memory, some diminish. I read Ashenden in chunks over a couple of months towards the back of 2016, and it’s fair to say that it’s one of the growers. Writing this now at the end of January 2017 I’m slightly puzzled that I didn’t include it in my end of year list.

Ashenden is an early piece of spy fiction based on Somerset Maugham’s own brief career as a spy in World War 1. The real author and the fictional character track pretty closely: both are recruited by a senior intelligence officer known as “R”; both are initially stationed in Switzerland; both are later sent on an urgent mission to Russia to help prevent the Russian revolution. Ashenden isn’t quite Maugham and this is fiction rather than autobiography, but at the same time Maugham lived what he writes.

ashenden

I love these Vintage covers for Maugham.

Ashenden is half-way between novel and short story collection. Many of the stories here can be read by themselves (and I did just that). Several are paired so that the first sets up a situation and the second resolves it. Taken together they create a chronology of Ashenden’s career as a spy.

Ashenden himself is a dryly humorous sort; intelligent but emotionally distant. He’s well suited to his role. Here he’s just accepted the job from R:

The last words that R. said to him, with a casualness that made them impressive, were:

‘There’s just one thing I think you ought to know before you take on this job. And don’t forget it. If you do well you’ll get no thanks and if you get into trouble you’ll get no help. Does that suit you?’

‘Perfectly.’

‘Then I’ll wish you good afternoon.’

The stories vary in quality as you’d expect. Some are closer to being interesting anecdotes than anything more substantial. Others are very good and there’s a definite cumulative effect. Neutral Switzerland is crammed with spies, most aware of each other and all of them constantly scheming and trying to win each other over to their side. Maugham captures the sense of time and place marvellously:

At that time Geneva was a hot-bed of intrigue and its home was the hotel at which Ashenden was staying. There were Frenchmen there, Italians and Russians, Turks, Rumanians, Greeks and Egyptians. Some had fled their country, some doubtless represented it. There was a Bulgarian, an agent of Ashenden’s, whom for greater safety he had never even spoken to in Geneva; he was dining that night with two fellow-countrymen and in a day or so, if he was not killed in the interval, might have a very interesting communication to make. Then there was a little German prostitute, with china-blue eyes and a doll-like face, who made frequent journeys along the lake and up to Berne, and in the exercise of her profession got little titbits of information over which doubtless they pondered with deliberation in Berlin.

It’s easy at times amidst the black-tie dinners and hotel conversations for the reader to forget that there’s a war on, but Maugham never quite lets you do so and the real cost of Ashenden’s work is never too far away. More than once Ashenden lures enemy assets over the French border so that they can be captured by the British and shot. Sometimes he sympathises with those he manipulates, admires them even, but that doesn’t prevent him doing his duty and he doesn’t wash his hands of his responsibility for their deaths.

Clear victories and defeats happen, but they’re in the minority. Mostly it’s bland routine coupled with uncertainty as to whether he’s won, or lost, or made any difference to anything at all.

Ashenden’s official existence was as orderly and monotonous as a city clerk’s. He saw his spies at stated intervals and paid them their wages; when he could get hold of a new one he engaged him, gave him his instructions and sent him off to Germany; he waited for the information that came through and dispatched it; he went into France once a week to confer with his colleague over the frontier and to receive his orders from London; he visited the market-place on market-day to get any message the old butter-woman had brought him from the other side of the lake; he kept his eyes and ears open; and he wrote long reports which he was convinced no one read, till having inadvertently slipped a jest into one of them he received a sharp reproof for his levity.

The stories have a nicely judged dry sense of humour running through them. I particularly enjoyed this exchange with R which is possibly the most British thing I’ve read in years:

‘I’m expecting a fellow to come and see me to-night,’ he said at last. ‘His train gets in about ten.’ He gave his wrist-watch a glance. ‘He’s known as the Hairless Mexican.’

‘Why?’

‘Because he’s hairless and because he’s a Mexican.’

‘The explanation seems perfectly satisfactory,’ said Ashenden.

The Hairless Mexican is a paid killer that Ashenden has to guide to a target (it’s not all Swiss hotel conversations and rote administration). Like many of those Ashenden encounters he’s a larger than life sort. The Mexican boasts to R that he doesn’t know ‘the meaning of the word failure.’ R dryly replies that ‘It has a good many synonyms’. So it does, and Ashenden’s mix of competence and fallibility is part of what makes this so enjoyable.

There are the occasional odd notes. Fairly early on there’s a piece of descriptive text which has aged very badly (“A scudding rain, just turning into sleet, swept the deck in angry gusts, like a nagging woman who cannot leave a subject alone.”) Mercifully it’s something of a one-off and I mention it mainly so that if you do try this you’re not put off by it.

R also uses some very ugly racist language at one point, but it’s pretty clearly in character and the individual he’s speaking of (an Indian rebelling against British rule) is shown in the narrative to be sympathetic, intelligent and honourable. Again, I mention it only in case a reader might have an issue with it but racist attitudes in upper-middle class Englishmen of the early 20th Century are hardly surprising, particularly in a colonialist context.

I mentioned in my review of Far Eastern Tales that my grandfather, Jim, was a big Maugham fan. Reading this I can see why. Maugham really is very good. He’s absolutely in command of his material, and while his style is arguably a little old fashioned that’s only because he was writing between 70 and a 100 years ago. He deserves his reputation.

One last note. While I think the book itself has held up well to the passing of time, the Preface hasn’t aged quite so successfully. Maugham complains about the inadequacies of Modernist fiction (without using that term) for no particularly obvious reason and in passing criticises the Impressionists, commenting of them that “it is strange how empty their paintings look now”. As of today he looks comically wrong, but in another 90 years majority opinion may be with him again. Who knows? Prediction is hard, particularly about the future.

Other reviews

None that I know of, but I’d be delighted to be told of any in the comments.

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Filed under Maugham, W Somerset, Short Stories, Spy Fiction

You’re old enough to know that the fact that your statement is true only makes it more offensive

Far Eastern Tales, by W. Somerset Maugham

When I was a kid, Maugham was often held out as the model of a great short story writer, almost the definition of one. Along with Saki he was as good as it got. My paternal grandfather, Jim, was a huge fan, as were many of his generation.

Literary reputations though are fragile things, and what seems timeless mastery can for no obvious reason just fall into obscurity. Maugham hasn’t suffered quite that fate, he’s still widely in print after all, but his star has definitely waned.

Perhaps in Maugham’s case it’s because the world he describes so well is no longer one contemporary readers recognise. He was primarily a writer of Britain between the wars, of the declining days of Empire and of a Britain yet to experience post-war Austerity and loss of influence.

Jim was born in 1920. He lived and worked in South Africa for a while, raised his family there, and while as a self-educated proudly working class Glaswegian he wasn’t anything like Maugham’s characters he’d certainly have recognised his world. Perhaps it’s as simple as that. Maugham was and is a great writer, but he’s a great writer of a world that’s no longer with us. He writes expertly of a country with few remaining inhabitants.

FarEasternMaugham

Far Eastern Tales is a collection of ten Maugham short stories, all of them set in the British far Eastern colonies. They vary in length and style, from shaggy-dog stories like Mabel to tales of isolation and murder like Footprints in the Jungle. Two of them, Mabel and the End of the Flight, are basically the same story once told as comedy and once as horror (both involve a man mysteriously and relentlessly pursued, in Mabel by a prospective wife and in The End of the Flight by a wronged Sumatran native intent on revenge).

Maugham’s Asia is a lonely place. The British are few and thinly stretched across a vast territory. Issues of race and class bar them from real friendships with the locals, making for intensely parochial ex-pat communities and pockets of men left alone too long in out-of-the-way stations deep in the jungle.

Their ambition was to be like everybody else. Their highest praise was to say that a man was a damned good sort.

As the quote suggests, these aren’t the best and the brightest as a rule. The servants of Empire tend to be bluff and unimaginative sorts. An excess of imagination isn’t an asset when you’re two days from your nearest neighbour, and an unquestioning assumption of your own entitlement and authority can carry a lot of weight when facing down locals with machetes and a grievance.

Nowhere is this made more explicit than in the rather marvellous fourth story, The Door of Opportunity. It features a particularly brilliant young administrator and his adoring wife. They are cultured, intelligent, a cut above what they see as the generality of Colonial mediocrity. He learns the local languages, they dream of championing indigenous arts and combining the best of the world they left with the best of the world they now find themselves in.

Maugham understands, as the couple in The Door of Opportunity do not, that colonialism is an exercise in economic exploitation backed by military might. The British aren’t in Asia to appreciate fine teak-work. They’re there to extract resources and money.

It was with The Door of Opportunity that this collection really started to shine for me. The first tale was much as I expected, featuring a club where people drank gin and played bridge, and an unfolding tale of murder in distant places. The second, Mabel, was easily the weakest, and the third featured a man dying from what he believed to be a native curse. So far it seemed, so as expected.

That third though, P.&O., turned out not to be quite what I thought it would be. Maugham it turns out is an expert at the mid-story swerve, where you discover that the story you thought you were reading isn’t the real story at all.

In P.&O. a middle-aged woman encounters a fellow passenger who slowly declines as the voyage continues, having been promised he’ll never live to see land. That’s fine, but what’s interesting isn’t the supposed curse but the lessons the woman takes from her encounter with another’s mortality.

P.&.O., like many of the stories here, is also a neat study in hypocrisy. Here the first-class passengers on an ocean-liner plan a Christmas party, but don’t wish to appear stand-offish by not inviting those in second-class:

The scheme was at last devised to invite the second-class passengers, but to go to the captain privily and point out to him the advisability of withholding his consent to their coming into the first-class saloon.

After The Door of Opportunity comes The Hidden Talent, a cautionary tale of why sometimes old acquaintances are best left in the past. By this point the collection is seriously on a roll. The Hidden Talent is heartbreaking, probably my favourite of the collection and it shows Maugham’s tremendous insight as a writer. Maugham gets people, and that of course is why he was so highly regarded.

From there we’re off to the races. Before the Party is a deliciously horrifying tale of the gap between public and private lives, brilliantly exposing the acceptance of ugly realities as long as they’re far away and decently covered up. It’s followed by Mr. Know-All, which would be spoiled if I said anything more about it at all but which shows again a nice grasp of complexity of character.

Then comes Neil MacAdam, another candidate for best in the bunch,  featuring a handsome new assistant to a remote museum who is too innocent to recognise the danger the curator’s wife’s interest in him represents. He finds himself in a situation any noir-writer would be proud of, and like any good noir the situation soon takes a deadly momentum of its own as the heat and isolation act as a pressure cooker to deadly effect.

The End of the Flight, which I mentioned above, is a dip in quality again. I admit that I don’t find stories in which natives have apparently supernatural powers terribly exciting, but the real issue is that the reliance on plot leaves less room for Maugham’s gift for motive.

The collection ends though on a high, with The Force of Circumstance in which a new wife  joins her husband on a distant Malay plantation and comes to learn the compromises he made in order to survive the long years before her arrival. Maugham understands hypocrisy, and why unpleasant as it may be it’s sometimes the best option available.

A classic Maugham theme here is the clash of expediency and idealism, romance even. More than one character sees Empire as advertised, as a civilising mission, as a chance to bring culture and order to places sorely in need of it. Maugham however is always aware of the gulf between appearance and reality, never forgetting that our presence is both uninvited and unwanted.

To thrive in Maugham’s Far East you have to be a hypocrite. To be otherwise is either to invite disaster or to embrace brutality. You have to be able to lie to yourself, at least a little, about the realities of what is ultimately an armed occupation. That perhaps was what most surprised me here. I knew Maugham as a writer of Empire, I had no idea however that he saw so clearly the contradictions inherent in it.

Maugham doesn’t condemn his characters or their world, he isn’t that facile and these aren’t polemics (and I have no idea as to his personal politics). Maugham describes, and he doesn’t look away as he does so. That’s probably why, out of fashion as he is, he’s still in print.

Other reviews

None I know of, but if I’ve missed some please let me know in the comments. If you are interested at all in Maugham though, Guy Savage has reviewed him extensively over at His Futile Preoccupations, here.

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Filed under Maugham, W Somerset, Short Stories