Ashenden, by W. Somerset Maugham

Ashenden cvr

Mr Ashenden is a British secret agent dispatched on a variety of missions during the First World War, moving from the peace of neutral Switzerland to the chaos of Russia under Kerensky’s provisional Government.  W Somerset Maugham begins his preface by stating that the book is ‘founded’ on his time in Intelligence during the war, but it is unclear to what extent he is drawing directly on his own experiences.  Although Ashenden is an agent almost from the outbreak, Maugham spent the first couple of years driving an ambulance, so we cannot read Ashenden as lightly disguised autobiography, even though Ashenden is by profession a playwright, and an intellectual.

Upon recruitment into the Intelligence Department, Ashenden is told by his boss, R, ‘if you do well you’ll get no thanks and if you get into trouble you’ll get no help’ – always the mantra of the secret agent.  His is a world in transition; what had been seen as a gentlemanly pursuit, a great game, before 1914 was becoming one in which total war would be the standard, with no room for sentiment.  Going against the grain of the unscrupulous agent (and here Verloc in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent springs to mind) Ashenden is thoughtful, introspective, a good judge of character, perhaps like Maugham himself.  It is surprising to have a character, let alone a spy, describe himself as ‘shy’, and one warms to Ashenden’s candour.

Ashenden tries to adhere to a moral compass in difficult times, when expediency would have been the easier option, balancing his patriotism with an essentially utilitarian approach to his job.  In one scene he agonises whether to authorise an act of sabotage that would hamper the enemy but in the process kill a large number of innocent workers, and resolves his dilemma by the toss of a coin.  The reader does not learn the result of the coin-toss, but there is a hint that it is yes.  Such calculations are left to him: he had previously bemoaned the desire of the British authorities to keep their hands clean by not involving themselves in ethically dubious enterprises.  When he tells R that he has been approached by someone willing to assassinate a key figure for £5,000, R demurs on the grounds that they are gentlemen, while such underhand tactics are characteristic of the Boche.  Yet, as Ashenden remarks to himself, they close their eyes in order to be able to congratulate themselves that they have never done anything dishonourable while happy to profit from the shady deeds of others.

Maugham talks about manipulating raw events for fiction because ‘fact is a poor storyteller’ and the work of an intelligence agent is in reality monotonous.  Despite this reworking of raw experience for aesthetic purposes the anecdotes that form the book often feel curiously meandering, episodic rather than forming a satisfying whole.  One section in particular, ‘Miss King’, describes the final illness of an elderly governess with no payoff whatsoever; Ashenden at Miss King’s deathbed thinks that she wants to confide some secret.  She merely mutters ‘England’, and dies.  The reader may expect a linkage later in the book, but that really is the end of the poor lady, her life and death of no significance.  Similarly there is a curious hiatus in the action in which the British ambassador in an unnamed city tells a long after-dinner story of his pre-war youth, which feels like padding.

Anybody who has seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Secret Agent, based on Ashenden, but very loosely, with the introduction of a love interest absent in the book and other significant changes, will be particularly surprised at Maugham’s description of the Hairless Mexican.  Peter Lorre, giving a dreadfully hammy performance for Hitchcock and it would seem improvising poorly, is short, chubby and very hairy, nicknamed the Hairless Mexican precisely because he isn’t a hairless Mexican.  Turning to the description in the book one reads that Maugham’s character is tall, thin, Mexican and ‘quite hairless’.  Dubious casting decisions aside, where Secret Agent scores is that, for all its psychological implausibility, it has a satisfying unity.  By carving out a small section of Ashenden, Hitchcock’s film possesses a through-line the book lacks.  Ashenden may also have been written quickly as sentences are sometimes inelegantly phrased, and occasionally there is a problem with pronouns so it takes a moment to work out who is speaking.

Curiously, considering the lack of a coherent structure, Maugham pontificates in the preface about the organisation of a story: a plot has a beginning, middle and end, starting with

a set of circumstances which have consequences … and these consequences, in their turn the cause of other consequences … This means that a story should begin at a certain point and end at a certain point.  It should not wander along an uncertain line, but follow, from exposition to climax, a bold and vigorous curve.

He ignores his own advice entirely in Ashenden.  The result is an enjoyable potboiler rather than the classic it could have been.


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