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Ashenden, or, The British Agent Paperback – 6 Jul 2000
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"The most persuasive espionage fiction" (New York Times)
"The first spy story written by someone who had been there and done that. A humane and compassionate antidote to two-fisted, square-jawed heroes battling dastardly foreigners. The head of British Intelligence is known only as "R", anticipating James Bond's "M" by a quarter of a century" (The Times)
"Thoughtful spy novels began with Somerset Maugham's Ashenden, featuring a detached hero on a journey to disillusion, a process brought to its apotheosis by le Carre via Greene" (Daily Telegraph)
"A collection of stories so accurate that Churchill ordered the destruction of 14 of them, while Russian intelligence immediately set up a special unit to read British spy novels for clues" (New Statesman)
A celebrated writer by the time the war broke out in 1914, Somerset Maugham was dispatched by the Secret Service to Lucerne - under the guise of completing a play. An assignment whose danger and drama appealed both to his sense of romance and of the ridiculous. The stories collected in ASHENDEN are rooted in Maugham's own experiences as an agent, reflecting the ruthlessness and brutality of espionage, its intrigue and treachery, as well as absurdity.See all Product description
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This particular book, `Ashenden' recounts the third person story of a writer, during the First World War, recruited by the Intelligence Department to go to neutral Switzerland, glean information, run Intelligence Operations, trap agents working for Germany, and later to travel to Russia on the eve of the Revolution, to prevent the Russian Revolution and to keep Russia engaged in the war on the Allied side. The book consists of short chapters in which our hero, urbane and observant, plays the espionage game with Bond like suavity (reputedly this book did exert some influence on Fleming) Though Ashenden himself is not the one who dispatches those agents who are spying for Prussia, he certainly lays the traps which will end in their executions by firing squad or dispatching by other means.
What is however the real hook for the modern reader is that Maugham himself was that writer, recruited by the Intelligence Agency, sent to neutral Switzerland and to Russia, with those goals, and the stories told here are factual, `from his case-book, as it were, though shaped and tidied, as Maugham explains in his foreword, for `the purposes of fiction' :
"Fact is a poor story - teller It starts a story at haphazard, generally long before the beginning, rambles on inconsequently and tails off, leaving loose ends hanging about, without a conclusion"
By all accounts, Winston Churchill asked Maugham to burn some of the stories which WERE to have appeared in this book, originally published in 1928, as they breached the Official Secrets Act.
These are beautifully constructed stories, though perhaps Maugham's/Ashenden's in the main rather chilly, mildly amused urbanity does tend to hold the reader also away from emotional engagement. Having said that, this is a device which then works brilliantly in the `wrap' of 2 or 3 of the stories where Ashenden's rather emotionally inhibited, intelligent, ironic, cultured persona temporarily reveals a sombre, bleak acknowledgement that playing the undoubted game of espionage can create collateral damage in the lives of innocents. The story called `The Hairless Mexican' would be an excellent fictional story, but the suspicion it may not be completely fiction delivers the killer punch to the reader.
Maugham's disciplined writing, refusing to emote, merely displaying an event dispassionately, without comment, letting the reader make the judgement, gives the kick to the solar plexus. I think it is the uneasy knowledge that these stories are not really quite fiction, which is responsible for that kick
What follows is an odd , often bizarre, series of events which mainly take place in hotels, restaurants and trains, far from the theatre of war. Espionage in WWI was often frowned upon as not being gentlemanly. While describing an agent, nicknamed ‘the Hairless Mexican,’ that Ashenden is asked to accompany to Italy, R remarks that, “he hasn’t had the advantages of a public school education.” Again, when Ashenden suggests that another agent has offered to carry out as assassination for money, R expostulates, “damn it all, we are gentlemen!”
However, despite the various restrictions and general distrust of spying, Ashenden has a calm head and is entrusted with some very important missions. We follow him through France, Switzerland, Italy and Russia, as he uncovers spy networks, accompanies agents to intercept certain documents, tries to trap Indian nationalists and is bored to death by an American businessman on the Trans-Siberian express. Maugham’s writing was never less than brilliant and this is no exception. To spend time in the company of his writing is always a delight and this is a wonderful, charming set of stories – told with typical British reserve – but perhaps even more moving because of the understatement. Although Ashenden does not venture into the field of battle, we (and his hero) are always aware of the soldiers in their trenches and the fact that the outcome of his various missions may result in a firing squad at dawn....