Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Thoughts on W. Somerset Maugham's Ashenden

W. Somerset Maugham is perhaps best known for his books Of Human Bondage (1915) and The Razor's Edge (1944), but students of the spy novel know him by another book, Ashenden: Or The British Agent (1928), a collection of loosely connected stories about the adventures of the titular figure in the service of British intelligence during World War I.

In the course of the narration Maugham touched on many of the difficulties of turning the spy story into entertainment with surprising frankness, as when he observed that
Being no more than a tiny rivet in a vast and complicated machine, [Ashenden] never had the advantage of seeing a completed action. He was concerned with the beginning or the end of it, perhaps, or with some incident in the middle, but what his own doings led to he had seldom a chance of discovering. It was as unsatisfactory as those modern novels that give you a number of unrelated episodes and expect you by piecing them together to construct in your mind a connected narrative (Maugham, 7).1
Rather making "a picture out of the various pieces of the jigsaw puzzle" was the prerogative of "the great chiefs of the secret service in their London offices" (Maugham, 101).

Maugham offered another thought of the kind in regard to Ashenden's routine as a case officer when he observed that:
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 . . . he waited for the information that came through and dispatched it; 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 work he was doing . . . could not be called anything but monotonous (Maugham, 101).
As Maugham's remark demonstrates, the "tiny rivet" problem has been a big one for writers across the whole history of the spy genre (though it has loomed increasingly large as time has gone on).

Some authors have responded to this reality by contriving ways to put their protagonists at the center of events, so that not only do they get to see a "completed action," but that the action can be thought of as in large part their own, as writers as diverse as John Buchan and John le Carré, Eric Ambler and Ian Fleming, are known to do. (The approach tends to have the author writing in unlikely coincidences or exceptional organizational circumstances; forcing their heroes to become independent operators, whether as hapless outsiders or insiders forced to go rogue; or simply ignoring bureaucratic realities.) More recently they have deemphasized the rivets and instead concentrated on offering a broad picture of that "vast and complicated machine" – as Frederick Forsyth and Tom Clancy have done. (These describe the machine's operations at length, and rather than focusing their narrative on one character, or a few characters, use a large number of viewpoint characters to show a great many aspects of the machine's functioning, so that the vast plot is really the heart of the story, and the national security state the real protagonist.) And on the whole, writers of spy fiction have been far more prone to present their spies acting like detectives investigating a crime or carrying on a manhunt, heist men planning a black bag job, special operations soldiers, or fugitives on the run, than actual case officers in the business of handling agents.

Maugham, however, works within exactly the framework he describes. Unsurprisingly, he eschews the thriller conventions writers like E. Phillips Oppenheim, John Buchan and H.C. "Sapper" McNeile had already popularized. Instead, the intelligence work tends to be a backdrop to other dramas, as with his adventure in pre-Revolutionary Russia (in which we see almost nothing of what he is actually doing as a British agent). Reading these I was often reminded of Maugham's irony and humor (at its best in the episodes involving the "Hairless Mexican," and Russia, "Love and Russian Literature" being especially funny if you have enough familiarity with the context to get the joke). The result is, unsurprisingly, a book that holds up rather better than many contemporaneous classics of the spy genre.

1. The edition I have cited is the following: Maugham, W. Somerset, Ashenden: Or, The British Agent (Mattiuck, NY: The American Reprint Company, 199?), pp. 304.

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