When war broke out in 1914, Somerset Maugham was dispatched by the British Secret Service to Switzerland under the guise of completing a play. Multilingual, knowledgeable about many European countries, and a celebrated writer, Maugham had the perfect cover, and the assignment appealed to his love 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 its absurdity.
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Dryly witty, with a splinter of ice at its heart
“My name is Somerville,” said Ashenden.
Yes. The stories were left open and intriguingly ambiguous.
John Le Carre's "Secret Pilgrim" has a similar structure of linked stories about the underside of espionage, in Le Carre's case during the the Cold War, and in Somerset Maugham's case, during World War 1. The geography of the two novels and their views of Europe at a time of crisis also bears comparison.
The downbeat capture of a German spy at a lakeside port in France.
The above scene because the implication is that no one really wins in the spying game.
Somerset Maugham uses a technique, which is common in formula-fiction, in which character can be read off from external features and, especially, the eyes. And yet the stories that make up “Ashenden” are more subtle and open-ended, than one might expect. Possibly, the spy genre, to which Maugham makes such an important contribution in “Ashenden”, assists him in such indirection. There are the epistemological conundrums and double- and even treble-agents; but, more unusual for an age brought up on John Buchan, Dornford Yates and Sapper, these spy stories are downbeat and morally ambiguous. Stories end, sometimes as a chapter might end – up in the air or apparently in the middle of something. These moments are memorable and the form of loosely-linked stories contributes to the uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty that runs through the book, outweighing the surface characterisations, some racist or at least crass. Somerset Maugham is far less middlebrow than he liked to make himself out to be. And, in his use of Ashenden as a spy whose cover is that of a playwright collecting material for his plays, he remains as good as any writer in bringing geography into fiction, here Europe during the years of the First World War. Hotels, trains, steamers, frontiers, and towns and cities in supposedly neutral countries, notably Switzerland, which are full of spies and secret police. As in John Le Carre’s espionage novels, the routine of intelligence gathering and channelling it to the spy-masters is suddenly pierced by violence.