Ashenden by W. Somerset Maugham / Review

Ashenden by W. Somerset Maugham 


You must be able to look at yourself from the outside and be at the same time spectator and actor in the pleasant comedy of life. (p.172)

October 17, 2014

Quite a shock to go from reading the street-level immediacy of Dashiell Hammet and James M. Cain to sauntering through the wordy aloofness of William Somerset Maugham. Slowly, I came to really like this book.


Born in 1874 in the British Embassy in Paris where his father worked and where he lived for the first ten years of his life, Maugham was 54 when this book came out. Both his parents died when he was young and he was raised by an aloof and cruel uncle (a vicar). After public school in Canterbury, with its usual training in snobbery and homosexuality, Maugham went to university in Germany before settling to study medicine at St Thomas’s Hospital. He had, in other words, an unusually cosmopolitan upbringing and outlook for an Englishman of his time.

But he always wanted to write, wrote compulsorily in the evenings after study and, soon after qualifying as a doctor, published his first novel, Liza of Lambeth, in 1897 – a proletarian love story, part of the 1890s’ fashion for studies of London lowlife cf the novels of George Gissing. Liza sold out and confirmed him in his vocation.

Maugham’s subsequent few novels weren’t as successful but his plays were. The first was performed in 1906 and in 1907 he had four plays on in the West End simultaneously. By the outbreak of the Great War Maugham had written 10 novels and ten plays and was a well-established Edwardian man of letters. He enlisted in the ambulance service. In 1915 his long novel about one man’s romantic obsession, Of Human Bondage, was published, maybe his most enduring work. He returned to London to promote it then looked around for some way to support the war effort. His wife introduced him to officials high up in Britain’s Secret Service and he was enlisted.

During the Great War Maugham had two spells with the intelligence services:

1. In September 1915 Maugham went to Switzerland, using his cover as an author abroad, to work as one of the network of British agents trying to counter the ‘Berlin Committee’ which included Virendranath Chattopadhyay, an Indian revolutionary trying to use the war to create violence against the British in his country.

(There was a hiatus while Maugham went travelling in the Pacific to research his novel The Moon and Sixpence, based on the life of Paul Gauguin – the first of many journeys through the late-Imperial world of the 1920s and 1930s which were to become associated with Maugham and which provided a template for Graham Greene a generation later.)

2. In June 1917 Maugham was asked by the British Secret Intelligence Service (later MI6) to undertake a mission to Russia to counter German pacifist propaganda in a bid to keep the Provisional Government in power and Russia in the war. Two and a half months later, the Bolsheviks took control. Maugham subsequently said that if he had been able to get there six months earlier, he might have succeeded. Quiet and observant, Maugham had a good temperament for intelligence work; he believed he had inherited from his lawyer father a gift for cool judgement and the ability to be undeceived by facile appearances.

After the war Maugham’s novels and plays continued to be successful and in 1926 he bought Villa Mauresque at Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera where a) he hosted one of the great literary and social salons of the 1920s and 30s b) he continued to be highly productive, writing plays, short stories, novels, essays and travel books. He is credited with being the most financially successful British writer of the 1930s.


Ashenden, or The British Agent is not a novel: it consists of 16 short chapters which are sometimes linked, sometimes completely separate. Some offer just fragments or insights, others a continuous story in 2 or 3 parts.

It’s interesting that, like so many others, it took him a decade or so to process the war experience and turn it into fiction, thus taking part in the so-called ‘war book boom’ (cf Understones of War, 1928, Goodbye To All That, 1929, All Quiet On The Western Front, 1929, A Farewell To Arms, 1929, Death of A Hero, 1929).

The stories follow very closely his actual experiences. The fictional Ashenden is a British writer who is sent to live in Switzerland, who receives weekly orders by cloak and dagger channels, and who keeps an eye especially on Indian political activists.

  1. R. (4 pages) R is the name used by the head of the Intelligence Department. (Fleming didn’t copy this in creating M, as the head of MI6 in his day was known as C.) Ashenden meets someone at a party who asks if he’d like some work. He is given an address in a run-down part of London where he is shown into a disused house and meets R. with his hard blue cruel eyes. He is despatched to Switzerland.
  2. A Domiciliary Visit (19 pages) Ashenden, now in Switzerland, hears the Germans are going to burgle the left luggage room at Zurich station to seize the trunk of an Indian diplomat. Ashenden takes the train for Geneva to Berne to tell the diploatic offier there who decides to inform the Swiss authorities. Ashenden returns by boat across the lake giving scope for nature description and his mild anxiety at being collared by Swiss police. Back at his hotel he is visited by two Swiss policeman, whom he humorously nicknames Fasolt and Fafner after the giants in Das Rheingold. They have nothing to go on and leave. Ashenden remembers an encounter with a waiter working for him in Germany who revolted, wanting more money. Ashenden had refused and threatened to have him blacklisted after the War and the waiter/agent surlily acquiesced.
  3. Miss King (27 pages) The same evening Ashenden dines with the other guests, a motley crew of upper class diplomats, princes etc. Ashenden suspects all of them of being spies. He is surprised to be invited to a game of bridge in the rooms of Baroness Higgins with Prince Ali of Egypt and his secretary and wonders if one or all of them are working for their countries, and how much they know about him. Later the same night he is called out of bed by the dying wish of the ancient governess of the Egyptian princes, Miss King. She has had a stroke and dies in his arms. Ashenden speculates about what she has seen, what she knows, and whether she was trying to tell him something.
  4. The Hairless Mexican (24 pages) Called to Lyon, Ashenden is introduced to a hairless Mexican ‘general’, a stereotype of Latino braggadocio, their mission to intercept a Greek who has been despatched with papers and a verbal commission from Enver Pasha to the German embassy in Rome. Ashenden’s clinical observation of the ‘general’, the exact opposite of an English gentleman in every respect, reminds me of Graham Greene’s travel book The Lawless Roads and novel The Power and The Glory which both bespeak his dislike and eventual hatred of Mexicans for their casual violence.
  5. The Dark Woman (13 pages) On their night-time train journey the Mexican ‘general’ tells Ashenden about love, glory, reading your destiny in the cards, and about his Grand Passion for the Dark Woman who he eventually murdered in her sleep.
  6. The Greek (19 pages) Genuinely tense chapter describing Ashenden’s frame of mind as he is surprised when the Mexican arrives unannounced at his hotel in Naples (he should be nabbing the Greek and his papers in Brindisi), then spends the day wandering streets, trying to read, going to cinema and bars etc, worrying what the Mexican is doing about the Greek. That night the Mexican inveigles him into breaking into the Greek’s room and rifling his luggage. No papers. They decide to go their separate ways, the Mexican to Barcelona, Ashenden back to Rome. They wait in a low dive where the Mexican is happily picking up women when Ashenden notices blood on his sleeve. Then Ashenden receives and decodes an urgent telegram from base: the Greek never left Piraeus! The Mexican has befriended, tailed and murdered a completely innocent man! Cock-up, not conspiracy.
  7. A Trip to Paris (24 pages) Ashenden receives a coded message telling him to go meet R. in Paris. Once again he is struck by R.’s combination of social gaucheness with extreme acuteness and precision. The Department has discovered that a tacky Spanish dancer-cum-prostitute, Giulia Lazzari, has been receiving passionate love letters from a fanatical Indian nationalist, Chandra Lal, responsible for various bombing outrages and devoted to kicking the British out of India. Guilia has been arrested and forced to agree to lure Chandra to Thonon on Switzerland, then cross into France where he can be arrested and shot. Ashenden is to accompany her to Switzerland and make sure she plays here part.
  8. Giulia Lazzari (30 pages) How Ashenden effectively but with a bad conscience blackmails Giulia with the threat of prison, unless she persuades Chandra to cross the border into France. After several rebuffs, and mounting hysterics from Giulia, he does, is immediately seized, commits suicide by taking poison. Ashenden has to tell Giulia her lover is dead. Bitter.
  9. Gustav (9 pages) A model spy in Germany who writes coded reports to his wife at Basel who sends them on to Ashenden. Ashenden goes to visit his wife, is surprised to find Gustav there when he has only just received a letter supposedly from Germany from him; and deduces that in fact the much-praised Gustav has been lying to British Intelligence for a year, and has never set foot in Germany that whole time. He admits it. Characteristically, Ashenden is a) not angry b) tries to establish whether Gustav has also been working for the Germans c) wonders if he can be fed false info to pass back to the Hun. Specifically, he asks Gustav for information about the English spy, Grantley Caypor, and Gustav supplies it, sealing Caypor’s death sentence.
  10.  The Traitor (44 pages) Ashenden is sent to Lucerne to meet the English spy and traitor, Grantley Caypor. He gets to know him and his gruff German wife very well and Maugham very convincingly portrays them as complex human beings with real loves and affections. It is all the grimmer, then, that Ashenden persuades him to cross the border into France where he is immediately arrested and, if R. is true to his word, executed for his treachery, leaving his devoted wife in paroxysms of grief in front of Ashenden.
  11. Behind the scenes (9 pages) Ashenden in Russia. Characteristically, this brief anecdote is more about the characters of the American and, especially, the fantastically well-bred British amabassador, than anything at all about the host country. Ashenden gets a spy into the household of the countess with whom the American ambassador is intimate who discovers that the American resents the British ambassador’s grand manner; Ashenden tells the British ambassador who seems almost grateful. High society comedy.
  12. His Excellency (39 pages) Reluctantly Ashenden accepts a dinner invite from the impeccable British ambassador, Sir Herbert Witherspoon. This mutates subtly from chit-chat into the ambassador opening his heart and telling – in the third person – his love affair with an ugly trashy vulgar courtesan of a circus performer who, despite all sense, he just can’t shake and how, although he married wisely and has had a stellar career, he in fact hates  his wife, his marriage and his position. It becomes very powerful and moving.
  13. The Flip of a Coin (7 pages) The Polish agent Herbartus has arranged for a German munitions factory to be blown up. It will, however, kill many of his fellow Polish workers. Ashenden and he debate the morality of this to a standstill and then Ashenden proposes they toss for it. The result is not revealed. A bitter reflection on the complete arbitrariness of life.
  14. A Chance Acquaintance (19 pages) Ashenden has to travel across the Atlantic, across America, then across the Pacific to Vladivostok, then across Russia by train to arrive at Petrograd on a high profile mission to prevent the Revolution. This story is all about the companion fate throws him in with on the train journey, an insufferable American named Harrington.
  15. Love and Russian Literature (16 pages) A comic account of his pre-War infatuation with Russian intellectual and revolutionary Anastasia Alexandrovna Leonidov, who suggests they find out whether they really are a match by spending a week in Paris together before running off and abandoning her husband. The week in Paris is a disaster mainly because of her addiction to scrambled eggs for breakfast (!) Now, years later, he looks Anastasia up again. She may be useful…
  16. Mr Harrington’s Washing The October revolution takes place, Ashenden has failed, he immediately makes plans to leave but is caught up in the naive Harrington’s insistence that he gets the washing back which he’d given the hotel to do for him. Harrington and Anastasia find it in the bowels of the hotel but are stupidly attracted out into the street by a crowd listening to a harangue when troops drive by firing randomly. Anastasia flees to Ashenden’s room but when they both return to the scene they find Harrington dead, still clutching his washing.

The final image which seems to epitomise the worldview of the book is about the ludicrousness of life, its fickleness, its absurdity. But whereas life’s futility leaves Graham Greene in a permanent deep disgusted depression, life’s ridiculousness leaves Maugham with a sardonic smile on his face. It seems much the more mature and admirable attitude.

Ashenden emerges as a man perfectly capable of carrying out his tasks, adequate to the demands made on him but who, over and above this, is an astute observer of people, an ‘amateur of the baroque in human nature.’ (p.63)


Snobbery Coming back to read English fiction after a prolonged dose of American, the most striking thing is the drawling confidence and smug superiority of the narrator. Ashenden has the calm confident aloofness of the English gentleman who has had it drummed into him at public school, Oxbridge and then in the professions, that an English gentleman is the most superior being in the world. In almost every sentence this sense of superiority oozes. Just like Bond, he is a connoisseur of the high life, living in a de luxe hotel whose other guests are top diplomats, princes in exile etc, probably all spies. When he meets his boss, R., he winces when R. holds a bottle of wine incorrectly and notes that R. doesn’t have the savoir faire to tip a waiter correctly. Ashenden, of course, is effortlessly at ease.

It amused Ashenden to see R., so sharp, so sure of himself and alert in his office, seized as he walked into the restaurant with shyness. He talked a little too loud in order to show that he was at his ease and made himself somewhat unnecessarily at home. You saw in his manner the shabby and commonplace life he had led till the hazards of war raised him to a position of consequence. He was glad to be in that fashionable restaurant cheek by jowl with persons who bore great or distinguished names , but he felt like a schoolboy in his first top-hat, and he quailed before the steely eye of the maître d’hôtel. (p.128)

In the phenomenal scenes with the British ambassador to Russia he easily holds his own with one of the most superior persons on the planet.

Humour As is the way with his class, this aloofness is combined with imperturbable good humour. The world apparently consists of all sorts of funny foreigners and rather ghastly poor people none of whom, alas, had the benefits of one’s upbringing. One can only marvel at their absurdity and at the absurdity of one’s own position, thrown in among this ridiculous crew. This attitude is encapsulated in his fascinated but patronising attitude to the Mexican ‘general’.

‘I gather by what you have not said that he’s an unmitigated scoundrel.’
R. smiled with his pale blue eyes.
‘I don’t know that I’d go quite so far as that. He hasn’t had the advantages of a public-school education. His ideas of playing the game are not quite the same as yours or mine.’ (Vintage 1991 paperback edition, p.56)

Padding The next most striking element is how extremely wordy it is, how long it takes Maugham to say anything, so cluttered is each sentence and paragraph by all the markers of an English prose designed to show one’s superiority, one’s civilisation, one’s leisurely at-homeness in the world. And his prose tends to be rather flat and uncolourful. It doesn’t have much verbal energy or colour or metaphor. When it does make use of simile or metaphor they are generally of the most crushing obviousness. Maugham’s prose comes by the yard.

It might be, he mused, as he rode along the lake on a dappled horse with a great rump and a short neck, like one of those prancing steeds that one sees in the old pictures, but this horse never pranced and he needed a firm jab with the spur to break even into a small trot; it might be, he mused, that the great chiefs of the secret service in their London offices, their hands on the throttle of this great machine, led a life of full excitement; they moved their pieces here and there, they saw the pattern woven by the multitudinous threads (Ashenden was lavish with his metaphors), they made a picture out of the various pieces of the jigsaw puzzle; but it must be confessed that for the small fry like himself to be a member of the secret service was not as adventurous an affair as the public thought. (p.109)

That’s one sentence! Chandler, Hammett, Cain, Burnett,  Hemingway, Fitzgerald, it is not. He is twenty years older than them, went to English public schools and was raised in a vanishing world of top hats and gracious living and every paragraph reminds you of the fact, in their unspooling, repetitive, easily distracted way.

However, as with other writers, among all the other things his texts do, Maugham’s teach us how to read him, how to read his kind of English prose: and the only way to do that is to slow right down to his civilised, easy-going pace, and learn to enjoy his amiable observations and rather trifling anecdotes.

Ashenden reflected that this was the mistake the amateur humourist, as opposed to the professional, so often made; when he made a joke he harped on it. The relations of the joker to his joke should be as quick and desultory as those of a bee to its flower. He should make his joke and pass on. There is of course no harm if, like the bee approaching the flower, he buzzes a little; for it is just as well to announce to a thick-headed world that a joke is intended. But Ashenden, unlike most professionla humourists, had a kindly tolerance for other people’s humour and now he answered R. on his own lines. (p.113)

Long-winded, isn’t it? Not necessarily wrong, just takes quite a long time to say something which is unexceptional, not particularly interesting. If you accept that you’re not going to learn much but are going to be gently rocked by these long easy-going paragraphs, it becomes quite a pleasure to read.

The subordinate clause

One specific tic is his habit of inserting a subordinate clause in the middle of a sentence (highlighted in italics in the examples given above and below). This, at a basic level, makes many of his sentences longer, pads the text. It also makes them feel more digressive and chatty. Helps to creates the affable persona. Somehow it sounds like Colonel Blimp speaking, interrupting himself to take a puff of his cigar and let you into another piece of bland worldly wisdom.

She was not the type he would have expected to adopt that career, for she seemed to have no advantages that could help her, and he asked himself whether she came from a family of entertainers (there are all over the world families in which for generations the members have become dancers or acrobats or comic singers) or whether she had fallen into the life accidentally through some lover in the business who had for a time made her his partner. (p.148)

Even when he’s recounting basic factual events, he has this tendency to interrupt himself with a subordinate clause. In 20th century prose, especially the kind of fast-moving thrillers I’ve been reading, the tendency is to allot each action its own sentence and keep subordinate clauses to a minimum. Makes them more immediate, more impactful, easier to read. Maugham’s penchant for inserting subordinate clauses right bang in the middle of the sentence forces you to slow down and to process two or more things per sentence. Slower and more reflective.

As though for protection (very much to his surprise) she flung her arms round Ashenden. (p.151)

If Chandra came and showed his passport, and it was very likely that he was travelling with a false one, issued probably by a neutral nation, he was to be asked to wait and Ashenden was to identify him. (p.154)

He had not been to Lucerne since he was a boy and but vaguely remembered a covered bridge, a great stone lion and a church in which he had sat, bored yet impressed, while they played an organ; and now wandering along a shady quay (and the lake looked just as tawdry and unreal as it looked on the picture-postcards) he tried not so much to find his way about a half-forgotten scene as to reform in his mind some recollection of the shy and eager lad, so impatient for life (which he saw not in the present of his adolescence but only in the future of his manhood) who so long ago had wandered there. (p.170)


What you get in exchange for slowing down, for making a conscious decision to forget the snappy jazziness of more modern prose, is a series of stories which, at their best, take you deep into a human personality. The stories are secondary: the real interest is in the people who Maugham observes and describes not pithily but very thoroughly. No one sentence stands out but, slowly, in his long-winded way, you find yourself processing the accumulating detail which is what character in a text is made of. The ‘stories’ really amount to in-depth portraits of a number of fascinating personalities: the Mexican general, Anastasia the Russian intellectual, Mr Harrington the naive American, the stricken ambassador Sir Herbert Witherspoon, Gustav the liar and the tragic Grantley Caypor and wife.

Shilling shocker

Every spy or adventure or crime story I’ve read contains an obligatory reference to the characters reading too many spy or adventure or crime stories. This self-consciousness seems to be an iron rule of the genre. Maybe every author in it has been aware since the start that you have to put your characters into melodramatic situations sooner or later to justify being in the genre; sooner or later something melodramatic has to happen, but it’s somehow OK, less cheesy, more plausible, if you first of all emphasise that of course you the narrator are aware of other spy, adventure and crime writer’s cheesy clichés, but in this case – it actually happened!

It had always seemed to Ashenden that R. had spent much of his spare time in reading detective fiction and especially when he was in a good humour it meant he found a fantastic pleasure in aping the style of the shilling shocker. (p.112)

Having twice carefully read the letter, he held the paper up to the light to see the watermark (he had no reason for doing this except that the sleuths of detective novels always did it), then struck a match and watched it burn.

Gomez, the young Spaniard whom Grantley had betrayed… was a high-spirited youth, with a love of adventure, and he had undertaken his mission not for the money he earned by it, but for a passion for romance. It amused him to outwit the clumsy German and it appealed to his sense of the absurd to play a part in a shilling shocker. (p.185)

Eric Ambler

Maugham’s name crops up several times in the autobiography of thriller writer, Eric Ambler. The two meet when Ambler stays near Maugham’s house on the Riviera in the 1950s, and socialise back in London. The most interesting reference, though, comes much earlier, when an author friend (Eileen Bigland) tells Ambler, as he is setting out to become a writer, to learn from Maugham. From which of his novels, Cakes and AleOf Human Bondage?

‘I was thinking of Ashenden,’ she said; ‘and the other long short stories. He’s not a great novelist, but he’s a fine storyteller. And he never mucks about with the story he’s telling.’ (Here Lies, p.123)