One of the things I love about books is following my reading muse randomly and finding an unexpected gem. “Ashenden” by Somerset Maugham, the second book I’ve read by this author, turned out to be one of those! I picked up a set of his books via The Book People, a lovely collection of Vintage paperbacks with gorgeous covers at a ridiculously cheap price. I read “Up at the Villa” last year, and liked it but wasn’t really overwhelmed. However, I wanted something to contrast with what I’ve been reading recently and a book about espionage adventures during the First World War sounded like it would be quite readable – which it was!

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“Ashenden believed much more in his acuteness than in a firearm, which is apt to go off at the wrong time and make a noise, but there are moments when it gives you confidence to feel your fingers round its butt, and this sudden summons seemed to him exceedingly mysterious.”

“Ashenden” is more of a collection of linked episodes, almost short stories, than a coherent novel, but is none the worse for that. The title character is apparently based on Maugham himself, and the tales on his own experiences doing just this kind of thing in WWI. Ashenden is a well-known playwright and he is approached by a Colonel, known only as R., who recruits him to collect information for the allies. Based mainly in neutral Switzerland, Ashenden undertakes a number of missions, encountering some larger than life characters along the way –  diplomats and adventurers from all manner of countries, the wonderfully named Hairless Mexican, the traitor Grantley Caypor, a travelling salesman from the USA by the name of Mr. Harrington, and even his ex-lover Anastasia Alexandrovna, an exiled Russian revolutionary. The settings are wide-ranging, from Switzerland, France, unnamed Balkan countries and ending up in revolutionary Russia.

Maugham is a deceptively good writer. What seems like simple prose is not, it’s wonderfully constructed and he’s very good at building up characters in a subtle way until you suddenly realise you have a perfect picture of them. There are long digressions which are not necessarily relevant to the business of spying, but which paint pictures of men and women and their lives, and so add to the richness of the book. Certainly this work encompasses many facets of human nature: love, adventure, cruelty, violence, art, poetry – the whole gamut of emotions and reasons for living. It is also very realistic in that much of Ashenden’s time is actually routine and dull – long hours labouring over coding a message; endless days travelling in boredom across Siberia in a train; hanging around waiting for orders. According to Wikipedia, this book was very influential on later works by authors such as Fleming, and certainly this seems to be the first work of fiction portraying a spy boss known by a single letter! This boss, R., is a masterful creation – stern, with an incredible amount of power but out of his depth in some situations where Ashenden is much more in control.

“Luxury is dangerous to people who have never known it and to whom its temptations are held out too suddenly. R., that shrewd, cynical man, was captured by the vulgar glamour and the shoddy brilliance of the scene before him. Just as the advantage of culture is that it enables you to talk nonsense with distinction, so the habit of luxury allows you to regard its frills and furbelows with a proper contumely.”

(Yes, I had to look up ‘contumely’ – which apparently means “Insolent or insulting language or treatment”!)

The book is full of bon mots and clever comments, but this apparent lightness hides much deeper subject matter. Maugham has perfected the art of wrong-footing the reader. Just as you start to think of Ashenden as an aloof, foppish kind of Bertie Wooster type, Maugham shakes you by casually dropping a shocking event into the narrative – the cold, bare portrayal of an execution; a dog’s chilling reaction to the death of its beloved master; the discovery of dead bodies on the streets of revolutionary Petrograd.

“Though he had both esteem and admiration for the sensibility of the human race, he had little respect for their intelligence; man has always found it easier to sacrifice his life than to learn the multiplication table.”

Ashenden himself is an engaging figure; shy, a little detached, full of dry wit, and gradually revealing himself more as the book goes along until towards the end we find out about his love affair with Anastasia Alexandrova. He describes this in a humorous, self-mocking way, but it is still nevertheless very affecting and we become interested in seeing how he will respond when they meet again. The ending of the book is sad and unexpected and left me quite shocked, actually.

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I really enjoyed my first proper excursion into Maugham’s work and if I wasn’t halfway through a readalong, I’d be grabbing another volume off the tbr – highly recommended!

(A word of warning to those of sensitive disposition – and I hate myself for even saying this – the book is of its age and so inevitably displays some racial stereotyping. Ignore this as being something that will displayed in all books from this era, and just enjoy great writing.)