Vintage UK, 2000
originally published 1928
In the preface to Ashenden, Maugham wastes no time in revealing that this book is "founded on my experiences in the Intelligence Department during the war, but rearranged for the purposes of fiction." He later goes on to say that
"the work of an agent in the Intelligence Department is on the whole extremely monotonous. A lot of it is uncommonly useless. The material it offers for stories is scrappy and pointless; the author has himself to make it coherent, dramatic and probable,"
and that is exactly what Maugham does here.
Ashenden was first recruited by a man known only as "the Colonel" or "R," whom he had met at a party, who later in a private meeting noted Ashenden's "particular qualifications for the secret service." His knowledge of different languages was a plus, as was the fact that he was a writer, allowing him the perfect cover -- traveling to a neutral country to work on his latest project, as he was already known for his plays. Once he takes on his duties in intelligence Ashenden's "official existence," as we learn, is "as orderly and monotonous as a city clerk's," but the work he does is "evidently necessary." He knows that he functions as a "tiny rivet in a vast and complicated machine," in which he "never had the advantage of seeing a completed action," most of the time not knowing "what his own doings led to." His main job is to keep an eye on things, listen, and report back to his superiors. Over the course of this book he will find himself involved with a unique array of people, including a strange general known as the Hairless Mexican whose destiny is often told in the cards, an elderly British chaperone to two princesses, an Italian music-hall dancer in love with a seriously-dangerous Indian agitator and "fanatic," and a talkative American who "would not listen to reason." Love and betrayal weave their way through these stories, and while some are a bit on the entertaining side, it is impossible not to be absolutely devastated at the outcomes of a few of the others. What Ashenden has to do is often not pretty, but he never fails in his duty, despite what he feels toward "the bigwigs," who
"shut their eyes to dirty work so that they could put their clean hands on their hearts and congratulate themselves that they had never done anything that was unbecoming to men of honour."Ashenden is a fine book, filled with stories which Maugham handled with a mix of deadly earnest and levity. It is definitely not the edge-of-your-seat stuff of later spy thrillers in which the work of intelligence gathering often becomes life-threatening business, although Maugham makes crystal clear that there are risks involved in what Ashenden does. While his work is "evidently necessary," there is another side to it that comes with very human consequences, which are played out again and again throughout this novel. By the way, feel free to argue that it is not actually a novel -- we'll just agree to disagree on that point.
So very highly recommended -- I loved this book.
What an excellent start to the new reading year!