R. finished and looked at Ashenden with a gleam in his close-set eyes.
'Dramatic, isn't it?' he asked.
'Do you mean to say that happened the other day?'
'The week before last.'
'Impossible,' cried Ashenden. 'Why, we've been putting that incident on the stage for sixty years, we've written it in a thousand novels. Do you mean to say that life has only just caught up with us?'
'Ashenden, or, The British Agent' by W. Somerset Maugham, is a book based upon Somerset Maugham's own experiences as a spy in Switzerland during WWI, which is remarkable for being the first collection of published spy stories written by someone who has actually done the job. Already a celebrated writer in 1914, Somerset Maugham's cover as a writer who was in various European locales for research and relaxation was inspired, but I do wonder at the logic of dispatching a writer on your most secret missions, and then expecting them to stay entirely secret. This collection was first published in 1928, so I do wonder if a little 10-years-of-silence deal was done before he was made privy to the establishment's inner workings.
The book itself is arranged in 16 chapters,which sometimes are loose episodes strung together chronologically, in the traditional manner, and are at other times short story-like, having left the previous narrative where it was to jump to another time, situation and place. There's a very interesting treatise in the prologue about how facts must be treated and strung together with embellishments to make the stories intelligible and entertaining for others, which is a wonderfully knowing way for Somerset Maugham to garner complete denial ability for who in this book is real and for what is actually true.
It seems, on the whole, espionage work a century ago was, by turns, dull and bureaucratic, and then dark, thrilling and ridiculous, with the emphasis being on the former, although the latter makes up more of the material for his prose. He encounters, in the course of the book, a hairless Mexican, a dying English nanny to two Egyptian Princesses, any number of French farmer's wives carrying secret messages in their bosoms and an endlessly chattering American on the train to Petrograd with an interest in his own laundry bordering on the hysterical. It's a bit less flash than Bond, let's say.
The narrator and Ashenden (as he is described in third person) are both witty and urbane, which is not surprising when they are really the same person, and are delightfully detached enough to sing up the eccentric threats and banality they encounter in these unique and strange people and places with a wry and disinterested eye. It's very funny (Ashenden asserts throughout that in his civilian life, he is a 'humorist') and very dark, and he occasionally finds the absurd in what for some is a tragedy, such as dwelling on grim tableau of a dog howling as a widow realises why her husband hasn't been writing to her, and then strolling out quite impassively even though he had built up relationships with both of them and then had had a direct input into his death.
Also, there's a passage in the second to last chapter of this book, concerning a Russian woman called Anastacia Alexandrovna and her insistence upon scrambled eggs that had me laughing with a snorting passion, not least because I've been acting in a very similar way for a good portion of my adult life.
A very good book. In the Vintage edition from 2000, which is the one I had, a typewriter-esque font has been used throughout, which is wonderfully atmospheric.
Title: Ashenden, or The British Agent
Author: W. Somerset Maugham
Date: 2000; original edition, 1928
Format: Paperback, 326 pages, and it was a gift.