Ashenden, or The British Agent

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Ashenden, or The British Agent by W Somerset Maugham.

Maugham Ashenden

I’m surprised that it took me so long to find my way to Ashenden or the British Agent, W. Somerset Maugham’s espionage tales rooted in his own experiences of the First World War. Having read it now, I can see its ideas, tropes, and styles revived in all of the key Cold War spy novels I’ve read, including those by Deighton and Fleming. Even Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana is something of an expanded and reoriented take on the “Gustav” chapter in Ashenden. Curiously, this 1928 book set during the previous war foreshadows the Cold War by concluding with the English spy’s firsthand view of the October Revolution.

The protagonist Ashenden is somewhat modeled on the author, so he is a literary man recruited into the British intelligence service. He spends much of the book in neutral Switzerland, where he writes a play while supported by his spy work. Ashenden is valued by his organization as a judge of character more than a man of action. As a result, the book teems with diverse and carefully-drawn personalities. There is a good deal of humor, all of it very dry.

There is an acute awareness of the nature of intelligence work as being that of a cog in a machine, never seeing the ultimate origins or outcomes of one’s labors, and this sensibility has an impact on the structure and pacing of the book. The chapters are short and unnumbered. Each has a dramatic unity of its own, and they are in chronological sequence, but there is no sense of a grand plot arc embracing the book as a whole. Often, the question that a chapter seems to have been posing with increasing intensity throughout finally goes unanswered–for the reader, if not for Ashenden himself.