Wednesday 5 March 2014

Ashenden, or, The British Agent (1928): W. Somerset Maugham's Preface to the 1934 Heinemann Collected Edition and 1941 Doubleday Edition; Book Review

NB: Linked in this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

W. Somerset Maugham's Ashenden, or, The British Agent is for me a fairly recent discovery. Despite my having become interested in spy fiction well over three years ago, and despite Ashenden being arguably the most important work in the field, I only encountered it earlier this year when I read two of the connected stories which make up the book in two different spy fiction anthologies – Alfred Hitchcock's Sinister Spies and the Eric Ambler-compiled To Catch a Spy, both published in the mid-1960s. The story in the former was "The Traitor" (actually comprising two stories from Ashenden: "Gustav" and "The Traitor"); I described it in my review – if I may be so gauche as to quote myself – as "one of the best pieces of spy fiction I've ever come across – almost languorous in pace and yet packing an emotional punch that's uncommon in the field of espionage writing", adding for good measure: "It's a beautifully judged, wonderfully written tale." The story in the latter was "Giulia Lazzari" (again comprising two stories from Ashenden: "A Trip to Paris" and "Giulia Lazzari"); that one I reckoned was "every bit as remarkable" and "at least as affecting as... 'The Traitor'", gushing over "the elegance and clarity of the prose".

Having been bowled over by those two tales, I determined to get my hands on the complete Ashenden, preferably in an interesting and/or scarce edition (I know, I know: I despair of myself sometimes too; why can't I just buy a new paperback off Amazon like everyone else?). A jacketed copy of the Heinemann first edition/first impression, published in March 1928, was beyond my means – those run into the thousands of pounds – but as I researched editions of Ashenden I learned that Maugham had penned a preface for the book, one which wasn't present in the earliest impressions of the Heinemann first. (Eric Ambler alluded to this preface in his introduction to To Catch a Spy when he wrote that "Ashenden was based, as Mr Maugham has told us, on his own experiences as a British agent in Switzerland and Russia during the 1914–18 war.") A true first of Ashenden was out of the question, but perhaps I could obtain the earliest edition to include Maugham's preface.

As it turned out, that wasn't as straightforward a task as I'd hoped, because there are in fact two versions of the preface. The first version appeared here:

In the Heinmann Collected Edition of Ashenden. The copy seen here is the 1934 first appearance of Ashenden in the Collected Edition of the Works of W. Somerset Maugham (it would be reprinted thereafter), which also represented the first reset of the book following various reprints and Cheaper Editions and Popular Editions (and, in the same year as the Collected Edition, a Collins 7D edition).

As such, it's quite a rare book; this was the only copy I could find with a complete dust jacket (and both book and wrapper are in lovely condition too, especially considering they're 80 years old), and even jacketless copies are thin on the ground. Fortunately, interested parties need not go to the lengths I did to read the 1934 version of the preface because it was reprinted in the 2000 Vintage paperback edition of Ashenden, and can even be viewed in large part via Amazon's 'search inside' facility.

The preface is essentially Maugham's thoughts on fact versus fiction and the vogue for fiction – still prevalent – which attempts to replicate the "arbitrary and disconnected" nature of life. He tells us little of his experiences as an agent for the British Intelligence Department during World War I beyond imparting a grim anecdote about a train journey through Russia in 1917; instead he writes of how "[f]act is a poor storyteller" which "starts a story at haphazard" and "rambles on inconsequentially and tails off, leaving loose ends hanging about, without a conclusion", adding that "[t]here is a school of novelists that looks upon this as the proper model for fiction". Evidently Maugham didn't number himself among them: 

There is nothing wrong in a climax, it is a very natural demand of the reader; it is only wrong if it does not follow naturally from the circumstances that have gone before. It is purely an affectation to elude it because in life as a general rule things tail off ineffectively. For it is quite unnecessary to treat as axiomatic the assertion that fiction should imitate life. It is merely a literary theory like another. There is in fact a second theory that is just as plausible, and this is that fiction should use life merely as raw material which it arranges in ingenious patterns.

He goes on: 

I have written all this in order to impress upon the reader that this book is a work of fiction, though from my own experience I should say not much more so than several of the books on the same subject that have appeared during the last few years and that purport to be truthful memoirs. 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.

That's basically it for insight into Intelligence work in the first version of the preface. However, the second version of the preface boasts an additional three paragraphs, in which Maugham elaborates on the nature of espionage. It first appeared here:

In the 1941 printing of the 1928 US Doubleday edition, issued under a new dust jacket design (uncredited, but rather lovely) in the year America joined the Second World War. I picked this battered copy up on eBay dead cheap simply so I could read those three extra paragraphs, and they are quite revealing in a number of ways. Maugham notes that when World War II broke out, "...thinking that the experience I had might be useful, I was eager to rejoin the Intelligence Department, but I was considered too old to be worth employment". He reflects on how during World War I "the nationals of neutral countries were allowed considerable liberty of movement and it was possible by their means to get much useful information", whereas in 1941 "...the authorities are watchful and it would go ill with any alien who displayed unseasonable curiosity". He continues: 

I take it that the success of such an organization as the Intelligence Department depends much on the character of its chief, and certainly during the last war this position in Britain was held by a man of brilliant ability and resource. I wish I could give a description of him, but I never saw him and knew him only by an initial. I know nothing about him except what I surmise from some of the results he achieved.

This is interesting because in Ashenden, our eponymous novelist-turned-spy lead – whose Christian name, incidentally, is never revealed, although Maugham's 1930 novel Cakes and Ale is narrated by a William Ashenden, also a writer, and in the 1936 Alfred Hitchcock film adaptation Secret Agent he's named as Richard and in the 1991 BBC television adaptation as John – meets his Intelligence boss, the cunning R., a number of times in the book. But then as Maugham states in the opening line of his preface, "This book is founded on my experiences in the Intelligence Department during the last war, but rearranged for the purposes of fiction."

Maugham writes in closing:

But there will always be espionage and there will always be counter-espionage. Though conditions may have altered, though difficulties may be greater, when war is raging, there will always be secrets which one side jealously guards and which the other will use every means to discover; there will always be men who from malice or for money will betray their kith and kin and there will always be men who, from love of adventure or a sense of duty, will risk a shameful death to secure information valuable to their country. Though twenty years have passed since these stories were written I cannot think they are entirely out of date, since till quite recently, I am told, they have been required reading for persons entering the Department; and early in this war Dr Goebbels speaking over the air, taking one of them as a literal statement of recent facts, gave it as an example of British cynicism and brutality.

But it is not for any topical interest they may have, not because they have been used as a sort of textbook, that I now offer to the public a new edition of these stories. They purpose only to offer entertainment, which I still think, impenitently, is the main object of a work of fiction.

Eric Ambler in his introduction to To Catch a Spy called Ashenden "the first fictional work on the subject [espionage] by a writer of stature with first-hand knowledge of what he is writing about", adding, "...there has been no body of work in the field of the same quality written since Ashenden." Ambler wrote those words in 1964, but fifty years on I'd suggest you could still reasonably make the same claim. It's probably a little early in 2014 to be talking about books of the year, but I'll be astonished if I read a better piece of fiction over the remainder of the year. It is an extraordinary novel – for, despite its episodic nature, that is in essence what it is – "The Traitor" and "Giulia Lazzari" matched by the triumvirate of "The Hairless Mexican"/"The Dark Woman"/"The Greek", with its deliciously subversive payoff, and even by the later tales like "His Excellency" and "Love and Russian Literature", which on the surface seemingly have little to do with espionage but deal with the same themes of betrayal and affairs of the heart that inform the earlier tales. Certainly I doubt I'll read a more devastating coda this year than the closing "Mr. Harrington's Washing".

It's fitting, therefore, that Ashenden, and in particular the 1934 Heinemann Collected Edition (my copy of which sports a fetching ex-libris bookplate) should form the basis of this prolix blog post, which is my nine hundred and ninety-ninth. Because in the next post – my thousandth, for those nodding off at the back – I'll be taking a look at the books which (to my fevered mind) have come to define Existential EnnuiAshenden being a late entry onto that list.