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When war broke out in 1914, Somerset Maugham was dispatched by the British Secret Service to Switzerland under the guise of completing a play. Multilingual, knowledgeable about many European countries, and a celebrated writer, Maugham had the perfect cover, and the assignment appealed to his love of romance, and of the ridiculous.
The stories collected in Ashenden are rooted in Maugham's own experiences as an agent, reflecting the ruthlessness and brutality of espionage, its intrigue and treachery, as well as its absurdity.
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a jolly gay time at the spying business
as the author notes, right at the beginning, this set of stories is loosely based on his own experiences in the british secret service during world war one. now maugham is a very readable author, even at his unreadable worst, by which i mean to say that it is entirely possible to be bored by him and even put to sleep by him, but he's never bad company. his short stories, some of which run to 40 pages or so, are almost never boring, even if they are pretty predictable. they were written for the common man or common hausfrau of the times, and so they are rarely risking giving you a mental blow-out. his best stories are the spy stories about the writer/agent "ashenden", which together form a terrific spy novel. it's easy to see how this book formed the template from which eric ambler and ian fleming would take their inspiration for their respective spies. well, on the other hand it must also be said that at the time when maugham wrote these stories both the readers and the author were pretty discreet about some matters, such as their homosexuality, whereas a modern reader can't help but notice that all these characters in the book are manifest closet gays. well, much the same could be said about the characters in thomas mann's novels and stories, but "ashenden"'s 40 pages at the sanatorium beat mann's 1000-or-so pages of the "magic mountain" hands down, so don't allow this observation to ruin the fun for you. this IS a terrific book, and the audio reader here does it justice, very nicely. of course at some later date you should try and read it yourself. as i was saying, maugham is always very pleasant company, and this is probably the best place to start getting acquainted with him.
1 person found this helpful
- Alex Jeffrey SC
Ashenden has always been one of my favorite Somerset Maugham books. This book underscored my enjoyment of the prose. It was beautifully narrated by Christopher Oxford. I would highly recommend it.
- Pierre Gauthier
This work is apparently based on the author’s personal experiences as a spy during World War I. Certainly, the various episodes that are included have a ring of truth. From a 21st century North American point of view, they also evoke a nostalgia worthy at times of say Agatha Christie or Downton Abbey.
However, the work does not really constitute a novel as there is no overall plot and almost no connection between the various vignettes except the presence of Ashenden, the main character.
Though the various characters are colourful and the mini-plots interesting, a general darkness overshadows the work. Indeed, almost all the stories abruptly conclude in death. Ashenden himself does not seem to have any qualms in this respect … or in any others. Indeed, he seems detached from humanity with neither family nor personal friends and simply displays a blind (and rather stupid) trust to the orders he receives from R, his mysterious superior.
In the audio version, the narrator is exceptionally good with a calm, collected voice that perfectly fits the tone of the work. Though many French words are correctly pronounced, it would have been preferable for him to systematically verify things with a francophone as some, such as ‘migraine’, come out as gibberish.
For the listener of the audio version, one stretch is quite ironic as Ashenden lengthily criticizes those who listen to books read out loud rather than reading them for themselves.