Spy Maintenance

I wish I could remember who it was who told me, long ago, before I began that odd extracurricular summer pursuit (an annual marathon through the John le Carré oeuvre, book by book, in order of publication). Was it the old CIA man, his legs rendered useless by the polio passed to him by an East German defector? Or the even older CIA hand, an OSS legend, orchestrator of the famed parachuters’ drop behind the Iron Curtain? I’m sure it was one of them, an omnivore of the genre seasoned by decades in the dark arts, who offered the pro tip: “Ashenden, begin with him.”

I did, and it did. As readers of Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, and le Carré know, without Ashenden (peerless subtitle: Or the British Agent), the W. Somerset Maugham collection of sixteen stories, written in 1927, little of what we now call the literature of espionage—whether supermarket thrillers (Len Deighton, Frederick Forsyth) or the highbrow stuff (Ian Fleming, Alan Furst, Joseph Kanon)—would have come to pass.

In the Amazon age, Maugham is, sadly, nearly forgotten. This, a man who had four plays on the London stage at once, a master of the story form (his “Rain” sold so well, and for so long, it reaped $1 million in royalties) whose roomful of writings—he published seventy-eight books in his ninety-one years—yielded more than three dozen film adaptations, with at least two, Of Human Bondage and The Razor’s Edge, readapted decades later. But Ashenden stands alone. “I suppose,” le Carré has said, conceding a rare measure of influence, “that Maugham was the first person to write about espionage in a mood of disenchantment and almost prosaic reality.” In Alec Leamas, the spy made famous for leaving the cold, there is much of Maugham’s secret agent. And the bloodline runs on: to James Bond, if not Jason Bourne, and even the best of the espionage drama now streaming on demand in multiple languages on America’s screens.

Maugham seems anything but modern. Born in 1874, he was well into his fourth novel when Queen Victoria departed—and he died more than fifty years ago. Yet he was an expert, in life and in his writing, in the twin arts that the British perfected over the past century: secrecy and treachery. Like many who followed, he had the schooling: The stories, “founded on my experiences in the Intelligence Department” during WWI, as Maugham warned in a prefatory confession, offered greater truth than reality. “Fact is a poor story-teller,” he wrote. “It has no sense of climax and whittles away its dramatic effects in irrelevance.” The life of a spy, as honest veterans will confess, is, he wrote, “on the whole extremely monotonous. A lot of it is uncommonly useless.” (We know little of Ashenden’s past—only that his “particular qualifications” caught the eye of London’s spies: As a writer “acquainted with several European languages” he can travel under the pretext of a rootless literary life.) Yet Maugham, master of character, pacing, and denouement—he’d made his career as a dramatist—does mood as no one else. He also laces the stories with a bone-dry irony that lends them a currency unsurpassed among his peers (who reads John Galsworthy, let alone Hugh Walpole, anymore?). As Maugham deadpans, of his own 1917 spy mission: “I was sent to prevent the Bolshevik revolution. . . . The reader will know that my efforts did not meet with success.”

The stories, connected by the leading man, Mitteleuropa, the fog, and little else, beguile. There are the titles: “R.,” “Mr. Harrington’s Washing,” “The Flip of a Coin.” The cast: “a Bengali in the German service” (recently arrived from Berlin “with a black cane trunk in which were a number of documents interesting to the British Government”), Baroness von Higgins (an Austrian who had settled in Geneva “during the first winter of the war”), “Prince Ali and the Pasha” (“those wild gamblers”). And the preposterous rhythmic turns—“He chanced soon after his arrival to go to a party and was there introduced to a middle-aged Colonel whose name he did not catch”—italics added to mark the cadence of circumstance.

Above all, the stories bring forth the revelatory vignettes of tedium, less ennui than ineptitude, of the spy-in-action, naked in uncommon honesty:

Ashenden sighed, for the water was no longer quite so hot; he could not reach the tap with his hand nor could he turn it with his toes (as every properly regulated tap should turn) and if he got up enough to add more hot water he might just as well get out altogether. On the other hand he could not pull out the plug with his foot in order to empty the bath and so force himself to get out, nor could he find in himself the willpower to step out of it like a man.

Of Maugham’s own influences, Chekhov he acknowledged, Gogol he did not. Yet this most British of novelists owed a debt to the Russians. He writes of a Trans-Siberian train trip, and a scene on a platform—a blind soldier on a bench—that haunted him, darkening the stories: “I daresay he wasn’t eighteen. . . . His closed eyes gave him a strangely vacant look; already he did not seem quite human.” As the train waited, he sang and played accordion. “I could not understand his words,” Maugham wrote, “but through his singing, wild and melancholy, I seemed to hear the cry of the oppressed.” “I felt the horror of war, the bitter nights in the trenches, the long marches on muddy roads, the battlefield with its terror and anguish and death.” Passengers filled a cap with coins: “The same emotion had seized them all, of boundless compassion and of vague horror.”

Maugham famously led a double life. He preferred to call himself “three-quarters normal, one-quarter queer.” (The truth, he noted, was more likely “the other way around.”) After marrying (for a time), he moved to Europe—ensconcing himself in the villa in Cap Ferrat, a famous lair—while his wife and child (fruit of scandal) remained in London. It was abroad that he perfected the role that has outlived his work: imperious émigré writer, surrounded by a succession of young lovers, cast of famous courtiers, and a daily regimen at his desk that would be the envy of generations.

Maugham, like le Carré, reveled in the power of creating the world anew; spy-craft and fiction, they tell us, have much in common. And in a world of duplicities, the genre will endure. “There will always be espionage and there will always be counter-espionage,” Maugham writes. “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.” Therein lies Maugham’s ever-modern authority, a truth-in-fiction that stands as his one surviving open secret.

Andrew Meier is at work on a biography of Robert M. Morgenthau and four generations of his family.