Once again, here is Selina Hastings on the works of Somerset Maugham:
To the vast majority of his readers, Somerset Maugham has come to be associated with the latter days of the British Empire, and in particular with the British Empire in the Far East. Just as Kipling is identified with India and the Raj, so is Maugham identified with the Malayan archipelago. Those famous tales of his set on rubber estates, on remote outstations, in the card rooms of the local club, those stories of incest and adultery, of sex-starved missionaries and alcoholic planters, of footsteps in the jungle and murder on the veranda, are what remain in the minds of many as the very image and epitome of Maugham’s fictional territory.
Many consider the two collections pictured above as containing some of the best work this author ever did. This is especially true of The Casuarina Tree. This collection is comprised of six stories. Thus far I’ve read three of them: “Before the Party,” “The Letter,” and “The Yellow Streak.” The first two are tales of murder. The setting may be exotic, but the passions aroused and acted upon are all too familiar. In “The Yellow Streak,” Maugham describes what happens when a group of men making their way downriver suddenly encounter a tidal bore. This is a type of tsunami in much narrower quarters than its oceanic counterpart and apparently every bit as terrifying:
In a moment the waves were upon them. It was a great wall of water that seemed to tower over them, and it might have been ten or twelve feet high, but you could measure it only with your horror. It was quite plain that no boat could weather it. The first wave dashed over them, drenching them all, half filling the boat with water, and then immediately another wave struck them. The boatmen began t shout. They pulled madly at their oars and the steersman yelled an order. But in that surging torrent they were helpless, and it was frightening to see how soon they lost all control of the boat. The force of the water turned it broadside on and it was carried along, helter-skelter, upon the crest of the Bore. Another great wave dashed over them and the boat began to sink.
This harrowing description is based on an incident that actually happened to Maugham. It very nearly cost him his life.
In 1911 Ethel Proudlock, wife of a school teacher in Kuala Lumpur, shot and killed one William Steward, manager of a tin mine. The case became a sensation at the time. (A book on the subject, Murder on the Verandah by Eric Lawlor, came out in 1999. The New Statesman’s review contains spoilers, so be aware.) Mrs Proudlock’s lawyer told Maugham about it ten years after the fact, when both were in Kuala Lumpur. Maugham, ever on the alert for good story material, turned it into “The Letter,” which was published in 1927 and has had a remarkable afterlife extending to the present day. Maugham himself turned the narrative into a successful play. Bette Davis starred in the 1940 film. “The Letter” was made into a TV film in 1982 starring Lee Remick. Most recently it became an opera, with music by Paul Moravec and libretto by Terry Teachout. The work premiered at the Sana Fe Opera in 2009.
During the First World War, Maugham worked for British Military Intelligence. His main base of operations was Geneva, but he was also sent on a mission to Russia. He arrived in Petrograd in 1917, plunging, as it were, directly into the eye of the storm. While there, he met Louise Bryant and John Reed, the couple portrayed by Diane Keaton and Warren Beatty in the film Reds. (Reed wrote an eyewitness account of the revolution that went on to become a classic: Ten Days That Shook the World.) Maugham himself invariably played the part of the bon vivant, peripatetic writer, always on the lookout for a good “scoop.” The role provided the perfect cover for him. At one point, while dining with Reed and Bryant, he confided to the latter, assuming his best roguish manner: “‘You won’t reveal you had lunch with a British Secret Agent, will you?'” She found the suggestion risible: “‘It couldn’t have been funnier if he’d said he was an ambassador of the Pope,’ she remarked afterward.”
Maugham drew on his experiences as an agent in the field, primarily in neutral Switzerland and to some extent in Russia, when he wrote the volume of linked stories entitled Ashenden; or, the British Agent. Maugham clearly enjoyed intelligence work. His friend Lord Kenneth Clark said that he spoke of it often: “‘I suppose he liked the light that it shed on human nature.” Maugham’s accounts of Ashenden’s various missions are dispassionate and distinctly unglamorous. He gives credit to acts of courage, but also depicts in an unblinking manner the inevitable hypocrisy and moral ambiguity that attend such work. Selina Hastings comments: “It is this clear-eyed vision that largely accounts for the extraordinary impact that Ashenden made on the writing of espionage fiction.”
Ashenden is out of print and not owned by the local library, so I’m currently reading a large print edition I got through interlibrary loan. I’m loving these stories; they’re atmospheric, cunningly plotted and of course, beautifully written. Like Maugham, his alter ego, Ashenden is a cultured person. In “A Domiciliary Visit,” two large policemen confront Ashenden in his hotel room in Geneva. In his mind he dubs them Fasolt and Fafner, after the giants from Wagner’s Ring operas. In the story “Miss King,” Ashenden is called to the bedside of an extremely old women whom he barely knows:
It gave Ashenden a shock to look at her. She wore a large white cotton night-cap…tied under the chin and a white, voluminous nightdress that came high up in the neck. Night-cap and nightdress belonged to a past age and reminded you of Cruikshank’s illustrations to the novels of Charles Dickens.
(This is one of the few stories in this collection that I feel I didn’t actually “get,” although I was fascinated by it anyway.)
Some quite “fabulous” characters, in the literal sense of the word, come and go in these tales; “The Hairless Mexican” is certainly one of the more memorable among them. At one point, this person, whose actual name is Manuel Carmona, nearly causes Ashenden to miss a crucial rail journey:
When the time drew near for the arrival of the train from Paris that was to take them directly to Rome and the Hairless Mexican did not appear Ashenden, beginning to grow a trifle anxious, went out on the platform to look for him. Ashenden suffered from that distressing malady known as train fever: ann hour before his train was due he began to have apprehensions lest he should miss it; he was impatient with the porters who would never bring his luggage down from his room in time and he could not understand why the hotel bus cut it so fine; a block in the street would drive him to frenzy and the languid movements of the station porters infuriated him….
As I too suffer from “train fever,” I was empathizing powerfully with Ashenden at that moment. As you can probably guess, the Hairless Mexican saunters onto the platform at the last possible moment, acting as though he had not a care in the world. While making conversation on the train (finally!), Ashenden explains that although he is a writer of fiction, he eschews the writing of detective stories:
‘They are very difficult. You need an incredible amount of invention. I devised a murder story once, but the murder was so ingenious that I could never find a way of bringing it home to the murderer, and after all, one of the conventions of the detective story is that the mystery should in the end be solved and the criminal brought to justice.’
This put me in mind of the famous anecdote concerning the movie version of The Big Sleep. Neither the director nor the screenwriters could work out who had murdered the chauffeur. They asked the question of Raymond Chandler, author of the novel, who replied that he didn’t know either! Chandler, by the way, greatly admired Maugham’s work, saying of it: “His plots are cool and deadly and his timing is absolutely flawless.”
Ashenden is included the recent compendium Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads. In her essay for that collection, Melodie Johnson Howe tells us:
In creating the Eton-educated Ashenden, Maugham paved the way for Eric Ambler, Ian Fleming, John Le Carre, and many more. I even see Ashenden in P.D. James’s Inspector Dalgliesh. [And now that she mentions it, so do I.]
Howe makes special mention of the story “Giulia Lazzari,” in which a woman is presented with an extremely stark choice either to betray her lover into enemy hands or herself suffer intolerable consequences. I agree with Howe that this is an exceptionally powerful tale, but I was dismayed by the use of an abominable racial epithet. It is uttered not by Ashenden but by his boss and handler, know only as “R.” Giulia and her beloved come across as the real heroes here.
Howe states in her conclusion:
This group of stories was written on a long-ago era. The element of the ticking time bomb so popular in thriller writing today does not exist in them. But the human element does.
Turns out that the CIA has a highly selective list of best spy novels: “Ashenden or the British Agent is on it.”
(I’ve had no luck finding that list, BTW.)
“Before the Party,” “The Yellow Streak,” and “The Letter” can all be found in Collected Stories by W. Somerset Maugham, from Everyman’s Library. The following stories from Ashenden can be found in this same volume: “Miss King,” “The Hairless Mexican,” “Guilia Lazzari,” “The Traitor,” and “His Excellency.”
One of the great pleasures of Selina Hastings’s biography is the number of famous people from all walks of life that cycle in and out of the narrative. Here are just a few of them:
And there are many, many others…
At the conclusion of this magisterial work, Selina Hastings proclaims W. Somerset Maugham to be “the great teller of tales.” So he was – and Hastings has done a magnificent job of bringing this complex, gifted individual vividly to life.
I’ll let writer and reviewer Diana Athill have the last word: “An impressively perceptive and often moving account of an extraordinarily interesting man.”