Ashenden by W. Somerset Maugham

This colourful entertainment is based on concrete fact. However, it is completely preposterous. The contradiction between the historical and the absurd is one of several in the uneven text. For some readers, the self-conscious nature of the writer can be seen as a redeeming feature.

Certainly, Maugham sets out his anti-realist agenda clearly. He attacks the work of the imitators of Chekhov. For them, a story could be about a moment, an atmosphere or a character. Taking the reader towards truth or beauty was their objective. In contrast, Maugham worshipped plot. His Ashenden tales have obvious beginnings and middles, clear arcs and sharp climaxes. Style aside, the Maugham philosophy hit huge problems politically.

As a patriotic spy, Maugham lacked the empathy essential for the production of high art. His brutality, snobbishness, misogyny and nationalism undermined his real gifts. The basic things which saved him from simplistic cruelty were his sense of humour and his hard work:

“It was a fact that he could talk with interest to persons commonly thought so excruciatingly dull that their fellows fled from them as though they owed them money. It may be that here he was but indulging the professional instinct that was seldom dormant in him; they, his raw material, did not bore him any more than fossils bore the geologist.”

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