Sunday, 14 September 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Ashenden by W Somerset Maugham

published 1928



LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES





[Ashenden and his friends are caught up in the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917, and there is fighting in the streets]

‘Well, what happened to the old woman?’ asked Ashenden.

‘… she was bleeding dreadfully and we had some difficulty in staunching the blood.’

Anastasia Alexandrovna gave Mr Harrington an odd look and to his surprise Ashenden saw him turn scarlet.

‘What’s the matter now?’

‘You see, we had nothing to bind her up with. Mr Harrington’s handkerchief was soaked. There was only one thing about me that I could get off quickly and so I took off my…’

But before she could finish Mr Harrington interrupted her.

‘You need not tell Mr Ashenden what you took off. I’m a married man and I know ladies wear them, but I see no need to refer to them in general society.’

Anastasia Alexandrovna giggled…

When [she] had left them Mr Harrington sat in a brown study.

‘They’re very queer, these Russians. Do you know what she did?’ he said suddenly. ‘She stood up in the cab, in the middle of the street, with people passing on both sides,and took her pants off. She tore them in two and gave me one to hold while she made a bandage of the other. I was never so embarrassed in my life.’







observations: From WSM's introduction to this book: "In 1917 I went to Russia. I was sent to prevent the Bolshevik Revolution and to keep Russia in the war. The reader will know that my efforts did not meet with success." How can you not love Somerset Maugham? 
I’m a big fan of his – click on the label below to see more entries – and enjoyed this book as a period piece.

It was especially interesting to look at spy stories written almost 90 years apart - last week we had The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer. This one is a very early example of a spy story, based on Maugham's own experiences, and is a collection of linked stories, told in a leisurely manner. It’s never very clear when a thread has finished - you wonder if the (surviving) characters are going to come back later. 

You can clearly see which bits of spy fiction he bequeathed to his successors, and of course he didn’t know that he was one of the first practitioners of the genre – occasionally he wanders off into a sub-story that has no connection with spying, but that’s fair enough in the circumstances, even if an author wouldn’t do that now.

A trope that has lived on is this:  occasionally Ashenden is more sentimental than you might expect, and on other occasions he (or another character) is more ruthless. And the reader is supposed to be surprised by both these things. Also, when he is recruited, Ashenden is assured that he will get no thanks if he is successful, and no help if he fails. This is a common theme in older stories, and I have never understood why this is an attractive or workable idea. You’d think you might offer the spies something.

The narration is quite flat and basic, but as ever Maugham can tell a great story, and create terrific characters. I have said before that Maugham is particularly good with his female characters, and Anastasia Alexandrovna, above, is a revolutionary with strong political principles, but she is also funny, impulsive, annoying, dissolute and conscience-less. I cannot think of a single other book where someone with her political views is given such a rounded personality – she makes you realize just how badly-drawn left-wing women tend to be in books, certainly of that era. They tend to be humourless and either over-perfect or stupid and ruthless.

There is also a rather splendid Spanish dancer in the book (who is really Italian) who goes through agonies of indecision having to choose between jail and betraying her lover.

The pictures are from Wikimedia Commons.

20 comments:

  1. I wish I had read this book when I was in my Somerset Maugham reading jag during my youth. I read several books by him, but don't remember this one, and I would have remembered a character like Anastasia Alexandrovna -- and her exploits with her underwear.

    Hilarious. (And, thankfully, no girdle was involved in this feat.)

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    1. When you mentioned WSM the other day I thought of this upcoming post. I really enjoyed this book, and Anastasia is a great character, very sensible and practical when it matters, and fun the rest of the time.

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  2. Moira - What an interesting choice of his work! Among many other things, it shows the way spy stories have changed over the last decades. And I do like the insight into the times. As you say - a really solid period piece. It conjures up very clear mental images too. And Anastasia is a breath of fresh air for the times.

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    1. He is dismissed as a very middlebrow writer, and I think he's better than that - but anyway, anyone who can write good women characters is someone I'm going to like.

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  3. And enjoyed what you said about the portrayal of Anastasia, as a left-wing woman, and it's not negative. Now that's interesting.

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    1. I think some left-wing women are not portrayed as negative, but they are very rarely shown as having a sense of humour, or any kind of lighter side - Anastasia is selfish, and a bit of a drama queen, and I thought that was rather unusual, and fun.

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  4. Moira, it's such a wonderful experience to be able to read classical authors like Maugham. I have not read his books in years. What I like about authors like Maugham is that even if at times I don't enjoy their stories, I like their style of writing.

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    1. Yes indeed. And he is good, you should try him some time.

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  5. The Ashenden stories are like shaggy dog stories - they end with a whimper. Sometimes you wonder what the point was. I love Maugham. He wasn't flowery, and wrote as people speak. Wouldn't have won the Booker.

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    1. I know what you mean, but I quite liked that about them, they are so very un-thriller-ish, so very much not what the spy story became. And so agree - so readable, and such a good writer.

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  6. I am a big Maugham fan (just about the re-read the various prose and drama iteration of THE LETTER) and really enjoyed your 'specialised' take on this (somehow the whole underwear angle completely passed me by) - did you ever see the BBC adaptation starring Alex Jennings in the title role? Really good but sadly unavailable on home video.

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    1. I'll really look forward to your blogpost on that Sergio - Bette Davis with a malevolent look, rattling her knitting needles. I wasn't at all aware of the BBC adaptation, but I'd have thought Alex Jennings would be perfect.

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  7. I had this on my radar in the past, but didn't ever follow through on getting it, let alone reading it. Maybe one day.

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    1. It's nothing like your average modern hard-boiled spy thriller, but it has its moments.

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  8. Love this, Moira!
    Michael Gilbert's Calder and Behrens stories must have influenced by these. The too are both ruthless and sentimental in ways you do begin to anticipate after a bit. And they also funny. They are very good.

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    1. Thanks Chrissie. I've read a good few Gilberts, but not I think those ones, I must check them out.

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  9. I love this passage - gorgeously embarrassing for nearly all concerned. I enjoyed these stories a lot - and as you say, it's fascinating to look at where the modern spy story came from. I'm currently reading 'Rogue Male' (1939) which sometimes (actually, often) seems to be more about the English countryside than the chase. It gives one's (later) expectations a bit of a shake-up: fast, violent action doesn't have to dominate this genre.

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    1. Yes, it's interesting to look at the books through historical eyes isn't it, and in the knowledge of the books that were to come. Rogue Male is a book I have been meaning to read for at least 30 years - you'll have to tell me if I should finally make the effort.

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  10. Sounds very interesting, and I shall look into it.

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    1. It's not your action-filled, can't-put-it-down spy thriller, but I think you might be interested because of its place in the history of spy stories.

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