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Ashenden, or, The British Agent (1928)

por W. Somerset Maugham

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8642619,164 (3.72)76
A celebrated writer by the time the war broke out in 1914, Somerset Maugham was dispatched by the Secret Service to Lucerne - under the guise of completing a play. An assignment whose danger and drama appealed both to his sense 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 absurdity.… (mais)
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Some brilliant bits, powerful,great character studies....but very dull passages too. ( )
  SarahKDunsbee | Aug 2, 2021 |
This is a collection of stories that draws heavily on Maugham’s experiences as a writer doing espionage work in Switzerland during the First World War. Some say that Ashenden, a sort of alter ego for Maugham, is the precursor to James Bond, but I found a bit more of le Carré in him, in the portrayal of sad, desperate people scrabbling to get their secrets sold and save their skins.

There were moments of comedy—the Odd Couple pairing of Ashenden and Mr. Harrington had me definitely on Team Ashenden—and moments of pathetic sadness, as in the story the ambassador told Ashenden about “a friend” who wasted his youth by chasing after a dancer and then marrying a woman he grew to despise. I liked the Switzerland part of the book best, then the Russian part, even though I felt Ashenden to be a bit out of character when falling for Anastasia.

I’d cautiously recommend this if you like early 20th-century stories and particularly if you want to explore the earliest spy stories. ( )
  rabbitprincess | Feb 18, 2021 |
This is a compelling, although rather chilly, collection of loosely connected short stories following the intelligence work of Ashenden, a writer turned spy for the British government during World War I. The stories are based on Maugham's own work during the war and are frequently cited as a main influence on the character of James Bond. Ashenden (and, probably, Maugham) has an approach to spy work that is both playful and serious. He brings a writer's power of observation to his interactions with intelligence agents, fellow spies (both friendly and unfriendly), and targets. His descriptions of characters are evocative and detailed, sometimes funny, and (as you might imagine) occasionally more than a little racist and sexist. The plots sometimes get bogged down in the parade of closely observed characters, but are generally paced well. I'm not sure why Maugham decided to end the collection with the story that he did, but my goodness this thing has a rough ending. Maugham was one of the most popular writers of the 20s and 30s, and this is a good time capsule of that style. Worth reading, but probably not essential unless you are a spy novel type. ( )
  kristykay22 | Nov 12, 2020 |
I'm surprised that it took me so long to find my way to Ashenden or the British Agent, W. Somerset Maugham's espionage tales rooted in his own experiences of the First World War. Having read it now, I can see its ideas, tropes, and styles revived in all of the key Cold War spy novels I've read, including those by Deighton and Fleming. Even Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana is something of an expanded and reoriented take on the "Gustav" chapter in Ashenden. Curiously, this 1928 book set two generations earlier than the Cold War foreshadows it by concluding with the English spy's firsthand view of the October Revolution.

The protagonist Ashenden is somewhat modeled on the author, so he is a literary man recruited into the British intelligence service. He spends much of the book in neutral Switzerland, where he writes a play while supported by his spy work. Ashenden is valued by his organization as a judge of character more than a man of action. As a result, the book teems with diverse and carefully-drawn personalities. There is a good deal of humor, all of it very dry.

There is an acute awareness of the nature of intelligence work as being that of a cog in a machine, never seeing the ultimate origins or outcomes of one's labors, and this sensibility has an impact on the structure and pacing of the book. The chapters are short and unnumbered. Each has a dramatic unity of its own, and they are in chronological sequence, but there is no sense of a grand plot arc embracing the book as a whole. Often, the question that a chapter seems to have been posing with increasing intensity throughout finally goes unanswered--for the reader, if not for Ashenden himself.
5 vote paradoxosalpha | Feb 21, 2019 |
This is volume three of Maugham's collected short stories. In this volume he has placed his stories that have the same protagonist, Ashendan, who is recruited to move to Switzerland where he will be a contact for British agents and an observer of German agents. In some of the incidents, he is successful but in others he or his assistants fail.

In "The Traitor" he must entice a German agent to leave the safety of Switzerland to go to England where he will be arrested and shot for being a traitor. As he becomes close to the man, he almost hopes he is not successful in tricking him.

In Mr. Harrington's Washing" he travels across Russia by train in the days leading up to the Revolution accompanied by an American salesman. They are Petrograd when the Bolsheviks take over. The American refuses to believe he is in danger and refuses to leave until he gets his clothes back from the laundry which turns out to be deadly mistake.

Maugham claimed that working in the Secret Service was mostly boring and that these stories were based on his experiences as an agent. ( )
  lamour | Mar 31, 2018 |
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Maugham, W. SomersetAutorautor principaltodas as ediçõesconfirmado
Peccinotti, HarriCover photographautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
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It was not till the beginning of September that Ashenden, a writer by profession, who had been abroad at the outbreak of the war, managed to get back to England.
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Death so often chooses its moments without consideration.
. . . man has always found it easier to sacrifice his life than to learn the multiplication table.
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 will-power to step out of it like a man. He had often heard people tell him that he possessed character and he reflected that people judge hastily in the affairs of life because they judge on insufficient evidence: they had never seen him in a hot, but diminishingly hot, bath.
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A celebrated writer by the time the war broke out in 1914, Somerset Maugham was dispatched by the Secret Service to Lucerne - under the guise of completing a play. An assignment whose danger and drama appealed both to his sense 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 absurdity.

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