The Good Soldier Švejk, Part Two: At The Front by Jaroslav Hašek (1922)

In Volume One of The Good Soldier Švejk we were introduced to the implacably calm, unflappable anti-hero Josef Švejk, placid and middle-aged denizen of Prague under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a former soldier discharged on the grounds of incurable idiocy.

Volume One chronicles Švejk’s various difficulties with the authorities until, towards the end, he is called up to rejoin the army at the outbreak World War One, is assigned to one Lieutenant Lukáš of the 91st Imperial and Royal Infantry Regiment as his batman and, right at the end of Volume One, they are both ordered off to the Eastern Front to fight against the Russians.

In other words, if you only want to read about Švejk’s adventures in the actual war, you could easily skip Volume One.

The plot

Chapter 1 Švejk’s misadventures on the train

The story resumes with the Good Soldier Švejk already in trouble with his boss, because he’s mislaid some of his luggage as they entrain for the Front. In a gesture of typical dimness, Švejk was left to guard it but got bored and went to tell Lieutenant Lukáš it was all safe and sound but when he’d got back discovered someone had nicked one of the cases.

Once aboard the train, Švejk gets into trouble again. He speaks very freely back to Lieutenant Lukáš, and then makes some rude comments about the bald-headed old man who’s sharing their train compartment… until the old man erupts in a fury and reveals that he is Major-General von Schwarzburg and proceeds to give Lukáš a rocket. Trembling, Lukáš tells Švejk to get lost so the harmless dimwit wanders down the corridor to the guards van, where he gets chatting to the railwayman about the alarm signal and next thing they know, they have pulled it and the whole train comes to a thundering halt.

Švejk and the railwayman pull the emergency chain

Švejk is identified as the culprit, and at the next station is taken off the train to report to the station master and be fined. While this is taking place, the train puffs off and Švejk is left on his own, with no luggage and – crucially – no documentation, pass and identification, as it’s all with the Lieutenant.

A sympathetic crowd gathers round Švejk and one offers to pay his 20 crown fine and gives him the name of some useful contacts if he ever finds himself captured by the Russians. When he discovers that Švejk doesn’t even have a train ticket to catch up with his regiment, he gives him ten crowns to buy another.

A lot of the power of the novel comes from the circumstantial details: thus in this fairly simple little scene

  1. we are shown civilians sympathising with soldiers who they think are being harassed and bullied (from which we deduce that soldiers being bullied was a common sight)
  2. but at the same time a gendarmerie sergeant descends on the crowd and arrests someone (a master butcher, it turns out) who he claims was traducing the emperor (a typical example of the heavy-handed and over-officious attitude of the authorities which Hašek documents throughout the book)
  3. and in another detail, although none of the customers in the third-class bar where Švejk goes for a drink, saw the scene of his fine they have all made up far-fetched stories about how a spy had just been arrested or a soldier had a duel with someone about his lady love – in other words typical wartime paranoia and scaremongering

My point is that many of the scenes involving Švejk also feature bystanders, customers in pubs, other people in the police station or his cell, cops who take him back and forward, and then the numerous other soldiers he meets. It is a very sociable book, it has many walk-on parts for all kinds of men and women and this slowly builds up the impression of a whole world, a world in which people make up rumours, get arbitrarily arrested, help each other out or get shouted at by angry stationmasters.

Lots of the scenes involve or end with one of the central themes, which is Booze. More or less everyone drinks, often to excess. Švejk is continually ducking into pubs for a quick one, continually making friends with complete strangers over a jar. And thus it is that this scene ends with Švejk blithely drinking away the ten crowns the nice man gave him to buy a train ticket with, in the company of another war-weary fellow soldier, a Hungarian who doesn’t speak Czech or German, but conveys his unhappiness at having to abandon his three children with no income and nothing to eat.

Military Police turn up and drag Švejk before a young lieutenant at the nearby army barracks who is in a bad mood because he’s chatting up the girl in the telegraphy office who keeps turning him down (p.235).

Švejk recounts his story to date with such blank idiocy that the lieutenant (as so often happens) is disarmed enough not to charge him with anything, but has him taken back to the station and put on the next train to rejoin his regiment at České Budějovice (the capital city of South Bohemia) where the 91st regiment and Lieutenant Lukáš were heading.

But the escort and Švejk are back ten minutes later because the stationmaster won’t sell him a ticket because he’s a menace and so – the lieutenant tells him he’ll just have to walk to České Budějovice to catch up with his regiment.

Chapter 2 Švejk’s Budějovice anabasis

An ancient device of satire is to compare small and trivial things with mighty and venerable things, to create a comic disproportion. Švejk’ predictably enough, gets completely lost in his attempts to reach České Budějovice and so, for comic effect, Hašek compares Švejk’s chapter-length adventure to the anabasis of Xenophon, one of the most famous, and heroic, journeys of the ancient world.

The seven-volume Anabasis was composed around the year 370 BC, is Xenophon’s best known work, and ‘one of the great adventures in human history’ (Wikipedia)

České Budějovice is due south from the train station where Švejk was detained but, characteristically, he sets off with a brave and determined stride to the west and gets utterly lost in the wintry countryside of south Bohemia for several days. In the course of his peregrination he meets a sequence of characters, mostly poor villagers and peasants, who help him out, spare a drink or their food with him, recommend friends or relatives at towns along the way for him to call in on and generally provide a lot of human solidarity.

The reader remembers that Hašek himself was a notorious vagabond and long distance hiker who had plenty of experience of the kindness, or hostility, of strangers. Švejk’s jollily titled anabasis allows Hašek to depict the kindness which exists among the poor and downtrodden and outsiders:

  • the kindly old lady who gives him potato soup and bacon and guidance to find her brother who’ll help him
  • an accordion player from Malčín who advises him to look up his married daughter whose husband is a deserter
  • in Radomyšl the old lady’s brother, Father Melichárek, who also thinks Švejk is a deserter
  • near Putim a trio of deserters taking refuge in a haystack who tell him that a month earlier the entire 35th regiment deserted
  • one of them has an aunt in Strakonice who has a sister in the mountains they can go and stay with – give him a slice of bread for the journey
  • near Stekno he meets a tramp who shares a nip of brandy and gives him advice about evading the authorities, and takes him into town to meet a friend, even older than the tramp, and the three sit round a stove in the old gaffer’s cabin telling stories (p.277)

The Good Soldier Švejk with the two tramps

The adventure ends when Švejk finds himself circling back and re-entering the village of Putim where he is arrested and interrogated by a very clever gendarmerie sergeant Flanderka who lectures his subordinates at length about the correct and wise way to interview suspects and who thinks he can get Švejk into confessing that he’s a spy.

The thing about Švejk is that he is absolutely honest. He literally tells the truth, that he got detained by a stationmaster after pulling the emergency, cord, drank away the money he was given to buy a ticket, then they wouldn’t give him a ticket anyway, then set off on a long rambling walk all round the region – until the sergeant becomes convinced that no-one could be this ingenuous, wide-eyed and innocent – and therefore that he must be a most dangerous spy!

They keep a paranoid close guard on our hero, accompany him to the outside toilet, order a fine dinner from the local pub. Oblivious of the sergeant’s ludicrous paranoias, Švejk has a whale of a time and the sergeant and the lance-corporal he’s bullying get so drunk they pass out.

Next morning, badly hungover, the sergeant writes a preposterous report about Švejk, for example arguing that his lack of a camera just shows how dangerous he would be if he had one, and sends him off under armed guard to the District Command in Písek. As always happens, it doesn’t take much persuasion to get the lance-corporal accompanying Švejk to pop into a roadside pub along the way, and they proceed to get plastered, telling the landlord to keep them company drink for drink (p.277)

They set off again completely trashed, way after dark and, as the corporal keeps slipping off the icy road and down the slopes either side, decide to handcuff themselves together. In this state they arrive at the gendarmerie headquarters at Pisek where Captain König takes one look at them and is disgusted. He is fed up with being bombarded by useless bureaucratic edicts and now the moronic sergeant from Putim is chipping with crazy accusations like this one, that the drunk soldier in front of him is a master spy when he’s obviously a common or garden deserter.

König briskly orders Švejk put on the next train to České Budějovice and supervised by a gendarme who is to accompany him at the other end, all the way through the streets of the town to the Marianske Barracks. This he does, so that Švejk calmly walks through the door of the barracks main office just as Lieutenant Lukáš is settling into another shift. At the sight of Švejk rises to his feet and faints backwards (onto a junior soldier).

When he recovers the lieutenant informs Švejk an arrest warrant has been made in his name for desertion and he must report to the barracks prison. So off he goes, under guard, innocent and docile as usual.

In his cell he meets a fat one-year volunteer – whoe name we learn is Marek – who is more educated than most of Hašek’s characters and has a fund of stories to tell about soldiers being bullied, mistried and massacred, as well as scathing criticism of the authorities and of Austro-Hungarian authority which he sees as doomed to collapse (p.293).

All along the line, everything in the army stinks of rottenness.

Maybe he is a self-portrait of the rather tubby author (confirmed when he says that he was at one state the editor of a magazine named The Animal  World – as was Hašek).

He and Švejk get on like a house on fire and end up singing various bawdy ballads at the tops of their voices and keeping the other prisoners awake. In the morning they are both interrogated by a pompous officer named Colonel Schröder, an episode which satirises military incompetence and prejudice, before Schröder sentences the volunteer to the kitchens peeling potatoes and Švejk to three days ‘hard’. Schröder then drops by the office of Lieutenant Lukáš to tell him he’s given his batman three days hard but don’t worry, after that Švejk will be sent back to him.

Lieutenant Lukáš drops to his knees in despair. One of the funniest things about the book is Lukáš’s complete inability to shake off Švejk who, without consciously trying, makes his life a misery and destroys every one of his plans.

One element of comedy is predictability, generated by the audience becoming familiar with the way certain characters always behave, coming to expect it, and being delighted when they behave that way, or say that ting, again. Hence the joy of catchphrases, of hearing Corporal Jones cry ‘Don’t panic, don’t panic’. In this way, the ever-deepening chagrin of Lieutenant Lukáš becomes a core comic theme from this point onwards.

Chapter 3 Švejk’s adventures in Királyhida

Švejk and the one-year volunteer are marched along with the rest of the 91st Regiment to the České Budějovice railway station. Here things are chaotic and they get mixed up with Father Lacina, a chaplain, who has been roaming among various regimental messes the night before gorging himself and drinking himself insensible. Lacina hitches a lift into Švejk and the one-year volunteer’s train carriage, where he promptly passes out.

Švejk and the one-year volunteer had been accompanied and guarded by a timid lance-corporal and they now set about remorselessly teasing him, bombarding him with rules and regulations about the protection of prisoners which he has broken without realising it, including letting an unauthorised person (the drunk chaplain) into the prisoners’ van, and so on.

They also tell a wealth of stories covering a range of experiences and people: how a black entertainer slept with a posh white Czech lady who had a little black baby; about miscegenation between races, and how the war is leading to rapes of civilian women by occupying armies.

It is here that the one-year volunteer tells us at length about his spell as editor of the magazine The Animal World and how he got into trouble for writing articles about fictitious animals (pp.323-328).

The train draws into the outskirts of Vienna (p.347), where it is greeted by a tired welcoming committee patriotic old ladies (p.348). Hašek describes how the initial enthusiasm for the war, which saw huge crowds cheer the trains full of soldiers off to the Front, has long since waned.

Švejk and the volunteer are ordered along with all the other soldiers to report to the mess kitchens. Here Svejk, in the course of nicking a coatful of grub, bumps into Lieutenant Lukáš and tells him he was bringing it to him.

The narrative cuts rather abruptly to night over the army barracks at Bruck (p.350). It does this quite often. I found myself having to go back and figure out where we were in many of the scenes, and work out where the travel from one place to another took part. Maybe a function of the text having originally consisted of discreet short stories.

Bruck an der Leitha is also known as Királyhida, and hereby hangs a tale. The River Leitha formed the border between what was then Austria and Hungary. The town on the Austrian side was called Bruck an der Leitha, the town on the Hungarian side was called Királyhida. The Austrians referred to the land their side as Cisleithiana, the territory the other side as Transleithiana. And the Czechs were alien to both countries.

The central incident of this chapter is based on the simmering ethnic tensions and resentments between these groups. Švejk has now been released from the prisoners van (he was only sentenced to three days’ detention, if you remember) and has been restored to Lieutenant Lukáš as his batman. That evening Švejk is having a fag with the pock-marked batman of another officer from down the corridor of their temporary barracks, when Lieutenant Lukáš stumbles back from a drunken evening out.

He and a bunch of other officers went to a cabaret where the Hungarian dancers were doing high kicks and wearing no stockings or knickers, and had ‘shaved themselves underneath like Tatar women’ (p.356). Lukáš didn’t really like it and on the way out the theatre saw a high-minded woman dragging her husband away. They exchanged a meaningful look. Lukáš asked the cloakroom attendant who she was and finds out she’s the wife of a well-known ironmonger and her address. He goes onto a nightclub where he writes an elaborate and fancy letter basically asking if he can come round and have sex with her the following day. He drunkenly hand the letter to Švejk, goes into his room, and passes out.

Next morning Švejk wakes the Lieutenant to check he still wants the letter delivered, gets a sleepy Yes, and sets off to the ironmonger’s address. Unfortunately, he makes the mistake of letting a fellow soldier, Sapper Vodička, accompany him. The whole way Vodička informs Švejk how much he hates Hungarians, what cowards they are, and bullies, and how easy it is to shag their disreputable woman.

By the time Švejk politely knocks on the door of the house, and politely hands the little girl who answers a letter for her mummy, Vodička has worked himself into a fury and when they hear a rumpus from the living room and the woman’s husband emerges in a froth of indignation, the scene is set for a massive fight, which spills out onto the street, and which passersby and other soldiers all get caught up (p.355).

The fight over the ironmonger’s wife

Chapter 4 New sufferings

It is very funny when, as a result of this, Lieutenant Lukáš finds himself woken up and summoned to the office of Colonel Schröder who reads him out a series of reports of this riot in all the Hungarian newspapers. Not only that but the papers have taken it as an opportunity to complain about the hordes of rampaging Czechs infesting their streets and to castigate Czech character generally.

The Colonel makes Lukáš read out every word of every report, and we are wondering whether he, Lukáš, will be cashiered before the whole tone shifts and we discover the Colonel secretly sympathises. He says the incriminating letter was found on Vodička, so everyone knows about his proposition to the ironmonger’s wife. Had he slept with her yet, the Colonel asks, only increasing the Lieutenant’s discomfiture. The Colonel tells him he was once sent on a three-week geometry course in Hungary and slept with a different Hungarian woman every day. The Colonel pats him on the shoulder and says All Hungarians are bastards, we’re not going to let them get you.

And then he sets off on a new tack saying how admirably the good soldier Švejk defended him. When the police showed him the incriminating letter he first of all claimed to have written it himself, and then ate it. Good man, that, says the Colonel. And to Lieutenant Lukáš’s unmitigated horror, the Colonel proceeds to assign Švejk to him as the new Company Orderly! (p.378)

But first Švejk and Vodička are temporarily thrown in the clink where they bump into their old friend, the one-year volunteer. As usual there is a huge amount of yarning and story-telling before they are hauled up before Judge Advocate Ruller. He is another stern disciplinarian but, on the recommendation of Colonel Schröder, lets them go.

In a parody of farewell scenes from umpteen romantic novels, Švejk and Vodička now go their separate way, calling out across the ever-widening distance between them. Švejk tells him to come to The Chalice pub any evening at 6pm after the war’s ended.

Chapter 5 From Bruck an der Leitha to Sokal

To replace Švejk as batman, Lieutenant Lukáš has been given a big fat heavily bearded soldier named Baroun. He turns out to have an insatiable appetite and repetition comedy results from his inability not to eat everything in sight, including all of Lieutenant Lukáš’s rations and treats.

the first time this happens, Lieutenant Lukáš orders Baloun to be taken to the barracks kitchen and tied to a post just by the ovens so he can smell all the food for hours and not be able to move. Cruel, eh? (p.398)

Quartermaster sergeant Vanek expects to be able to lord it over Švejk  so it surprised when the latter announces he is now regimental orderly, clearly a post of some authority and respect.

There follows a prolonged (20+ pages) comic sequence based on the idea that Švejk now has access to the company telephone, and that the barracks operates an early primitive phone system on which he can overhear the conversations of everyone in the barracks. He is given orders to send ten troops to the barracks store to get tines of meat for the upcoming train journey but, as you might expect, this quickly turns into chaos and confusion.

Švejk having 40 winks between causing mayhem on the regimental phone line

Meanwhile Lieutenant Lukáš is absent at a prolonged meeting convened by Colonel Schröder at which he is holding forth at great length a series of military theories and ideas which have all been completely outdated by the war (‘He spoke without rhyme or reason…’ p.421). In his absence Švejk and some of the other soldiers, notably the Quatermaster, chew the fat, telling stories at great length, getting tipsy and falling asleep.

In fact it’s a characteristic of volume two that as Švejk gets drawn more into the army bureaucracy we encounter an ever-expanding roster of military characters, who come and go in the various offices, stopping to have long conversations, swap stories, moan about Hungarians or women or the senior officers. Quite often it’s difficult to remember where in the ‘story’ you are, after pages and pages of reminiscences about the old days, or about characters back home, or about something they once read in the paper or heard, told by one or other of the numerous soldiers.

It’s a new morning but the never-ending meeting convened by Colonel Schröder resumes. On the table is a big map of the front with little wooden figures and flags for troop dispositions. Overnight a cat kept by the clerks has gotten into the meeting room and not only knocked all the markers out of alignment, but also done a few cat poops on the map. Now Colonel Schröder is very short-sighted so the assembled officers watch with bated breath as he moves his hand airily over the map, getting closer and closer and then… yes! poking his finger into a pile of fresh cat poo! And goes charging into the clerks’ room to give them hell (p.437).

In this last section there’s a humorous grace note about the regimental cook who was, in civilian life, an author of books about the Occult and takes a supernatural approach to cooking.

Everyone is in a state of suspense. Are they going to move out to the Front, and when? Marek, the one-year volunteer appears, still in detention and awaiting some kind of sentence from the authorities. On the last page of volume two, while Švejk is telling yet another long story to Quartermaster Sergeant-Major Vaněk, Lieutenant Lukáš is in his office painfully decoding a ciphered message he’s received. The regiment will be proceeding to Mošon, Raab, Komárno and so to Budapest.

Here ends Volume Two of The Good Soldier Švejk.


Themes

Anti-war bitterness

Volume one tends to focus on the arrogance, aggressive behaviour and stupidity of a wide range of officials encountered in everyday life. As you might expect, once he’s re-enlisted in the army, Volume two focuses on all aspects of the stupidity and futility of war.

The young soldier gave a heartfelt sight. He was sorry for his young life. Why was he born in such a stupid century to be butchered like an ox in a slaughterhouse? (p.153)

And contains some really effective passages, visions of the desolation and deathliness of war.

Before the arrival of the passenger train the third-class restaurant filled up with soldiers and civilians. They were predominantly soldiers of various regiments and formations and the most diverse nationalities whom the whirlwinds of war had swept into the Tábor hospitals. they were now going back to the front to get new wounds, mutilations and pains and to earn the reward of a simple wooden cross over their graves. Years after on the mournful plains of East Galicia a faded Austrian soldier’s cap with a rusty imperial badge would flutter over it in wind and rain. From time to time a miserable old carrion crow would perch on it, recalling fat feasts of bygone days when there used to be spread for him an unending table of human corpses and horse carcasses, when just under the cap on which he perched there lay the daintiest morsels of all – human eyes. (p.230)

There’s more where that came from. Not particularly intellectual or stylish. But all the more effective for its blunt simplicity.

Casual brutality

The book is permeated by casual violence. All the officers take it for granted that they can slap, punch, hit in the mouth or round the ears, order to be tied up and even flogged whichever soldiers they wish. And the soldiers accept it too.

The old beggar tells Švejk about begging round the town of Lipnice and stumbling into the gendarmerie station by accident, because it was in an ordinary looking house. And the police sergeant leaping up from behind his desk, striding across the room, and punching the tramp so hard in the face that he is propelled back through the door and down the wooden steps. (p.251)

The same old man remembers stories his grandfather told about the army in his day, how a deserter was flogged so hard that strips of skin flew off him. How another was shot for desertion on the barrack ramparts. but not before he’d run the gauntlet of 600 soldiers who all beat and hit and whipped him as he ran through the human tunnel they’d formed. (p.247)

In the prisoners’ van Švejk watches the escorts playing what appears to be a popular game in the Austrian army. Called simply ‘Flesh’, where one soldier takes down his trousers, bares his bottom, and the other soldiers belt him as hard as they can on his bare buttocks, and the soldier has to guess which of his companions it was who hit him. If he guesses right, that colleague has to take his place. That’s the game. (pp.322-3)

There’s satire on military stupidity, like the story of a certain earnest Lieutenant Berger who hid up a pine tree during an enemy attack, and refused to reveal himself or come down till his own side counter-attacked. Unfortunately that took fourteen days, so he starved to death (p.256)

There are many stories like that, of ‘heroes’ who get awarded medals after they’ve been blown to bits or cut in half by a shell or blinded or maimed, and they come under the heading of Stupid propaganda with Švejk ending up in various offices where he sees posters proclaiming the bravery of our proud Austrian boys, and so on, or is handed leaflets describing glorious deeds of valour, or reads articles about gallant officers rescuing entire regiments.

Like most of his mates, he ends up using these handouts as toilet paper.

But they also form part of the vast, unending continuum of stories, of the stories working class men tell each other in pubs and bars and police stations and cells and barracks and trains, and they all evince the same bloody-minded, hardened attitude of the common soldier, squaddie or grunt who carries on living his heedless working class life despite all efforts of shouting sergeants and poncy officers to reform him – a life which tends to revolve around food and fags, booze and sex.

Drink

Thus all the characters are fond of not only drinking but getting drunk, obviously Hašek and his working class pals, but also a high proportion of the officers and even generals, starting with Lieutenant Lukáš who a) wins Švejk at a game of cards b) is an inveterate womaniser c) routinely gets plastered.

Almost every escort charged with escorting prisoner Švejk anywhere lets itself get talked into nipping into the first pub they pass and proceeding to get legless.

And there’s a special satirical edge to portraying the scions of morality, the army chaplains Katz and Lacina as hopeless drunks, Lacina no sooner being introduced than he passes out.

But booze is seen as the universal solvent of society, having a drink a bombproof way of getting to know your companion or settling differences.

Sex

Actually there’s less sex than you might expect. There are far far more stories about the brutal fates and mishaps of characters in the stories the lads tell each other, than sexual escapades. the cabaret where the girls do high kicks without knickers is a rare occurrence of sexy sexiness, and the Lieutenant’s attempt to seduce the ironmonger’s wife ends in farce, as we’ve seen.

One soldier tells an admiring story about a captain who knows three sisters who he’s trained to bring round to the officers mess and dance on the tables before presenting themselves on the sofa (presumably for the officers’ use and in what posture is left to the imagination).

And Colonel Schröder shows off to Lieutenant Lukáš about the time he went for training in Hungary and boffed a different woman every day for three weeks.

But these are a handful of sexy stories amid a vast sea of hundreds and hundreds of other stories about numerous other subjects. If sex is present it’s more as a steady hum of prostitutes in the background, and at random moments soldiers are discovered bargaining with the whores who hang around the railways stations where the troop trains stopped.

Bureaucracy

An army is, almost by definition, a kind of quintessence of bureaucracy and the satire on incompetence of Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy is now applied to the army, in spaces. At various moments harassed officers are shown drowning in bombardments of new regulations and memos, all of which are incomprehensible or irrelevant.

The text gives a list of the orders sent to Sergeant Flanderka, the pompous gendarme at Putim, which includes orders, directives, questionnaires, instructions and directives, including an index of grades of loyalty to the Emperor, according to which citizens who are interrogated must be classified as either Ia, Ib, Ic, IIa, IIb, IIc, IIIa, IIIb, IIIc, and so on. (p.259) which leads into how Sergeant Flanderka tried to recruit the village idiot Pepek as a spy on the local population and, when that fails, simply invents an informer, makes up reports he attributes to this invention, and claims an extra fifty crowns a month pay to fund him, which the sergeant pockets himself. (The same kind of problem – operatives who invent informers or spies so they can claim extra money – crops up in Somerset Maugham’s brilliant fictionalisation of his spying days during the Great War, Ashenden, and in John le Carré. Obviously, an occupational hazard.)

(Incidentally, the village idiot Pepek can barely speak and when, on his first report back, he simply parrots back all the incriminating phrases Sergeant Flanderka told him to listen out for, Sergeant Flanderka promptly has Pepek arrested as a traitor, tried and convicted to twelve years hard labour. That’s very much the helpless, heartless tone of the countless stories and anecdotes which make up the actual text of Švejk.)

The captain of the gendarmerie at Pisek was a very officious man, very thorough at prosecuting his subordinates and outstanding in bureaucratic manners. In the gendarmerie stations in his district no one could ever say that the storm had passed. it came back with every communication signed by the captain, who spent the whole day issuing reprimands, admonitions and warnings to the whole district. Ever since the outbreak of war heavy black clouds had loured over the gendarmerie stations in the Písek district. It was a truly ghostly atmosphere. The thunderbolts of bureaucracy rumbled and struck the gendarmerie sergeants, lance-corporals, men and employees. (p.279)

One moment in particular stood out for me as a sudden bit of Kafka embedded in Hašek, where Švejk is listening to yet another rodomontade from the furiously angry Sapper Vodička, who is wondering when the pair will finally be brought to court for their involvement in the riot with the Hungarian ironmonger.

‘It’s always nothing but interrogation’, said Vodička, whipping himself up into a fury. ‘If only something would come out of it at last. They waste heaps of paper and a chap doesn’t even see the court.’ (p.387)

The nationalities question

It is a crucial element of the situation in the Austro-Hungarian Empire that its constituent nationalities cordially dislike each other. Švejk buys the poor Hungarian soldier a drink but happily calls him a Hungarian bastard; the Hungarians slag off the Czechs for surrendering en masse as soon as the fighting starts (apparently this actually happened); the Czechs resent the Hungarians for being better soldiers; and everyone hates the stereotype of the furiously angry German-speaking Austrian officer.

This is broadly comic in the sense that all mechanical national stereotypes are comic. One aspect of it is language and here there is a Great Tragedy: the book’s translator into English, Cecil Parrott, makes clear in his wonderful introduction that a great part of the pleasure of the text in its original version is the interplay of languages of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Different characters may speak Czech, Hungarian, German or even Polish, and within those languages they may use polite and formal registers, or common and demotic registers, or may be non-native speakers mangling the language.

Almost none of this art and pleasure comes over in translation. Damn! Only at a handful of moments does the multicultural nature of the society being depicted, and of the most ordinary human interactions, become prominent. For example when Švejk and Vodička arrive at the house of the Hungarian ironmonger to hand over Lieutenant Lukáš’s letter. Bear in mind that they are in Királyhida, just across the border into Hungary proper.

The door opened, a maid appeared and asked in Hungarian what they wanted.
Nem tudom?’ said Vodička scornfully. ‘Learn to speak Czech, my good girl.’
‘Do you understand German?’ Švejk asked in broken German.
‘A leetle,’ the girl replied equally brokenly.
‘Then tell lady I want to speak lady. Tell lady there is letter from gentleman.’ (p.366)

If only Parrott had tried to capture the mix of languages and mishmash of registers which are obviously omnipresent in Hašek’s original, it would have made for a very different reading experience because, in the handful of places where he tries it, it really adds to the texture of the book, and is often funny.

Communism

The Good Soldier Švejk was written in the very early 1920s, so with full knowledge of the Bolshevik Revolution, of the end of the Great War, the complete defeat of the Alliance powers, Germany and Austria, and the collapse of their Empires – the German Kaiser going into exile and the Reich declared a republic, and more dramatically the farflung Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsing overnight into a collection of independent states.

Opposition to, or at the very least strong scepticism about, the Empire and the rule of the Hapsburg Dynasty, are expressed in different ways, at different levels of literacy, by numerous characters across the sprawling novel — but one moment stood out for me, a suddenly resonant moment when Hašek has the old shepherd Švejk encounters on his anabasis, prophesy the future:

The water in which the potatoes were cooking on the stove began to bubble and after a short silence the old shepherd said in prophetic tones: ‘And his Imperial Majesty won’t win this war. There’s no enthusiasm for it at all… Nobody cares a hell about it any more, lad… You ought to be there when the neighbours get together down in Skočice. Everyone has a friend at the front and you should hear how they talk. After this war they say there’ll be freedom and there won’t be any noblemen’s palaces or emperors and the princes’ll all have their estates taken away.’ (p.248)


Related links

The Good Soldier Švejk

Cakes and Ale by Somerset Maugham (1930)

The sky was unclouded and the air hot and bright, but the North Sea gave it a pleasant tang so that it was a delight just to live and breathe. (Chapter 3)

I’ve been accumulating a pile of second-hand Somerset Maugham paperbacks over the past few years, waiting till I felt the impulse to start reading them. I can’t believe how easy to read and enjoyable they are. Even when the short stories (in particular) have unpleasant moments (the missionary’s suicide in Rain, the revelation of incest in The Book-Bag) they don’t really undermine the general tone of leisured ease and peaceful contemplation which his books exude, the warm-bath feel of the narrator’s well-educated, well-off, comfortable observation of life’s foibles and follies. Even when tragic events happen, somehow all Maugham’s stories have a fundamentally comic air.

Cakes and Ale

This is particularly true of Maugham’s satire on the English literary scene, Cakes and Ale which is a charming story of youth and illusions. It’s easy to see why Maugham himself always said it was his favourite book.

The narrator is William ‘Willie’ Ashenden, who we have met in the book-length set of stories about a spy during the Great War which featured the same character, and was published only two years earlier (1928).

The events

The sequence of events is fairly straightforward: young Willie Ashenden grows up in the (fictional) town of Blackstable (transparently based on the actual town of Whitstable) on the Kent coast, in the care of his conventional uncle who is the town vicar.

Willie is brought up as an impeccable Victorian snob with a strong sense of the town’s social hierarchy including who to talk to and who not to talk to. His uncle and aunt particularly disapprove of a local celebrity, Edward Driffield, a middle-aged man who’s risen from very ‘common’ origins to make a living ‘writing books’ and who has married a local barmaid, Rosie Gann, a woman who, in the great phrase of the day, is no better than she ought to be.

But as it happens, young Willie quite literally bumps into the pair as they’re all out experimenting with the newfangled invention, the bicycle on one fine Kentish summer day. They get talking and he becomes friendly with them, often meeting with them. Around these encounters is woven a portrait of Blackstaple society with its snooty middle class, its publicans, sailors and farm workers, and the local roaring boy, ‘Lord’ George Kemp.

One day Willie is flabbergasted to learn that Edward and Rosie have flown the coop, jumped the moon, done a bunk, disappeared, leaving behind a trail of debts and angry shopkeepers.

Five years later Willie is a 21-year-old medical student working at (the fictional) St Luke’s hospital when he bumps into Rosie in the street. She takes him to her and Edward’s modest house in Pimlico and Willie becomes a regular attendant at Edward’s ‘at homes’. Here he meets writers and artists and playwrights and is encouraged to continue the writing which he himself is pursuing in secret.

He notices that Rosie enjoys the company of a number of other young men including a painter, an actor and a writer, and finds himself becoming jealous. He gets a few opportunities to squire her around town himself, and after one of these nights out she kisses him. He invites her to his rented rooms. She slips out of her complicated Victorian dress. Naked, she is as pneumatic and life-affirming as she is in social life.

In a little while she got out of bed. I lit the candle. She turned to the glass and tied up her hair and then she looked for a moment at her naked body. Her waist was naturally small; though so well developed she was very slender; her breasts were straight and firm and they stood out from the chest as though carved in marble. It was a body made for the act of love. In the light of the candle, struggling now with the increasing day, it was all silvery gold; and the only colour was the rosy pink of the hard nipples.

Rosie stays the night. They have become lovers. Inevitably, after the initial shock and amazement at spending time with such a wonderfully sensuous naked young woman, Willie becomes more suspicious of her other ‘young men’. The ups and downs of their relationship over the next few months are described in detail.

And then the situation again undergoes a violent wrench when Rosie abruptly abandons Edward, and runs off – we later discover, to America with ‘Lord’ George the only man she ever loved.

Thirty years later the narrator, now a successful author, visits New York on a lecture tour and out of the blue gets a note from Rosie, now living in Yonkers, who’s read about his visit in the papers. He goes out there to visit her, now a snowy-haired 70 year old, but still with the same sparkling eyes and vivacity. She explains her real feelings for Driffield, for the narrator, for Lord George. Her philosophy is simple: love is good, why not share it?

The plot

So much for the events in the past; this isn’t how they are presented in the novel. Instead the novel concerns The Present in which Edward Driffield has been dead for many years and has gone from being a minor mostly ignored writer of late Victorian working class life to becoming ‘a classic of English letters’. The mature Ashenden is approached by a literary gadfly and careerist, Alroy Kear.

Kear has been approached by Driffield’s second wife, to write the official biography of her dear departed husband. This request creates a tangled web of narrative which overlays the actual events of the past. For after Rosie fled, Driffield was taken up by an ambitious literary lady and patron of the arts, Mrs Barton Trafford (a type which throngs Maugham’s stories about late Victorian London).

Mrs Barton Trafford determines to ‘make’ Driffield’s reputation and it is fascinating to read the sections which describe the way she set about currying favour with newspaper reviewers, magazine critics and proprietors, persuading the great and good of the day to write serious articles about his novels, and then organised lecture tours up and down the country, fed items to gossip columnists, had his photo taken in dignified poses and widely distributed. All the time the real Ted Driffield preferred nipping down to the pub and spending the evening jawing and yarning with local workers and common folk, but all this was smoothed over by Mrs Barton Trafford’s unstoppable campaign.

It was entirely due to her single-handed efforts over 10 years that Driffield eventually found himself widely lauded as a Grand Old Man of English Literature. Which made it all the more galling (and comic) when he falls ill, she packs him off to Cornwall to recuperate, and he promptly marries the nurse he was sent with, Amy. This second Mrs Driffield promptly steps into the role of Guardian and Protector of the now elderly writer, sidelines Mrs Barton Trafford and it is she who, now, decades later, has commissioned the fiercely careerist Kear to write her late husband’s official biography.

And where does Ashenden come into all of this? Kear, in his feline insinuating way, invites him to dinner at his club and down to Blackstable to meet the second Mrs Driffield, because he – Kear – knows that Ashenden grew up in the same town and had contact as a boy and then as a young man with the Driffield household. Nobody else still living has that knowledge. Ashenden is the best and only source for those years of Driffield’s life. Hence Kear’s comically silky manner and obsequiousness to our amused and playful narrator.

Two track narrative

So the novel runs on two time frames: in the present Kear makes his first approach, takes Ashenden to dinner, has follow-up meetings, then invites him down to Blackstaple to meet the widow. And each of these encounters is a trigger for the narrator to reminisce about the key episodes in his acquaintance with Ashenden. Think of the corny technique in old movies where a character reminisces and the screen goes all wavy and shimmery to convey the sense of travelling back decades to a character’s youth. The episodes are quite substantial:

  1. a year or so in Blackstaple when Willie was 16
  2. a good spell in Pimlico, when Willie escorts Rosie around London, then becomes her lover (for over a year), gets jealous of her continuing affairs with other young men, then she absconds
  3. the final meeting in New York 30 years later

The first two episodes are extended exercises in nostalgia and social comedy. In both of them the mature narrator looks back to his earlier self with fondness and indulgence. And it’s not just about him and Mr and Mrs Driffield, arguably the real strength of the book is the complete social context Maugham creates. In Blackstaple we get thorough portraits of his stern uncle and straitlaced aunt, of the verger who helps out in the church, of laughing ‘Lord’ George, and of his uncle’s simple, vivacious housemaid Mary-Anne, who went to school with Rosie, initially disapproves of her until she comes to visit at which point she, like everyone else, is won over by Rosie’s simple happiness.

In fact it’s an oddity, presumably deliberate, that Driffield himself, the central figure around who the entire story and all the other characters rotate, is left peculiarly blank. We hear very little about his works or literary opinions. There is far more, for example, and far more vivid characterisation of Willie’s uncle’s maid Mary-Anne.

Similarly, during the second flashback, in Pimlico, the most vivid character is Willie’s cockney landlady, Mrs Hudson, who is given pages of comic dialogue and no-nonsense common sense.

I wish to goodness I had had the sense (like Amy Driffield with her celebrated husband) to take notes of her conversation, for Mrs. Hudson was a mistress of Cockney humour. She had a gift of repartee that never failed her, she had a racy style and an apt and varied vocabulary, she was never at a loss for the comic metaphor or the vivid phrase. She was a pattern of propriety and she would never have women in her house, you never knew what they were up to (‘It’s men, men, men all the time with them, and afternoon tea and thin bread and butter, and openin’ the door and ringin’ for ’ot water and I don’t know what all’); but in conversation she did not hesitate to use what was called in those days the blue bag. One could have said of her what she said of Marie Lloyd: ‘What I like about ’er is that she gives you a good laugh. She goes pretty near the knuckle sometimes, but she never jumps over the fence.’ Mrs. Hudson enjoyed her own humour and I think she talked more willingly to her lodgers because her husband was a serious man (‘It’s as it should be,’ she said, ‘ ’im bein’ a verger and attendin’ weddings and funerals and what all’) and wasn’t much of a one for a joke. ‘Wot I says to ’Udson is, laugh while you’ve got the chance, you won’t laugh much when you’re dead and buried.’

Mrs. Hudson’s humour was cumulative and the story of her feud with Miss Butcher who let lodgings at number fourteen was a great comic saga that went on year in and year out. ‘She’s a disagreeable old cat, but I give you my word I’d miss ’er if the Lord took ’er one fine day. Though what ’e’d do with ’er when ’e got ’er I can’t think. Many’s the good laugh she’s give me in ’er time.’

A lot of the novel is like this, a loving recreation of the working class diction and humour of the 1890s and 1900s, of a world of slaveys and hansom cabs and music halls and elaborate Victorian dresses which were all long, long gone when Maugham published the book in 1930.

On another level, there is sustained satire of the London literary scene and the machinations required to ‘get ahead’ in it. Mrs Barton Trafford stands out as a magnificent portrait of a social schemer. But all the scenes with Alroy Kear in them are priceless, for Kear isn’t stupid – he is very very clever and his super-polite approaches to Ashenden and Ashenden’s amused prevarications and toying with him, are described in exquisite detail.

Love

But the heart of the novel isn’t the satire of the literary world, still less the career of the fairly innocent old man who is amused to find himself elevated to the pantheon of English Literature. It is Love. The character of Rosie the barmaid-turned-wife of the middle-aged writer is the real star of the book. She is what we still, despite all the efforts to liberalise our attitude to sex, call ‘promiscuous’. While married to Driffield she is also sleeping with the painter, Lionel Hillier, the actor Harry Retford and Ashenden and, as he later finds out, ‘Lord’ George as well.

We watch the narrator’s point of view mature from regarding her with awe when he is a snobbish 16 year old – to experiencing his first storm of sexual bliss with her and then on to his feelings of sexual jealousy with her, when he is in his early 20s – and then, finally, as a much older man, he listens with accepting wisdom to her account of why she abandoned Driffield to run off with ‘Lord’ George.

All the way through she simply believes that Love is a good thing, Love ought to be shared, Love ought to be encouraged, ‘Lord’ George asked her to go with him and she thought, well, why not?

This trajectory in which the narrator becomes more and more open-minded, forgiving and tolerant reaches its apogee when Willie is having tea with Kear and the second Mrs Driffield, who both openly insult Rosie for being a wanton hussy and nymphomaniac. For once the narrator loses his urbane self-possession and becomes quite heated in her defence.

‘She was virginal like the dawn. She was like Hebe. She was like a white rose.’
Mrs. Driffield smiled and exchanged a meaning glance with Roy.
‘Mrs. Barton Trafford told me a great deal about her. I don’t wish to seem spiteful, but I’m afraid I don’t think that she can have been a very nice woman.’
‘That’s where you make a mistake,’ I replied. ‘She was a very nice woman. I never saw her in a bad temper. You only had to say you wanted something for her to give it to you. I never heard her say a disagreeable thing about anyone. She had a heart of gold.’
‘She was a terrible slattern. Her house was always in a mess; you didn’t like to sit down in a chair because it was so dusty and you dared not look in the corners. And it was the same with her person. She could never put a skirt on straight and you’d see about two inches of petticoat hanging down on one side.’
‘She didn’t bother about things like that. They didn’t make her any the less beautiful. And she was as good as she was beautiful.’
Roy burst out laughing and Mrs. Driffield put her hand up to her mouth to hide her smile.
‘Oh, come, Mr. Ashenden, that’s really going too far. After all, let’s face it, she was a nymphomaniac.’
‘I think that’s a very silly word,’ I said.
‘Well, then, let me say that she can hardly have been a very good woman to treat poor Edward as she did. Of course it was a blessing in disguise. If she hadn’t run away from him he might have had to bear that burden for the rest of his life, and with such a handicap he could never have reached the position he did. But the fact remains that she was notoriously unfaithful to him. From what I hear she was absolutely promiscuous.’
‘You don’t understand,’ I said. ‘She was a very simple woman. Her instincts were healthy and ingenuous. She loved to make people happy. She loved love.’
‘Do you call that love?’
‘Well, then, the act of love. She was naturally affectionate. When she liked anyone it was quite natural for her to go to bed with him. She never thought twice about it. It was not vice; it wasn’t lasciviousness; it was her nature. She gave herself as naturally as the sun gives heat or the flowers their perfume. It was a pleasure to her and she liked to give pleasure to others. It had no effect on her character; she remained sincere, unspoiled, and artless.’
Mrs. Driffield looked as though she had taken a dose of castor oil and had just been trying to get the taste of it out of her mouth by sucking a lemon.

She loved love. And what is wrong with that? But lots of people from that day to this think that love should only exist in pre-set, socially acceptable formulations, should be rationed to ‘loving’, ‘committed’ relationships. Why?

In 1978 I joined the Campaign for Homosexual Equality although I am not myself gay. It seemed to me outrageous that gays and lesbians should be subject to different laws than straight people. Why shouldn’t people be free to do whatever they want with their bodies and their private parts, so long as they don’t actively harm others?

Maugham was himself bisexual, with a prevalence for homosexuality. He certainly chose to live the last forty years of his life with a male partner. Who cares? As he himself put it:

My own belief is that there is hardly anyone whose sexual life, if it were broadcast, would not fill the world at large with surprise and horror.

Exactly. So, mixed in with all Cakes and Ale’s social comedy and satire on London literary world, is a fairly straightforward plea for sexual tolerance and compassion, all conveyed through the wonderful character of Rosie the barmaid. As one critic writes it is ‘Her character, charm, beauty and humour draw everyone around her like moths to a flame.’

Happy

It’s a wonderfully life-affirming book. Maugham wrote it in the Villa Mauresque on the Riviera, which he had recently bought (in 1927) and where made his home along with his partner Gerald Haxton for the rest of their lives. Just turning 50, Maugham was a success, both in terms of having made a name for himself in the literary world, but also in simple cash terms, having made pots of money from his plays, short stories and from the movie adaptations which were beginning to be made of them.

He lived in a big house in the sunshine by the sea with his lover and wrote this book.

Which helps explain why Cakes and Ale radiates happiness. The wonderfully life-affirming characterisation of Rosie is embedded in a beautifully evocative portrait of rural Kentish life, and studded with wickedly satirical portraits of London bookland.

And it is cunningly and artfully constructed, with the flashbacks from the various situations in the present giving a pleasing complexity to its structure and to the canny, well-paced unfolding of the narrative.

On all levels it is a book to treasure and reread.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 very brief short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

To Catch A Spy edited by Eric Ambler (1964)

Seven short stories about spies, selected and with a genial introduction by Eric Ambler, who gives a useful summary of the spy genre from the turn of the century up to the early 1960s:

  • the late-19th century background of Sherlock Holmes/Rider Haggard popular adventure yarns
  • then suddenly the first classic spy novel, The Riddle of The Sands (1903)
  • the unexpected and not at all thriller-ish The Secret Agent (1907) by literary novelist Joseph Conrad
  • a flood of popular spy novels by the prolific William Le Queux and E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • then the sequence of five Richard Hanny novels by John Buchan (1915-1936) raising the tone
  • overlapping with the proto-fascist Bulldog Drummond stories by ‘Sapper’
  • the standout early spy novel of them all, Ashenden (1928) by Somerset Maugham
  • the comic spy novel The Three Couriers by Compton Mackenzie
  • then Graham Greene’s secret agent novels of the 1930s – A Gun For Sale, The Confidential Agent, The Ministry of Fear
  • overlapping with Ambler’s own six great thrillers set in the murky eastern Europe of the late 1930s
  • the hiatus of the war
  • then the explosive rise of Ian Fleming (first Bond novel 1953)

Writing in the early 1960s Ambler is unaware that the release of the early Bond movies (Dr No, From Russia With Love) would spark a spy boom, including Len Deighton’s fabulous Ipcress File novels (1962-67), the comic strip adventures of freelance agent Modesty Blaise (1965), the Quiller spy novels of Adam Hall (debut 1965), the ‘agent’ novels of Alistair MacLean, the arrival on the scene of Desmond Bagley who wrote spy novels in the early 1970s, and the most enduringly successful of English spy novelists, John le Carré (first novel 1961). Many of these novels were filmed very soon after publication to create a tidal wave of spy books and movies throughout the 1960s and 70s.

Spies went from being a minority pulp interest to becoming big money literary and Hollywood genres.

Ambler is no scholar but you can’t fault his opinions:

  • The Riddle of the Sands ‘one of the finest books about small sailing-craft ever written.’
  • ‘Although, on the whole, Buchan’s spy stories achieved a higher level of reality than those of Oppenheim, and were certainly better written, they had peculiar defects. His spy-heroes were mostly hunting-shooting-fishing men who went about their work with a solemn, manly innocence which could lapse into stupidity.’
  • Ashenden ‘is the first fictional work on the subject by a writer of some stature with first-hand knowledge of what he is writing about.’

The short stories

The Loathly Opposite by John Buchan (21 pages) Buchan’s pukka heroes – Richard Hannay, Sandy Arbuthnot and others – are sitting round jawing when one of them, Pugh, remembers his World War I work supervising codebreakers who struggled to crack the work of one particularly fiendish German coder and how, years later, recovering from war nerves, it turns out the mild-mannered German doctor treating him at a sanatorium is one and the same coder. Well, well.

Giulia Lazzari by Somerset Maugham (56 pages) One of the short stories which make up Maugham’s masterpiece, Ashenden (1928). In his frigid, well-mannered prose the narrator describes being given a mission by his controller, R. A dangerous Indian nationalist and terrorist, Chandra Lal, has fallen (improbably) in love with a travelling Italian entertainer-cum-prostitute who performs as an ‘exotic’ Spanish dancer, known as Giulia Lazzari. She’s been arrested in England and is being sent under guard to the French border with Switzerland because Chandra is in Switzerland.

Ashenden’s mission is to keep her under arrest and coerce her into persuading her lover, Chandra, to cross the border into France where he can be quickly arrested by the authorities, who can’t touch him in neutral Switzerland. Ashenden politely but implacably wears Guilia down until she consents to write the fateful letters asking her lover to join her. The whole affair ends squalidly when, cornered in a waiting room of the ferry by which he’s crossed the lake into France, Chandra swallows poison and dies immediately. As promised, Ashenden gives the broken Giulia the papers she requires to travel to Spain, and feels degraded.

The First Courier by Sir Compton Mackenzie (79 pages) Broad good-natured comedy. Year two of the Great War and Roger Waterlow is a naval officer, fed up with acting as intelligence officer in an unnamed boiling hot city (unnamed but obviously in Greece). He has a fat incompetent number two, a dodgy Cockney driver, a boss (Captain X) back in London who ignores his pleas to be transferred, and a clutch of comedy French diplomats to deal with.

Just as remarkable as the many genuinely amusing comic scenes, is Mackenzie’s often weirdly  convoluted prose, which maybe explains why he’s so little read today.

His own reward would be the Légion d’Honneur, the scarlet ribbon of which would seem to a little man so fond of dark habiliments and obscure subterranean trafficking a whole world of vivid colour. (1984 Bodley Head large print edition p.124)

The French Naval Attaché waved cordially to Waterlow as he mounted his car where, so full of nervous energy was he in repose, he seemed to flutter in the hot breeze like the spruce little tricolour on the bonnet, himself in that huge Packard like the flag a miniature emblem of his country. (p.130)

I Spy by Graham Greene (5 pages) A young boy sneaks down into his father’s tobacconist’s shop after dark to nick a packet of cigarettes and smoke a crafty fag. Approaching footsteps make him hide under the till from where he hears the conversation between his father and two official-seeming men, as his father scoops ups some packets and grabs his coat before going away with them. He appears to have overheard his father being arrested by police… Only a spy story in the broadest sense of the word ‘spy’, in which almost anyone overhearing anyone else hidden in a closet could be said to be ‘spying’.

Although famous for the variety of exotic locations for his fiction, I’m not the first to point out that Greene’s mind and imagination were often very mundane and humdrum.

Belgrade 1926 by Eric Ambler (31 pages) A chapter from The Mask of Dimitrios, which many consider Ambler’s best novel from the six he wrote before World War II, considered by most critics to be his finest period. It is an episodic novel about a writer’s quest to track down a legendary criminal, Dimitrios, which takes him across Europe to meet various people who knew Dimitrios and who describe key episodes from his life – hence the text is so easy to divide into sections.

In this excerpt the writer, Charles Latimer, writes to his Greek informant describing a long encounter with ‘G’, a spymaster in Eastern Europe, now based in Geneva. Working for Italy, G organises a scam to blackmail an official in the Defence Ministry in Belgrade to bring him charts of the marine minefields Yugoslavia is laying down in the Adriatic. G hires Dimitrios to act the part of playboy, and between them they flatter the clerk and his wife with high living and promises of big jobs until they lure them into a casino, where they arrange for them to lose a fortune. Thus, in fear of being exposed, of losing his job and going to prison for debt, the clerk is persuaded to steal the charts for a night and bring them to Dimitrios who will photograph them.

The clerk brings the charts, alright but unfortunately Dimitrios double crosses G, demands the photos of the charts at gunpoint, before going off to sell them to the French embassy. G has no choice but to inform the Yugoslav authorities, who promptly change their minefield arrangements, arrest the clerk and sentence him to life imprisonment. Dimitrios disappears. G concludes his business and leaves town.

You can see how, in Ambler’s hands, the spy story is more about betrayal and double crossing than glamorous adventures. That is how he made his name, moving the genre decisively away from the schoolboy heroics and naive patriotism of Buchan and Sapper into the amoral modern world – where it has firmly stayed ever since.

From A View To A Kill by Ian Fleming (40 pages) A motorcycle courier riding from NATO to SHAPE headquarters is assassinated by an identically-dressed motorbike courier, who takes the wallet full of battle plans and disappears. James Bond is staying overnight in Paris en route back to London from a bodged job in Hungary. He is ordered into going along to SHAPE HQ to help out the investigation and is not welcomed because SHAPE has its own security service and can do without the British Secret Service’s interference, thank you very much.

Bond pricks up his ears when casually told about the gypsies who camped in the forest during the winter. He goes and stakes out the gypsies’ old camp, which is when he sees the high-tech doors to the secret Russkie base open up and three men bring out the motorbike the assassin must have used. Next day Bond impersonates the daily courier and entraps the baddie into following him, but shoots first and kills him, then takes his team of four agents to capture the remaining men in their underground base. This leads to a shootout and Bond is rescued by the rather sexy woman agent who collected him from his hotel at the start of the story. Mmm. ‘Will you have dinner with me tonight?’ ‘Of course, commander.’ Perfectly, effortlessly entertaining.

On Slay Down by Michael Gilbert (24 pages) Never heard of Gilbert but this is arguably the best short story in the book. Two elderly middle-aged men, friends from the first war and both in ‘the Service’, discuss the need to assassinate a woman secretary who – investigations show – has been passing information to the enemy.

One of them, Calder, drives out to the fake rendezvous they’ve arranged between her and her contact, arrives way before her and sets up shop with a rifle. She arrives, gets out her car and he is about to shoot her when an Army lorry appears and the driver starts taking pot shots at rabbits. Smiling, Calder waits for the soldier to shoot and instantly fires, as if an echo, killing the woman. He packs up and leaves.

However, the two men running this grim project are puzzled that, by a few days later, the body has still not been found or reported. They track down the identity of the soldier, an officer, who was driving the lorry and nearly interrupted Calder’s assassination. Turns out he is now leading a small exercise in the same area.

Calder, obviously with the blessing of higher authority, dresses up as a senior officer in the man’s regiment and confronts the soldier in his tent. There can be only one explanation – the soldier must have found the body and, thinking he’d killed a harmless civilian, buried her. So, asks Calder: ‘Where did you bury her?’ The soldier’s first reaction is to reach for his pistol, but he thinks better of it and admits everything. In fact, he buried her on the very spot where their tent is pitched; he was horrified to find an exercise was planned for the same area and made sure he got there first and pitched tent above the grave. At which point Calder reveals his identity and… offers him a job in the Service. As he later recounts to his partner, over their evening game of backgammon.

‘He realised that he wouldn’t be able to get his gun out in time, and decided to come clean. I think that showed decision, and balance, don’t you?’
‘Decision and balance are most important,’ agreed Mr Behrens. ‘Your throw.’

Like the Bond, despite a spot of killing, this is essentially a comic story, slick and clever. Ambler, in his introduction, says it could have been retitled ‘On Slay Down, or the Recruitment of 008‘.

First sentences

Burminster had been to a Guildhall dinner the night before, which had been attended by many – to him – unfamiliar celebrities. (Buchan)

Accurately conveys Buchan’s milieu of upper-class, professional men who, however, are Country not Town; hunting, shooting, fishing types who mix with the rich but don’t know much about corrupt city ways, about this art or literature malarkey, dontcha know. Hence the importance of the ‘- to him -‘ clause. The hero is high-born – but pure.

Ashenden was in the habit of asserting that he was never bored. (Somerset Maugham)

Not only portraying the lofty detachment of Ashenden, the fictional writer-spy, but Maugham’s own enjoyably seigneurial tone.

It was hotter than ever in the city of South-East Europe some time round about the second anniversary of the war. (Mackenzie)

Sets the tone of complaint, one aspect of the Mackenzie’s comedy about the unhappy Naval officer forced to become a spy in this feverishly hot Mediterranean location and constantly moaning about mosquitoes, the awful food and the absurd machinations of the local French officials.

Charlie Stowe waited until he heard his mother snore before he got out of bed. (Greene)

Indicates the mundane banality of Greene’s settings and the flat, colourless tone of his prose. Why is he so famous, then? Due to his gimlet-eyed focus on seediness and loss, deception and guilt.

My dear Marukakis, I remember that I promised to write to you to let you know if I discovered anything more about Dimitrios. (Ambler)

Obviously the Ambler story’s format of a letter dictates the tone a bit, but this opening is nonetheless strongly indicative of Ambler’s good humour and amiability. His novels are excellent company.

The eyes behind the wide black rubber goggles were cold as flint. (Fleming)

You can immediately see the change in tone: Most of the preceding stories (with the exception of Greene’s cold-eyed heartlessness) have exuded chaps-in-the-club-with-a-cigar bonhomie. Fleming introduces pure physical excitement, a foretaste of the sadism, sex and shiny gadgets his novels delight in and which made him the most successful spy writer of all time.

‘The young man of to-day,’ said Mr Behrens, ‘is physically stronger and fitter than his father.’ (Gilbert)

Rather suave, man-of-the-world savoir faire of two older male friends discussing their professional interests ie security, spying and agents.

Conclusion

Of these seven texts the Maugham, Mackenzie and Ambler are in fact chapters from longer works. Maybe there aren’t (or there weren’t in 1964) that many good spy short stories.

Related links

Original 1964 hardback cover of To Catch A Spy

Original 1964 hardback cover of To Catch A Spy

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of their plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.

Ashenden by W. Somerset Maugham (1928)

You must be able to look at yourself from the outside and be at the same time spectator and actor in the pleasant comedy of life. (p.172)

Quite a shock to go from reading the street-level immediacy of Dashiell Hammet and James M. Cain to sauntering through the wordy aloofness of William Somerset Maugham. Slowly, I came to really like this book.

Maugham

Born in 1874 in the British Embassy in Paris where his father worked and where he lived for the first ten years of his life, Maugham was 54 when this book came out. Both his parents died when he was young and he was raised by an aloof and cruel uncle (a vicar). After public school in Canterbury, with its usual training in snobbery and homosexuality, Maugham went to university in Germany before settling to study medicine at St Thomas’s Hospital. He had, in other words, an unusually cosmopolitan upbringing and outlook for an Englishman of his time.

But he always wanted to write, wrote compulsorily in the evenings after study and, soon after qualifying as a doctor, published his first novel, Liza of Lambeth, in 1897 – a proletarian love story, part of the 1890s’ fashion for studies of London lowlife cf the novels of George Gissing. Liza sold out and confirmed him in his vocation.

Maugham’s subsequent few novels weren’t as successful but his plays were. The first was performed in 1906 and in 1907 he had four plays on in the West End simultaneously. By the outbreak of the Great War Maugham had written 10 novels and ten plays and was a well-established Edwardian man of letters. He enlisted in the ambulance service. In 1915 his long novel about one man’s romantic obsession, Of Human Bondage, was published, maybe his most enduring work. He returned to London to promote it then looked around for some way to support the war effort. His wife introduced him to officials high up in Britain’s Secret Service and he was enlisted.

During the Great War Maugham had two spells with the intelligence services:

1. In September 1915 Maugham went to Switzerland, using his cover as an author abroad, to work as one of the network of British agents trying to counter the ‘Berlin Committee’ which included Virendranath Chattopadhyay, an Indian revolutionary trying to use the war to create violence against the British in his country.

(There was a hiatus while Maugham went travelling in the Pacific to research his novel The Moon and Sixpence, based on the life of Paul Gauguin – the first of many journeys through the late-Imperial world of the 1920s and 1930s which were to become associated with Maugham and which provided a template for Graham Greene a generation later.)

2. In June 1917 Maugham was asked by the British Secret Intelligence Service (later MI6) to undertake a mission to Russia to counter German pacifist propaganda in a bid to keep the Provisional Government in power and Russia in the war. Two and a half months later, the Bolsheviks took control. Maugham subsequently said that if he had been able to get there six months earlier, he might have succeeded. Quiet and observant, Maugham had a good temperament for intelligence work; he believed he had inherited from his lawyer father a gift for cool judgement and the ability to be undeceived by facile appearances.

After the war Maugham’s novels and plays continued to be successful and in 1926 he bought Villa Mauresque at Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera where a) he hosted one of the great literary and social salons of the 1920s and 30s b) he continued to be highly productive, writing plays, short stories, novels, essays and travel books. He is credited with being the most financially successful British writer of the 1930s.

Ashenden

Ashenden, or The British Agent is not a novel: it consists of 16 short chapters which are sometimes linked, sometimes completely separate. Some offer just fragments or insights, others a continuous story in 2 or 3 parts.

It’s interesting that, like so many others, it took him a decade or so to process the war experience and turn it into fiction, thus taking part in the so-called ‘war book boom’ (cf Understones of War, 1928, Goodbye To All That, 1929, All Quiet On The Western Front, 1929, A Farewell To Arms, 1929, Death of A Hero, 1929).

The stories follow very closely his actual experiences. The fictional Ashenden is a British writer who is sent to live in Switzerland, who receives weekly orders by cloak and dagger channels, and who keeps an eye especially on Indian political activists.

  1. R. (4 pages) R is the name used by the head of the Intelligence Department. (Fleming didn’t copy this in creating M, as the head of MI6 in his day was known as C.) Ashenden meets someone at a party who asks if he’d like some work. He is given an address in a run-down part of London where he is shown into a disused house and meets R. with his hard blue cruel eyes. He is despatched to Switzerland.
  2. A Domiciliary Visit (19 pages) Ashenden, now in Switzerland, hears the Germans are going to burgle the left luggage room at Zurich station to seize the trunk of an Indian diplomat. Ashenden takes the train for Geneva to Berne to tell the diploatic offier there who decides to inform the Swiss authorities. Ashenden returns by boat across the lake giving scope for nature description and his mild anxiety at being collared by Swiss police. Back at his hotel he is visited by two Swiss policeman, whom he humorously nicknames Fasolt and Fafner after the giants in Das Rheingold. They have nothing to go on and leave. Ashenden remembers an encounter with a waiter working for him in Germany who revolted, wanting more money. Ashenden had refused and threatened to have him blacklisted after the War and the waiter/agent surlily acquiesced.
  3. Miss King (27 pages) The same evening Ashenden dines with the other guests, a motley crew of upper class diplomats, princes etc. Ashenden suspects all of them of being spies. He is surprised to be invited to a game of bridge in the rooms of Baroness Higgins with Prince Ali of Egypt and his secretary and wonders if one or all of them are working for their countries, and how much they know about him. Later the same night he is called out of bed by the dying wish of the ancient governess of the Egyptian princes, Miss King. She has had a stroke and dies in his arms. Ashenden speculates about what she has seen, what she knows, and whether she was trying to tell him something.
  4. The Hairless Mexican (24 pages) Called to Lyon, Ashenden is introduced to a hairless Mexican ‘general’, a stereotype of Latino braggadocio, their mission to intercept a Greek who has been despatched with papers and a verbal commission from Enver Pasha to the German embassy in Rome. Ashenden’s clinical observation of the ‘general’, the exact opposite of an English gentleman in every respect, reminds me of Graham Greene’s travel book The Lawless Roads and novel The Power and The Glory which both bespeak his dislike and eventual hatred of Mexicans for their casual violence.
  5. The Dark Woman (13 pages) On their night-time train journey the Mexican ‘general’ tells Ashenden about love, glory, reading your destiny in the cards, and about his Grand Passion for the Dark Woman who he eventually murdered in her sleep.
  6. The Greek (19 pages) Genuinely tense chapter describing Ashenden’s frame of mind as he is surprised when the Mexican arrives unannounced at his hotel in Naples (he should be nabbing the Greek and his papers in Brindisi), then spends the day wandering streets, trying to read, going to cinema and bars etc, worrying what the Mexican is doing about the Greek. That night the Mexican inveigles him into breaking into the Greek’s room and rifling his luggage. No papers. They decide to go their separate ways, the Mexican to Barcelona, Ashenden back to Rome. They wait in a low dive where the Mexican is happily picking up women when Ashenden notices blood on his sleeve. Then Ashenden receives and decodes an urgent telegram from base: the Greek never left Piraeus! The Mexican has befriended, tailed and murdered a completely innocent man! Cock-up, not conspiracy.
  7. A Trip to Paris (24 pages) Ashenden receives a coded message telling him to go meet R. in Paris. Once again he is struck by R.’s combination of social gaucheness with extreme acuteness and precision. The Department has discovered that a tacky Spanish dancer-cum-prostitute, Giulia Lazzari, has been receiving passionate love letters from a fanatical Indian nationalist, Chandra Lal, responsible for various bombing outrages and devoted to kicking the British out of India. Guilia has been arrested and forced to agree to lure Chandra to Thonon on Switzerland, then cross into France where he can be arrested and shot. Ashenden is to accompany her to Switzerland and make sure she plays here part.
  8. Giulia Lazzari (30 pages) How Ashenden effectively but with a bad conscience blackmails Giulia with the threat of prison, unless she persuades Chandra to cross the border into France. After several rebuffs, and mounting hysterics from Giulia, he does, is immediately seized, commits suicide by taking poison. Ashenden has to tell Giulia her lover is dead. Bitter.
  9. Gustav (9 pages) A model spy in Germany who writes coded reports to his wife at Basel who sends them on to Ashenden. Ashenden goes to visit his wife, is surprised to find Gustav there when he has only just received a letter supposedly from Germany from him; and deduces that in fact the much-praised Gustav has been lying to British Intelligence for a year, and has never set foot in Germany that whole time. He admits it. Characteristically, Ashenden is a) not angry b) tries to establish whether Gustav has also been working for the Germans c) wonders if he can be fed false info to pass back to the Hun. Specifically, he asks Gustav for information about the English spy, Grantley Caypor, and Gustav supplies it, sealing Caypor’s death sentence.
  10.  The Traitor (44 pages) Ashenden is sent to Lucerne to meet the English spy and traitor, Grantley Caypor. He gets to know him and his gruff German wife very well and Maugham very convincingly portrays them as complex human beings with real loves and affections. It is all the grimmer, then, that Ashenden persuades him to cross the border into France where he is immediately arrested and, if R. is true to his word, executed for his treachery, leaving his devoted wife in paroxysms of grief in front of Ashenden.
  11. Behind the scenes (9 pages) Ashenden in Russia. Characteristically, this brief anecdote is more about the characters of the American and, especially, the fantastically well-bred British amabassador, than anything at all about the host country. Ashenden gets a spy into the household of the countess with whom the American ambassador is intimate who discovers that the American resents the British ambassador’s grand manner; Ashenden tells the British ambassador who seems almost grateful. High society comedy.
  12. His Excellency (39 pages) Reluctantly Ashenden accepts a dinner invite from the impeccable British ambassador, Sir Herbert Witherspoon. This mutates subtly from chit-chat into the ambassador opening his heart and telling – in the third person – his love affair with an ugly trashy vulgar courtesan of a circus performer who, despite all sense, he just can’t shake and how, although he married wisely and has had a stellar career, he in fact hates  his wife, his marriage and his position. It becomes very powerful and moving.
  13. The Flip of a Coin (7 pages) The Polish agent Herbartus has arranged for a German munitions factory to be blown up. It will, however, kill many of his fellow Polish workers. Ashenden and he debate the morality of this to a standstill and then Ashenden proposes they toss for it. The result is not revealed. A bitter reflection on the complete arbitrariness of life.
  14. A Chance Acquaintance (19 pages) Ashenden has to travel across the Atlantic, across America, then across the Pacific to Vladivostok, then across Russia by train to arrive at Petrograd on a high profile mission to prevent the Revolution. This story is all about the companion fate throws him in with on the train journey, an insufferable American named Harrington.
  15. Love and Russian Literature (16 pages) A comic account of his pre-War infatuation with Russian intellectual and revolutionary Anastasia Alexandrovna Leonidov, who suggests they find out whether they really are a match by spending a week in Paris together before running off and abandoning her husband. The week in Paris is a disaster mainly because of her addiction to scrambled eggs for breakfast (!) Now, years later, he looks Anastasia up again. She may be useful…
  16. Mr Harrington’s Washing The October revolution takes place, Ashenden has failed, he immediately makes plans to leave but is caught up in the naive Harrington’s insistence that he gets the washing back which he’d given the hotel to do for him. Harrington and Anastasia find it in the bowels of the hotel but are stupidly attracted out into the street by a crowd listening to a harangue when troops drive by firing randomly. Anastasia flees to Ashenden’s room but when they both return to the scene they find Harrington dead, still clutching his washing.

The final image which seems to epitomise the worldview of the book is about the ludicrousness of life, its fickleness, its absurdity. But whereas life’s futility leaves Graham Greene in a permanent deep disgusted depression, life’s ridiculousness leaves Maugham with a sardonic smile on his face. It seems much the more mature and admirable attitude.

Ashenden emerges as a man perfectly capable of carrying out his tasks, adequate to the demands made on him but who, over and above this, is an astute observer of people, an ‘amateur of the baroque in human nature.’ (p.63)

Style

Snobbery Coming back to read English fiction after a prolonged dose of American, the most striking thing is the drawling confidence and smug superiority of the narrator. Ashenden has the calm confident aloofness of the English gentleman who has had it drummed into him at public school, Oxbridge and then in the professions, that an English gentleman is the most superior being in the world. In almost every sentence this sense of superiority oozes. Just like Bond, he is a connoisseur of the high life, living in a de luxe hotel whose other guests are top diplomats, princes in exile etc, probably all spies. When he meets his boss, R., he winces when R. holds a bottle of wine incorrectly and notes that R. doesn’t have the savoir faire to tip a waiter correctly. Ashenden, of course, is effortlessly at ease.

It amused Ashenden to see R., so sharp, so sure of himself and alert in his office, seized as he walked into the restaurant with shyness. He talked a little too loud in order to show that he was at his ease and made himself somewhat unnecessarily at home. You saw in his manner the shabby and commonplace life he had led till the hazards of war raised him to a position of consequence. He was glad to be in that fashionable restaurant cheek by jowl with persons who bore great or distinguished names , but he felt like a schoolboy in his first top-hat, and he quailed before the steely eye of the maître d’hôtel. (p.128)

In the phenomenal scenes with the British ambassador to Russia he easily holds his own with one of the most superior persons on the planet.

Humour As is the way with his class, this aloofness is combined with imperturbable good humour. The world apparently consists of all sorts of funny foreigners and rather ghastly poor people none of whom, alas, had the benefits of one’s upbringing. One can only marvel at their absurdity and at the absurdity of one’s own position, thrown in among this ridiculous crew. This attitude is encapsulated in his fascinated but patronising attitude to the Mexican ‘general’.

‘I gather by what you have not said that he’s an unmitigated scoundrel.’
R. smiled with his pale blue eyes.
‘I don’t know that I’d go quite so far as that. He hasn’t had the advantages of a public-school education. His ideas of playing the game are not quite the same as yours or mine.’ (Vintage 1991 paperback edition, p.56)

Padding The next most striking element is how extremely wordy it is, how long it takes Maugham to say anything, so cluttered is each sentence and paragraph by all the markers of an English prose designed to show one’s superiority, one’s civilisation, one’s leisurely at-homeness in the world. And his prose tends to be rather flat and uncolourful. It doesn’t have much verbal energy or colour or metaphor. When it does make use of simile or metaphor they are generally of the most crushing obviousness. Maugham’s prose comes by the yard.

It might be, he mused, as he rode along the lake on a dappled horse with a great rump and a short neck, like one of those prancing steeds that one sees in the old pictures, but this horse never pranced and he needed a firm jab with the spur to break even into a small trot; it might be, he mused, that the great chiefs of the secret service in their London offices, their hands on the throttle of this great machine, led a life of full excitement; they moved their pieces here and there, they saw the pattern woven by the multitudinous threads (Ashenden was lavish with his metaphors), they made a picture out of the various pieces of the jigsaw puzzle; but it must be confessed that for the small fry like himself to be a member of the secret service was not as adventurous an affair as the public thought. (p.109)

That’s one sentence! Chandler, Hammett, Cain, Burnett,  Hemingway, Fitzgerald, it is not. He is twenty years older than them, went to English public schools and was raised in a vanishing world of top hats and gracious living and every paragraph reminds you of the fact, in their unspooling, repetitive, easily distracted way.

However, as with other writers, among all the other things his texts do, Maugham’s teach us how to read him, how to read his kind of English prose: and the only way to do that is to slow right down to his civilised, easy-going pace, and learn to enjoy his amiable observations and rather trifling anecdotes.

Ashenden reflected that this was the mistake the amateur humourist, as opposed to the professional, so often made; when he made a joke he harped on it. The relations of the joker to his joke should be as quick and desultory as those of a bee to its flower. He should make his joke and pass on. There is of course no harm if, like the bee approaching the flower, he buzzes a little; for it is just as well to announce to a thick-headed world that a joke is intended. But Ashenden, unlike most professionla humourists, had a kindly tolerance for other people’s humour and now he answered R. on his own lines. (p.113)

Long-winded, isn’t it? Not necessarily wrong, just takes quite a long time to say something which is unexceptional, not particularly interesting. If you accept that you’re not going to learn much but are going to be gently rocked by these long easy-going paragraphs, it becomes quite a pleasure to read.

The subordinate clause

One specific tic is his habit of inserting a subordinate clause in the middle of a sentence (highlighted in italics in the examples given above and below). This, at a basic level, makes many of his sentences longer, pads the text. It also makes them feel more digressive and chatty. Helps to creates the affable persona. Somehow it sounds like Colonel Blimp speaking, interrupting himself to take a puff of his cigar and let you into another piece of bland worldly wisdom.

She was not the type he would have expected to adopt that career, for she seemed to have no advantages that could help her, and he asked himself whether she came from a family of entertainers (there are all over the world families in which for generations the members have become dancers or acrobats or comic singers) or whether she had fallen into the life accidentally through some lover in the business who had for a time made her his partner. (p.148)

Even when he’s recounting basic factual events, he has this tendency to interrupt himself with a subordinate clause. In 20th century prose, especially the kind of fast-moving thrillers I’ve been reading, the tendency is to allot each action its own sentence and keep subordinate clauses to a minimum. Makes them more immediate, more impactful, easier to read. Maugham’s penchant for inserting subordinate clauses right bang in the middle of the sentence forces you to slow down and to process two or more things per sentence. Slower and more reflective.

As though for protection (very much to his surprise) she flung her arms round Ashenden. (p.151)

If Chandra came and showed his passport, and it was very likely that he was travelling with a false one, issued probably by a neutral nation, he was to be asked to wait and Ashenden was to identify him. (p.154)

He had not been to Lucerne since he was a boy and but vaguely remembered a covered bridge, a great stone lion and a church in which he had sat, bored yet impressed, while they played an organ; and now wandering along a shady quay (and the lake looked just as tawdry and unreal as it looked on the picture-postcards) he tried not so much to find his way about a half-forgotten scene as to reform in his mind some recollection of the shy and eager lad, so impatient for life (which he saw not in the present of his adolescence but only in the future of his manhood) who so long ago had wandered there. (p.170)

People

What you get in exchange for slowing down, for making a conscious decision to forget the snappy jazziness of more modern prose, is a series of stories which, at their best, take you deep into a human personality. The stories are secondary: the real interest is in the people who Maugham observes and describes not pithily but very thoroughly. No one sentence stands out but, slowly, in his long-winded way, you find yourself processing the accumulating detail which is what character in a text is made of. The ‘stories’ really amount to in-depth portraits of a number of fascinating personalities: the Mexican general, Anastasia the Russian intellectual, Mr Harrington the naive American, the stricken ambassador Sir Herbert Witherspoon, Gustav the liar and the tragic Grantley Caypor and wife.

Shilling shocker

Every spy or adventure or crime story I’ve read contains an obligatory reference to the characters reading too many spy or adventure or crime stories. This self-consciousness seems to be an iron rule of the genre. Maybe every author in it has been aware since the start that you have to put your characters into melodramatic situations sooner or later to justify being in the genre; sooner or later something melodramatic has to happen, but it’s somehow OK, less cheesy, more plausible, if you first of all emphasise that of course you the narrator are aware of other spy, adventure and crime writer’s cheesy clichés, but in this case – it actually happened!

It had always seemed to Ashenden that R. had spent much of his spare time in reading detective fiction and especially when he was in a good humour it meant he found a fantastic pleasure in aping the style of the shilling shocker. (p.112)

Having twice carefully read the letter, he held the paper up to the light to see the watermark (he had no reason for doing this except that the sleuths of detective novels always did it), then struck a match and watched it burn.

Gomez, the young Spaniard whom Grantley had betrayed… was a high-spirited youth, with a love of adventure, and he had undertaken his mission not for the money he earned by it, but for a passion for romance. It amused him to outwit the clumsy German and it appealed to his sense of the absurd to play a part in a shilling shocker. (p.185)

Eric Ambler

Maugham’s name crops up several times in the autobiography of thriller writer, Eric Ambler. The two meet when Ambler stays near Maugham’s house on the Riviera in the 1950s, and socialise back in London. The most interesting reference, though, comes much earlier, when an author friend (Eileen Bigland) tells Ambler, as he is setting out to become a writer, to learn from Maugham. From which of his novels, Cakes and Ale? Of Human Bondage?

‘I was thinking of Ashenden,’ she said; ‘and the other long short stories. He’s not a great novelist, but he’s a fine storyteller. And he never mucks about with the story he’s telling.’ (Here Lies, p.123)


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

%d bloggers like this: