At some point in the mid-1920s, Winston Churchill informed W. Somerset Maugham that his Ashenden stories—a collection based on the writer’s brief career as a spy during the First World War—were in violation of the Official Secrets Act. This was not, however, an official censure; Churchill, then serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer, was a longtime friend and golfing buddy of Maugham’s, a powerful and connected politician doing his (equally famous) literary chum a favor by sparing him the embarrassment of a potential prosecution. But in spite or because of Maugham’s decision to burn at least fourteen of these stories at Churchill’s suggestion, the volume that was eventually published in 1928 as Ashenden; or, The British Agent raises significant questions concerning the paradoxes and consequences of recruiting authors as agents in the first place. During the war, the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) made a point of recruiting well-known writers: Maugham, the Scottish novelist Compton Mackenzie, and the American-born playwright Edward Knoblock, among others. They did this, in part, under the assumption that literary craft and tradecraft were not so dissimilar. Both required subterfuge, linguistic prowess, and a nuanced understanding of human nature. But SIS failed to take into consideration the nature of the artist. What writer could resist the temptation to exploit such material? The result—the postwar rise of what I call spyography, memoirs or thinly veiled, fictional accounts of real-life intelligence work—bears witness not only to the divided loyalties of the “literary agent,” whose worldliness and sophistication turn out to be more of a liability than an asset, but also more generally to the questionable instrumentalization of the humanities during wartime, the mobilization of artists and writers not as propagandists but as actors in the theater of operations itself.
Maugham’s unofficial brush with the Official Secrets Act seems appropriate considering the informal context of his recruitment, which had more to do with clubbability than capability, a gentlemen’s agreement made (one imagines) over brandy and cigars in the manner of a John Buchan adventure. But unlike Richard Hannay, the hero of The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), Maugham’s career in the secret service would prove rather anticlimactic. Through his connections in London society, Maugham met Captain John Wallinger, who was then running an espionage network in Switzerland for the War Office. Aware that Maugham’s creativity and knowledge of French and German could be useful in the field, Wallinger suggested the author use his profession as a cover for carrying out intelligence operations. Accordingly, Maugham traveled to Geneva in the autumn of 1915 to replace another agent who had suffered a nervous breakdown—a rather inauspicious beginning for a career in the secret service. Nevertheless, Maugham’s work in Geneva seems to have been fairly routine, running agents, taking part in the occasional minor operation, and writing interminable reports that he suspected no one read. Later, in 1917, Maugham was sent on an undercover assignment to Petrograd, then in the throes of a communist coup. His mission (as he would later characterize it) was to report on the revolution to both London and Washington and do everything he could to keep Russia in the war and Lenin out of power. You can imagine how that worked out. In his 1941 preface to Ashenden, Maugham dryly observes: “The reader will know that my efforts did not meet with success.” Escaping the Bolshevik takeover by a matter of days, Maugham left Russia with Petrograd well on its way to becoming Leningrad.
Not exactly the stuff of James Bond. Still, Maugham was able to salvage something of his efforts on behalf of His Majesty’s Secret Service. If “literary purposes” provided a useful cover for intelligence work, literature, ironically, became the only tangible product of the writer’s misadventures. Initially, though, Maugham did not directly acknowledge that Ashenden was based on his own experiences in the secret service. The first edition offered itself, rather cryptically, as a “narrative of some experiences during the Great War of a very insignificant member of the Intelligence Department.” But while subsequent editions made it clear that the stories were a fictionalized account of the author’s wartime service, Ashenden could scarcely, at first glance, be considered revelatory. Like Maugham, the cosmopolitan Ashenden—whose first name is never revealed—is a middle-aged “writer by profession,” recruited by a gruff officer known only as R. to work as a British agent, first in Switzerland and later in Russia. The spy’s activities range, for the most part, from the banal to the distasteful. Most of his missions fail outright or end ambiguously. Ashenden is thwarted in an attempt to retrieve a case with important documents from a train station in Zürich. He becomes the unwilling recipient of an ancient expatriate Englishwoman’s last, inconclusive utterance. Traveling to Italy, he takes part in a botched assassination operation in which an innocent man is killed. He forces a Mata Hari-like seductress to write melodramatic letters in an effort to lure her lover, an Indian insurgent, into a trap (the radical promptly swallows cyanide). Finally, like his creator, Ashenden engages in a hopeless attempt to prevent a Bolshevik coup in revolutionary Russia. Although the spy accomplishes very little as an agent of the Crown, he treats himself to the local cuisine, takes an extraordinary number of baths, brushes up on his French and Russian literature, and gathers material for his plays. In Ashenden, espionage seems more like a cover for literary activity than vice versa.
Considering the seemingly innocuous nature of the book, espionage historians today continue to be perplexed by the government’s reaction to Maugham’s spy stories, especially in light of the relative freedom of disclosure granted to other ex-agents in the 1930s. Nigel West, for example, seems unsure of what violation, if any, Ashenden actually constitutes: “The treatment received by Maugham was certainly unusual, for his fiction could hardly be described as a work of disclosure, whereas Sir Paul Dukes (The Story of ST-25), Samuel Hoare (The Fourth Seal), William Gibson (Wild Career) and George Hill (Go Spy the Land) seem to have received a measure of official approval despite revealing a good deal about SIS’s clandestine operations during the Great War.” An alternative approach, I would suggest, would be to account for the British government’s “unusual” reaction to Ashenden not by pinpointing the specific security objections, but by locating in Maugham’s work a critical resistance to official or approved accounts of wartime espionage. Churchill himself was invested, for obvious political reasons, in a more popular conception of the British intelligence community. In his 1932 memoir, Amid these Storms: Thoughts and Adventures, he offers this quixotic description of the intelligence services during the Great War:
In the higher ranges of Secret Service work the actual facts in many cases were in every respect equal to the most fantastic inventions of romance and melodrama. Tangle within tangle, plot and counter-plot, ruse and treachery, cross and double-cross, true agent, false agent, double agent, gold and steel, the bomb, the dagger and the firing party were interwoven in many a texture so intricate as to be incredible and yet true.
Churchill, of course, knew better. Well-versed in matters of intelligence and national security throughout his career, the statesman understood that espionage was not always so colorful. Nevertheless, in this much-quoted passage, he chooses to collapse the division between realism and melodrama, maintaining that real-life intrigues mirror their shilling-shocker counterparts. But what, we might ask, is gained by asserting the secret service’s fidelity to melodrama?
As Peter Brooks has argued, melodrama is an attempt to “[make] sense of experience” in a world where the old moral and ethical order has collapsed. That is to say, it imposes strict dichotomies—good and evil, us and them—in an effort to reinforce what is essentially a nationalistic worldview. As a writer, Ashenden is recruited under the assumption that he knows, better than most, how to think and act melodramatically. However, as a code of conduct, it falters. While the agent certainly attempts to play by the rules of genre and thereby affirm the ideology underlying his initial recruitment, what Maugham’s novel consistently reveals is the writer-spy’s inability to read character and perform according to generic codes. Even when events happen to play out in a melodramatic fashion, they do so in such a way as to confound the highly cultured and worldly Ashenden, whose sophistication and cosmopolitanism render him oddly overqualified for the job. Ashenden, whom R. believes to be an expert in human nature, is at one point tasked with forging sappy love letters to lure an Indian insurgent, Chandra Lal, into Allied custody, but he fails to anticipate the rebel’s hidden bottle of cyanide (a standard trope of the thriller), which the villain naturally drinks upon capture. “He supposed the possibility of such a thing [Lal’s suicide] should have occurred to him. How was he to anticipate these melodramatic devices?” In the end, Ashenden the playwright is too sophisticated to be of much use; he is, incongruously, too good a plotter to be a spy. The final result of his endeavors, from Geneva to Petrograd, is anticipated by his very name: a legacy of ashes.
Contrary to Churchill’s swashbuckling description, Ashenden comes to see the spy game as an exercise in frustration and futility:
Being no more than a tiny rivet in a vast and complicated machine, he never had the advantage of seeing a completed action. He was concerned with the beginning or the end of it, perhaps, or with some incident in the middle, but what his own doings led to he had seldom a chance of discovering. It was as unsatisfactory as those modern novels that give you a number of unrelated episodes and expect you by piecing them together to construct in your mind a connected narrative.
Despite Maugham’s well-documented distaste for modernist obfuscation in literature, Ashenden ultimately has less in common with the adventure yarns of Rudyard Kipling and John Buchan than it does with James Joyce’s Dubliners, studies of paralysis with indefinite resolutions, if indeed they are resolutions at all.
If the spyography shows us anything, it is that revelations concerning the specific inner workings of the intelligence community during the First World War are less significant than what this legally fraught genre reveals about the reality of the spy world in general—its censors and silencers, mythmakers and murderers. In retrospect, Maugham got off rather easily. While many former agents who wrote about their experiences in a more heroic vein avoided censure, other spyographers, such as Maugham’s fellow author, Compton Mackenzie, were tried and convicted, officially for revealing official secrets, unofficially for questioning the policies—and harming the image—of the national security state itself. In the age of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, spyography and its challenge to authority seem all too familiar.
Mark David Kaufman
United States Air Force Academy
William SOMERSET MAUGHAM, reproduced under Creative Commons license from Flickr.com