Ashenden (2000, Vintage UK) 4 stars

A celebrated writer by the time the war broke out in 1914, Maugham had the …


4 stars

A British writer gallivants around Europe conducting light espionage during the first World War. Based on Maugham's own experience doing the same, this book contains a number of separate stories, clearly chronologically linked but with no shared plot. Ashenden is batted around a bit by his handlers, and must learn the ropes quickly. He muddles through with a deft touch, a dry sense of humor, and a lot of luck.

This work is a kind of anthropology of the world's nations. Ashenden's portraits of a Mexican general, a British diplomat, a German fraulein are funny, unsparing, a little racist, but ultimately full of love. In the final story, the longest and most emotionally affecting in the book, our narrator gets tangled up in St Petersburg with an American businessman and a beautiful Russian intellectual during the autumn of 1917: the chaos that comes to surround this little group draws out …