LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
[Ashenden and his friends are caught up in the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917, and there is fighting in the streets]
‘Well, what happened to the old woman?’ asked Ashenden.
‘… she was bleeding dreadfully and we had some difficulty in staunching the blood.’
Anastasia Alexandrovna gave Mr Harrington an odd look and to his surprise Ashenden saw him turn scarlet.
‘What’s the matter now?’
‘You see, we had nothing to bind her up with. Mr Harrington’s handkerchief was soaked. There was only one thing about me that I could get off quickly and so I took off my…’
But before she could finish Mr Harrington interrupted her.
‘You need not tell Mr Ashenden what you took off. I’m a married man and I know ladies wear them, but I see no need to refer to them in general society.’
Anastasia Alexandrovna giggled…
When [she] had left them Mr Harrington sat in a brown study.
‘They’re very queer, these Russians. Do you know what she did?’ he said suddenly. ‘She stood up in the cab, in the middle of the street, with people passing on both sides,and took her pants off. She tore them in two and gave me one to hold while she made a bandage of the other. I was never so embarrassed in my life.’
observations: From WSM's introduction to this book: "In 1917 I went to Russia. I was sent to prevent the Bolshevik Revolution and to keep Russia in the war. The reader will know that my efforts did not meet with success." How can you not love Somerset Maugham? I’m a big fan of his – click on the label below to see more entries – and enjoyed this book as a period piece.
It was especially interesting to look at spy stories written almost 90 years apart - last week we had The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer. This one is a very early example of a spy story, based on Maugham's own experiences, and is a collection of linked stories, told in a leisurely manner. It’s never very clear when a thread has finished - you wonder if the (surviving) characters are going to come back later.
You can clearly see which bits of spy fiction he bequeathed to his successors, and of course he didn’t know that he was one of the first practitioners of the genre – occasionally he wanders off into a sub-story that has no connection with spying, but that’s fair enough in the circumstances, even if an author wouldn’t do that now.
A trope that has lived on is this: occasionally Ashenden is more sentimental than you might expect, and on other occasions he (or another character) is more ruthless. And the reader is supposed to be surprised by both these things. Also, when he is recruited, Ashenden is assured that he will get no thanks if he is successful, and no help if he fails. This is a common theme in older stories, and I have never understood why this is an attractive or workable idea. You’d think you might offer the spies something.
The narration is quite flat and basic, but as ever Maugham can tell a great story, and create terrific characters. I have said before that Maugham is particularly good with his female characters, and Anastasia Alexandrovna, above, is a revolutionary with strong political principles, but she is also funny, impulsive, annoying, dissolute and conscience-less. I cannot think of a single other book where someone with her political views is given such a rounded personality – she makes you realize just how badly-drawn left-wing women tend to be in books, certainly of that era. They tend to be humourless and either over-perfect or stupid and ruthless.
There is also a rather splendid Spanish dancer in the book (who is really Italian) who goes through agonies of indecision having to choose between jail and betraying her lover.
The pictures are from Wikimedia Commons.