In my last post I detailed my plan to read some Somerset Maugham this year. I am now about 100 pages into Ashenden, and I am enjoying it very much. From my perspective, it reads a lot like F. Scott Fitzgerald, but maybe without quite so much of the “music” that one hears in Fitzgerald’s prose.
While reading Ashenden, I got curious about what some of the literary criticism on the book was like, so I popped over to our suite of “Lit Crit” databases and did a simple search in Gale’s Literature Resource Center. There were several nice write-ups to choose from. Here’s a small excerpt from one of them that nicely illuminates the titular character:
Ashenden is a cultured and cosmopolitan writer who approaches intelligence work with detachment, a sense of irony, and a talent for careful observation of human beings. He works unobtrusively and efficiently, according to a regular schedule. Ostensibly writing a play, he leaves the manuscript easily in sight of visitors to his room yet carefully avoids putting in writing anything that might suggest his true purpose. He is pleased to be known as a successful novelist and playwright and is flattered when a customs agent who has read his short stories lets his baggage pass uninspected. Although he finds intelligence work inherently dull, he is not bored by his fellow human beings, for they are his “raw material.” Like his chief, R, he prefers knaves to fools. He reveals a touch of snobbery when he gives R his fashionable London address as 36 Chesterfield Street, Mayfair (Maugham’s was 6 Cadogan Street, Mayfair). While he is basically tolerant, he contemplates the deaths of traitors and enemy agents with indifference, and it never occurs to him to be disloyal to his nation or class. Though he often views his fellow human beings with interest and sympathy, he is given to flippancy and ironic asides in response to dullness or clumsy attempts at humor.
Folks who want more insight into the work of someone they’re reading about will find a wealth of support in these databases. Not every author will be there, but most of the “heavy-hitters” will be, and more contemporary and less well-known writers than one might think are also represented.
Archer, Stanley. “Ashenden; or, The British Agent and Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular.” W. Somerset Maugham: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993. 39-54. Rpt. in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Vol. 208. Detroit: Gale, 39-54. Literature Resource Center. Gale. CARNEGIE LIBRARY OF PITTSBURGH-EIN. 28 Jan. 2010 <http://go.galegroup.com/ps/start.do?p=LitRC&u=carnegielib>.