I spy

Came across W. Somerset Maugham's Collected Short Stories, Volume Three. Cover looked promising, not familiar - but did I already own it in another edition? Well, better take no chances. Took it home and turns out I don't own Vol. 3 although I have most of the other vols. Jolly good. Then, upon further inspection of said book, turns out I in fact do own it, sort of. Because it's in essence the same book as the novel Ashenden, except for a bit in the end: a short story called Sanatorium. What Maugham did was what in Science Fiction is called a fix-up - he took a bunch of related short stories and turned them into a novel. As far as I can tell there seems to be no actual rewriting as such, but the pacing of the book is slightly different as the chapter breaks don't strictly follow the breaks between the different stories. (I probably knew all this already as something like fifteen years ago I published an article about the Ashenden novel/stories in The Finnish Whodunnit Society magazine Ruumiin kulttuuri but have managed to forget all about it.)

Ashenden (or Vol. 3, if you will) is quite clearly one of Maugham's most interesting books. It's about a writer called Ashenden who during World War I becomes a spy. Maugham knows whereof he writes as he himself was a spy during the war. Therefore the stories are - if not autobiographical - then at least based on personal experience. They're quite low key, shy away from any melodrama or cheap sensationalism (which is pretty obvious when one compares them to other stuff about spies written around the same time) and come off as almost naturalistic. In the first short story the fellow who approaches him to become a spy tells the true story of what happened to a colleague of his. Well, the colleague had in his possession certain crucial documents. He went out and had supper, met a beautiful lady, they came back to his digs, had some bubbly and next thing the chap knows it's the following morning and the documents are gone, phut, just like that, and so's the lady - now how's that for a story? Ashenden rolls his eyes and says: "We really can't write that story much longer."

Hitchcock made a movie based on the stories, Secret Agent (1936), with John Gielgud as the slightly unlikely Ashenden, the lovely Madeleine Carroll as his "wife" and the truly sinister Peter Lorre as his disturbing associate The General. Not a bad little picture, not much to do with Maugham's original writings, but nevertheless not a bad picture.

Odd thing, by the way, how many writers become involved with the cloak and dagger business. Maugham, Compton Mackenzie, John Le Carré, Ian Fleming, Graham Greene, Manning Coles (now actually Manning Coles is a pseudonym behind which there were two writers: Manning and Coles, of whom Coles worked for British Intelligence in both wars), Ted Allbeury, Tim Sebastian. These are just a few that spring to mind. And the traditions are long: even in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries we have names like Daniel Defoe, Aphra Behn (one of the, to my knowledge, very few female author-spies) and indeed Christopher Marlowe who very likely owed his untimely demise to his shady dealings with that dangerous and ruthless man Walsingham, the spymaster of Queen Elizabeth. There are claims that Edgar Allan Poe was actually a government spy. I seriously doubt it.

Are authors good spies? Why do they want to be spies? Is there some intricate but hidden connection between spying and writing? I think there very well may be just that. What does a writer do - all the time? He observes people. He observes facts. He spies on private conversations. He pries into the souls of others. Why did he say that? Why did she react like that? Who is this person? What's his secret? What makes him tick? What makes her do the things she does? What is she thinking? What will he do? The writer is life's ever alert little eavesdropper. Would probably peep through keyholes too.

That's what fiction is about. Observing facts. Putting them together. Building large constructions based on tiny shreds of truth. Tiny slivers of life. Extrapolating.

There's also another thing that may be similar. I sincerely believe that all writers want to be someone else. At least sometime. At least for a little while. And that's what you do when you write somebody: you become that person. And that person becomes you. So for a while you get to pretend to be someone else. The act of writing, the act of creating, is the act of becoming and of being.

And then lastly but not necessarily leastly there's the lying. The untruths. The fabrication of facts. The fabrication of reality itself. That always appeals tremendously to the creative mind of the writer. Fiction is lying. Or maybe I can put it like this: writing fiction is lying with a licence. More or less. Wouldn't it be simply splendid if one could stretch it a bit? Stretch it into real life? Just a little? Where's the harm? All writers are born liars. They've just been able to channel their lies in a constructive and profitable way. Well, the same goes for the spy.

I well understand that a spy needs other qualities as well. But an author naturally has several of the more important qualities that a spy needs. And I'm not claiming that being an author automatically makes anyone a decent spy. Or even half decent. What I am saying is that I quite understand why so many authors would want to be and choose to become one. I quite understand.

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