Wednesday, 8 December 2021

Somerset Maugham: Inspiration for James Bond??

Another fascinating chapter in the life of W. Somerset Maugham. Too old and ill to serve in the army, he offered to serve the British as a spy during World War I. The government thought it was a great opportunity, because who would suspect a middle-aged, famous novelist in ill health of being an agent? 

Maugham published Ashenden in 1928, a group of short stories based on his experiences. For the first time, a spy was portrayed as gentlemanly, sophisticated and aloof. Ian Fleming, later a friend of Maugham, said that Ashenden influenced his own writing of spy stories. 

In 1960, Ian Fleming published For Your Eyes Only, a collection of short James Bond stories. Fleming undertook some minor experiments with the format, including the story Quantum of Solace, written in the style of and as a direct homage to Maugham.

Ashenden is a fun collection of stories. Some come across as absurdist, but many witnesses attest how Maugham always stuck closely to the facts. It's crazy to think these events very likely happened. For example, Maugham almost married a Russian woman until he found her too disagreeable because she wouldn’t let him have his eggs scrambled ('too bourgeois').

There's also the case of the ‘pathetic demise’ of an American diplomat in revolutionary Russia. Guests had been advised to evacuate a hotel but the diplomat insisted on first retrieving his laundry (Russia had 'inconvenienced' him enough and he didn’t want them to get their hands on 'four perfectly good shirts') and ended up getting shot.

The stories influenced everyone from John Le CarrĂ© to Raymond Chandler. Their publication was delayed until they were no longer deemed a threat to national security, and a couple were banned by Churchill altogether. They were also used by Goebbels in his propaganda speeches in Nazi Germany, he believed they showed the callous coldness of the English. 

Info for this post came from Selina Hastings's great Maugham biography and Craig Showalter's article: Somerset Maugham - World Traveler, Famed Storyteller 

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