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Introduction

William Somerset Maugham ( 25 January 1874 – 16 December 1965) was a British playwright, novelist and short story writer who managed to live a very long life. Only first 60 years of which he was productive. He was among the most popular writers of his era and reputedly the highest paid author during the 1930s.

After losing both his parents by the age of 10, Maugham was raised by a paternal uncle who was emotionally cold. Not wanting to become a lawyer like other men in his family, Maugham eventually trained and qualified as a doctor. The first run of his first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897), sold out so rapidly that Maugham gave up medicine and became professional writer.

The medical student who turned into  novelist was also like Oscal wilde before him a fashionable playwright. He wrote several now forgotten comedies, which were popuper at a time, starting from Lady Frederick in 1907 to The Circle and Our Betters in 1921 and 1923.

He is one of very few (and probably the most talented) English novelists closely connected to MI5. He used to belong to the circle of Russian émigré in London due to his affair with the daughter of famous Russian anarchist Duke Kropotkin. During the First World War, he served with the Red Cross and in the ambulance corps, before being recruited in 1916 into the British Secret Intelligence Service, for which he worked in Switzerland. Later he was send by MI5 on clandestine mission  to Russia (so secret, that even English Ambassador to Russia was not informed about it) in Russia and arrived just before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Maugham was given the impossible task to squelch the Bolshivic revolution with 56,000 pounds given to him by the government of Lloyd George and he fictionalizes this in the story "Mr. Harrington's Washington."  He was lucky to be able to leave the country before Bolsheviks caught him and put against the wall  (  Anglo-American Agent in Revolutionary Russia )

  (1874-1966) WAS CHIEF AGENT IN RUSSIA for the British and American secret services during the crucial few weeks which preceded the Bolshevik coup of 1917. Yet the voluminous literature concerning him has been almost exclusively devoted to his fiction and personality, and mainly confined to his French and English interests. Historians have left the field to literary critics, and they in turn have paid little attention to the political side of Maugham. Primarily interested in the author’s plays, novels, and stories, students of literature have never examined Maugham’s intimation that his sojourn in revolutionary Petrograd was both reluctant and pointless. R. L. Calder echoed the sentiments of his fellow literary critics in characterizing his subject as a habitue of the Cafe Royal who had gone to war, and in maintaining that his mission did not succeed, of course.1 This essay qualifies and explains Maugham’s reputation for failure, and emphasizes the historical significance of his undercover activities.2

The distortions of Maugham’s memory help to explain his reputation for failure in Russia. Ten years elapsed before he wrote about 1917, and then he cast himself in the fictional role of Ashenden.

He is generally recognized as one of the fathers of modern spy fiction. The precursor and inspiration to Greene, Ian Flemming, Eric Ambler, and LeCarre.  His novel Ashenden The British Agent  (1928), is acknowledged as the work that broke spy fiction out of the mould established by romantic works of the pre-1914 era. It is very far away from the intricately woven page-turners featuring brainy CIA or MI5 types bedding super-beautiful Russian women left and right that we tend to think of as being sp novels today. Ashenden, whose wartime experiences mirror Maugham's, is no James Bond; rather he is a small cog in a larger machine, acting as a facilitator whilst often being unaware of the wider consequences.  Some years ago Ashenden was serialized on the BBC. As Michael Dirda (the reviewer for the Washington Post) noted:

"Ashenden" is readable, convincing, and (despite its WWI setting) relevant to the events of today. The secret and desperate world of war and espionage will be with us forever it seems; Maugham's themes are timeless and his writing is a model of clarity.

During and after the war, he traveled in India and Southeast Asia; all of these experiences were reflected in later short stories and novels. What is interesting the main hero of those stories often pose as narcoaddict (addicted to opium). He liked to describe the dramas of ordinary people in tragic situations; making use of the exotic background of the Far East with the style influenced by Maupassant.

His stories still stand up as stories, no matter into what medium they are translated. They are frequently slight and some times trivial, but they are never botched

Maugham’s attitude toward life and toward his fellows has not changed over the years. It is that of an aloof, sardonic clinician who expects little from existence, is surprised at nothing, is skeptical of aspirations and amused by the spectacle of the follies of mankind. Often the attitude has degenerated into a formula, and then one is aware of an irritating note of superiority in Maugham, a note of condescension to frailer mortals. In many of the short stories he appears as altogether too knowing, too unsurprised, too worldly. And one becomes aware, too, of something else: what might be called an unduly limited sense of curiosity.

In his views on many human problems and emotions (especially his skepticism about romantic love and monogamous marriage) he somewhat reminds Oscar Wilde.  He was definitely influenced by this author. He definitely saw, and even somewhat amplified in his quotes)  the same problems as Oscar Wilde and first of all the problem "asymmetry" of romantic love and romantic feelings as in two famous Oscar Wilde quotes (some call them cynical view on love, while in reality they are probably pretty realistic):

Compare with the following Somerset Maugham quotes:

Somerset Maugham on asymmetry of love and marriage

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The Last but not Least


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