Friday, 30 December 2011

For Maugham's Eyes Only

In an earlier post, I explored the similarities between 'Quantum of Solace', the short story published in Ian Fleming's For Your Eyes Only, and 'The Ambassador', a story by Somerset Maugham that appears in Ashenden. Reading the Ashenden collection in its entirety, it struck me that For Your Eyes Only as a whole is rather 'maughamish' (to use Kingsley Amis' description), and that the complete volume, not just 'Quantum of Solace', could be regarded as a homage to Somerset Maugham.

What is the evidence? The obvious similarity between Ashenden and For Your Eyes Only is that both are a collection of short stories. This form was a departure for Fleming, who had up till the preparation of For Your Eyes Only produced full-length novels. Both also have a sub-title of sorts – 'The British Agent' (Ashenden) and 'Five secret occasions in the life of James Bond'. That said, Fleming doesn't strictly follow the structure of Ashenden, as the stories in Maugham's volume are connected to each other to lesser or greater extents, while those by Fleming are stand-alone.

One of the themes of Ashenden is the morally ambivalent nature of an agent's work. We see this in 'The hairless Mexican', in which Ashenden accompanies an agent to Italy in order to effect an assassination. Then, in 'Flip of a coin', Ashenden decides, on the toss of a coin, whether to authorise an operation which could result in the deaths of innocent people, but be beneficial to the wider aims of the war effort (that is, of the First World War). And in 'The traitor', Ashenden befriends an Englishman and known traitor in Switzerland and contrives to return him to England to face capital punishment.

Moral and ethical dilemmas are found in Fleming's stories too. In the title story, 'For Your Eyes Only', M implicitly orders James Bond to find and kill the man responsible for the death of his friends, the Havelocks. There is no SIS connection – this is to be murder sanctioned by M. In 'The Hildebrand Rarity', Bond, sailing with three companions, finds the dead body of one of the party (a boorish and violent man). He suspects one of the other two, but is sympathetic to their motives and is unlikely to say anything at the coroner's enquiry which would prevent a verdict of death by misadventure.

'The Hildebrand Rarity' joins 'Quantum of Solace' (and in a sense 'For Your Eyes Only') as a story that is not about the Secret Service. The inclusion of stories that are set outside the world of espionage is again reminiscent of Ashenden, which also combines both spy and personal stories. 'The Ambassador' is, of course, a non-spy story, and it joins others, like 'Love and Russian literature', in which Ashenden recalls his past relationship with a member of the Russian intelligentsia, Anastasia Alexandrovna.

With the exception of 'Quantum of Solace', it is unlikely that Ian Fleming set out to imitate Somerset Maugham when he wrote all the stories that would be collected in For Your Eyes Only. For example, 'For Your Eyes Only' and 'Risico' were originally conceived as plots for an aborted TV series. However, the result of the collection, by accident if not by design, is a volume that stands as a whole in tribute to Maugham's Ashenden.

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