Though I love Somerset Maugham's fiction and think him lamentably underrated for reasons it would, on another occasion, be interesting to explore, I can't resist this little riff from Jacques Barzun's "Meditations on the Literature of Spying," which appeared in The American Scholar in Spring 1965 -- long before other scholars of academic note were taking this literary genre with anything like seriousness. Barzun is registering his weariness with Maugham's "disillusioned stance" in The Narrow Corner (1944), which has become, Barzun says, the standard attitude of the hero as modern spy in works by lesser novelists.
To know that everything and everybody is a fraud gives the derivative types what they call a wry satisfaction. Their borrowed system creates the ironies that twist their smiles into wryness. They look wry and drink rye and make a virtue of taking the blows of fate wryly. It is monotonous: I am fed up with the life of wryly.
It's a terrific, very quotable essay, with a superb passage on how spy stories reflect "the romance of the age." I will type it into a post some other time. Barzun was on the cover of Time on my birthday in 1956. -- DL