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Cakes and Ale by William Somerset Maugham

June 7, 2012 33 comments

Cakes and Ale : or the Skeleton in the Cupboard by William Somerset Maugham. 1930 French title: La Ronde de l’amour. Out of print.

Recently, a lot of skeletons fell onto me when I opened cupboards at work. As my mind stretched out to grab a healthy dose of humour to ease the stress, reading Cakes and Ale, or the Skeleton in the Cupboard seemed to be a sort of supreme irony. It proved to be a great idea, stress-wise and literary wise.

William Ashenden is our narrator. He’s a writer, not an excellent one, according to him. He’s middle aged, a bachelor who lives in a boarding house. He’s surprised when his fellow writer Alroy Kear invites him to lunch. Kear is a very successful writer of honest novels but he’s without the literary gift he’d need to reach immortality.

I could think of no one among my contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent.

In our modern world, Kear would be a novelist who dutifully attended creative writing classes, understood the rules and became a good enough craftsman to be widely read. Add to this perfect skills to manage his literary career and you have a pillar of the London literary world.

Ashenden knows that Kear wants something from him to issue such an invitation. And indeed he does. Kear intends to write a biography of Edward Driffield, a famous Victorian writer that Ashenden happened to knew in his youth. Ashenden befriended Edward Driffield at the time he was married to his first wife Rose. Kear needs writing material about this part of Driffield’s life. Ashenden starts reminiscing about his past and relates the reader how he met and started to see Edward Driffield.

I picked up Cakes and Ale without knowing anything about its background and I sure didn’t expect a satire of London’s literary life. Then Guy, seeing in the Currently Reading pad that I was reading Cakes & Ale, mentioned that Kear was supposed to be Walpole and Driffield, Thomas Hardy. I’d never heard of Walpole before but from the very beginning, Driffield reminded me of Thomas Hardy. Nothing to be proud of, obvious as it is. Driffield came from the village of Blackstable, Kent. He was married twice, once to Rose, a country girl and then to his nurse. His funeral led to a controversy about burying him in a cathedral or in Blackstable.

But I think I should have expected him to sing sea chanteys or old English country airs, you know, the sort of thing they used to sing at fairings—blind fiddlers and the village swains dancing with the girls on the threshing floor and all that sort of thing.

I haven’t read a lot of Thomas Hardy but music and country fiddlers seem to be part of his novels. Now have a look at Hardy’s biography on Wikipedia, and tell me that it doesn’t look furiously like Driffield’s bio. There’s the bio, but there are also the comments on Driffield’s work, that Ashenden doesn’t like:

My own heart sank when he led me into the forecastle of a sailing ship or the taproom of a public house and I knew I was in for half a dozen pages in dialect of facetious comment on life, ethics, and immortality.

Or:

His novels happen to bore me; I find them long; the melodramatic incidents with which he sought to stir the sluggish reader’s interest leave me cold; but he certainly had sincerity. There is in his best books the stir of life, and in none of them can you fail to be aware of the author’s enigmatic personality. In his earlier days he was praised or blamed for his realism; according to the idiosyncrasy of his critics he was extolled for his truth or censured for his coarseness.

Or:

Driffield’s strength lay evidently in his depiction of the class he knew best, farmers and farm labourers, shopkeepers and bartenders, skippers of sailing ships, mates, cooks, and able seamen.

Now tell me this isn’t a description of Hardy’s literary universe. As far as Walpole is concerned, I don’t know if Kear looks like him but Walpole wrote a biography of Trollope and Wikipedia says he was sensitive about his literary reputation and took adverse criticism badly. Reading his biography there, it’s difficult not to see Walpole in Kear. (Thanks Guy for the nudge, I wouldn’t have found out by myself because of my lazy habit not to research the books I read)

But Cakes & Ale is also a meditation about fame and posterity, about writing, talent and one’s public image. Kear is very thorough in the management of his career. He tries to iron out all bad critics, makes himself agreeable in salons, gives lectures in universities, travels in the whole country to meet his readers. He’s far from the myth of the cursed writer pursuing their work locked in their room, whatever the chance of being published. For Kear, literature isn’t a calling but a profession. The second meditation about fame stems from Driffield’s posterity. His much younger wife manages his reputation and his legacy. She magnifies him as a Great Man and doesn’t want anything to get in the way of the image of a literary genius she wants the world to see. She doesn’t want to know all the details of his first marriage, it would hurt what we now call political correctness. Kear wants to write a flat biography, full of praise and intends to leave aside all the anecdotes that could tarnish Driffield’s reputation. She wants the world to worship his memory as people worship saints. She wants him to appear flawless, creating a perfectly dull character instead of accepting who he was and letting the world know the real man behind the writer. And Rose, the first wife, with her free sexuality, her lack of worldly manners doesn’t fit into the picture.

There are also great pages about literature and literary critics, and well it was funny:

I was much concerned and forthwith asked Alroy Kear (who reads everything, even the books he writes prefaces for) to recommend to me some works on the art of fiction. On his advice I read The Craft of Fiction by Mr. Percy Lubbock, from which I learned that the only way to write novels was like Henry James; after that I read Aspects of the Novel by Mr. E. M. Forster, from which I learned that the only way to write novels was like Mr. E. M. Forster; then I read The Structure of the Novel by Mr. Edwin Muir, from which I learned nothing at all.

Maugham boldly attacks the literary Establishment of his time. (Further, he writes They’d only say I was imitating Lytton Strachey.) For me, Ashenden is Maugham himself. He says he’s not a gifted writer but he seems better than he wishes to tell.

Cakes and Ale makes me want to read Hardy’s biography but I don’t feel like discovering Walpole after reading about Kear. He sounds like the English Anatole France, very famous during his lifetime, seldom read nowadays. Maugham’s assessment of Walpole’s literary talent seems accurate.

I had a lot of pleasure reading Cakes and Ale. I thought it was engaging and I’m fond of Maugham’s witty style. I had fun reading his ranting about the literary world. Things haven’t really changed, in my opinion. I was curious to see what Ashenden had to say about Driffield, what kind of dirty secret he knew. And finally, as I have the project to read ALL Thomas Hardy, that this writer (or his doppelganger) was a central character of the book was like a cherry on a delicious cake.

PS: Do you say I took my courage in both hands in English? It sounds very French (Il prit son courage à deux mains) I noticed another expression like this under Maugham’s pen and sometimes I had the impression to hear some French under his English. Perhaps it’s only wishful thinking.

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