Monday, 13 February 2012

Penguin no. 651: Cakes and Ale
by Somerset Maugham

The critics can force the world to pay attention to a very indifferent writer, and the world may lose its head over one who has no merit at all, but the result in neither case is lasting; and I cannot help thinking that no writer can hold the public for as long as Edward Driffield without considerable gifts. The elect sneer at popularity; they are inclined even to assert
that it is a proof of mediocrity; but they forget that posterity makes its choice not from among the unknown writers of a period, but from among the known. It may be that some great masterpiece which deserves immortality has fallen stillborn from the press, but posterity will never hear of it; it may be that posterity will scrap all the best sellers of our day, but it is among them that it must choose.

Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale? Act II Scene III Twelfth Night

I am finding that this life of travelling about searching for books doesn't really lend itself to concentrated reading or deep reflection. While reading this book I've travelled to Amsterdam and across to Newcastle, Chester, Liverpool, and through Wales, ending up this morning in Bristol. Everything I have experienced has been novel and distracting; everywhere I have travelled there have been friendly people eager to talk. It has been exciting and exhausting and unexpected. I had planned to write this post during the train journey from Hereford to Bristol this morning, but instead found myself squeezed onto a train filled with people sporting either red jerseys or kilts, all heading to Cardiff for a Rugby match between Wales and Scotland. It was lovely as an outsider to observe the communal feeling of friendly rivalry and shared excitement. And so instead I have settled myself in an English pub by Bristol's river front with a glass of red wine and a hope that I can find a quiet moment to collect my thoughts on this book which I loved reading.

The first thing you learn of Cakes and Ale is that its publication caused something of a controversy. Both copies are prefaced by Maugham's explanation of the story's inspiration, and his firm insistence that despite what others may have perceived, the work is largely autobiographical. I can believe that this must at least partly be true. In his story two writers reflect on the life of a third recently deceased and more successful writer named Edward Driffield. The narrator Willie Ashenden knew Driffield during his youth, while Alroy Kear has been carefully chosen by Driffield's widow to write an acceptable biography, and he hopes for Ashenden's help.

Kear's success as a writer has derived more from his ability to market himself and his books, than from any literary talent: he works diligently and consistently, is charming with the critics, and knows how to keep himself in the public's mind. Maugham suggests that through his own career he has an understanding of the possibly conflicting goals of artistic integrity and public acclaim, and that his feelings for Kear are of empathy rather than condemnation. However, it doesn't read that way: his portrayals of this average writer and his acceptance by the wider literary culture of the time seem ruthless.

It was believed by some that the character of Edward Driffield was based upon Thomas Hardy, but Maugham rejects this idea completely, noting that Driffield's melancholy fate of being compelled by others to act the role of the venerable ageing man of letters is not that uncommon. And as Maugham was 56 when Cakes and Ale was published, it is likely that his thoughts would sometimes unhappily touch on the imposts of age, the expectations of others, and his own uncertain legacy. His discussion in the preface on the creation of Alroy Kear is more circumspect: he concedes that the character is based on living writers, but suggests he is an amalgam of himself and others. It is a sharp and amusing portrait, with the feel of a rational discussion of what success means in the literary world by an author under no illusions, a kind of lifting of the veil to reveal how the world really works. But what a savage caricature it is if it was actually based on a well-known and still-living writer. Years later Maugham acknowledged that Hugh Walpole had been his target [see here]. This was possibly a calculated move as the controversy helped increase the sales.

How should a respected author be remembered: with a biography broadly painting a picture which conforms with the public's expectations of a serious, studious, and cultured life, or by embracing the truth and revealing him to be an ordinary flawed man who liked a pint, preferred not to bath, gave little thought to how things appeared, and had as his muse his vibrant but unfaithful first wife Rosie? It is a decision being taken by Driffield's widow, who seems to see her husband's legacy as a scaffold she can use to climb up the social scale, and by Kear who thinks mostly of the benefit to his own career of creating a carefully filtered work of hagiography. Neither cares for the truth, or they are content to rationalise a convenient re-interpretation of what truth means when it suits their ends. Ashenden refuses to give them the story they want, and Cakes and Ale becomes a recollection of his memories of Driffield and Rosie, inevitably telling the story that Kear will not write.

Through these memories Ashenden recognises how he was changed by knowing the writer and his delightful and carefree first wife, and how over time they freed him of the restricting Victorian values of his childhood. The world may be revealed as being in the control of the self-interested, the hypocrites, and the social-climbers, but Ashenden is personally free. Maugham reveals in the preface that his narrator is a transplanted Philip Carey from the largely autobiographical Of Human Bondage, implying that he is revealing something of his own story. And this is exactly how the novel reads, with its occasional rambling passages and its reference to thoughts discussed elsewhere: it always feels as though this story is really being narrated by the author, and as though he is outside the literary scene, no longer in its thrall, and as an observer can give a dispassionate and critical account of how it works.

It was this rational voice that I loved, along with the story's simple and straightforward prose, and even the devastating portrait of the self-serving and ambitious writer Kear. Perhaps Maugham was motivated by point-scoring or a resentment at his lack of critical acclaim, or perhaps to some extent he was revealing the flaws he recognised within himself as he suggests in the preface, but many of his criticisms of behaviours motivated by hidden agendas still seem relevant today.



  1. Fantastic review, Karyn. I have this on the tbr along with several other Maughams. I'm amazed that you were able to write such a coherent review with all the excitement of your trip. I'm looking forward to discovering your grand total of Penguins when you get home.

    1. Thanks Lyn,

      I cannot believe how successful I have been in finding books; every day I think my luck must end, but by the end of the day I'll be dealing with the problem of how to get more Penguins home. The grand total is going to be much, much higher than I anticipated.

  2. I read a lot of Somerset Maugham in my twenties but I don't think I've read this one. It sounds like a great book. Glad you are enjoying your hectic schedule. Isn't Hay wonderful?

    1. Everything about visiting Hay was lovely, including the hour long bus trip out from Hereford. What I really needed in Hay was a car, and a much bigger luggage allowance on the plane. I plan to write about finding cheap Penguins in Hay, Bristol and Bath when I can find some time.

  3. Wonderful thoughts Karyn, and what a lovely place to stop and collect them. You haven't been through Manchester on your travels have you? I would hope not as I would feel snubbed ;)

    I have really enjoyed reading Somerset Maugham (who I have recently discovered the wonderful Nancy Mitford called Willie, snigger) which I didn't expect when I started him. 'Of Human Bondage' still seems a bit of a scary sized book, but 'Cakes and Ale' might be a good next read.

    1. Thanks Simon,

      Cakes and Ale is only a short book, and entertaining from start to finish, so I'd definitely suggest considering it. I've read Of Human Bondage, but so long ago that I remember very little of it. As Maugham tells you that his narrator here is effectively the same character as the protagonist of his earlier novel (and the location, aunt, and uncle are all transplanted as well) it would probably be interesting to read them both.

      Spent 10 minutes only in a freezing Manchester train station en route to Chester. I would have really loved to have been able to stay longer, but I also hate leaving my children for even this long.

  4. One of Maugham's very best books is 'Mrs Craddock' , published in Penguin as well as Pan books. Should not be missed

  5. I love your review! You have very aptly described this brilliant piece of work!!



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