Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham: A

From the back cover:
Lionized by literary society, Edward Driffield is married to his second wife, a woman of iron will, indisputable rectitude and great charm. Her request to Alroy Kear, lightweight novelist, to write a biography of her husband seems both flattering and agreeable. But on delving into Driffield’s past Kear revives the spectre of his first wife, Rosie, delectable companion of less respectable days and the unlikely muse of his greatest work.

In this novel Maugham has created the unauthorized biography, the book that cannot be written for fear of offending Driffield’s unsuspecting public. And in Rosie he has given us his greatest heroine, luscious, inconstant and commonplace, yet lingering most persistently in the mind.

Prior to reading Cakes and Ale, my exposure to W. Somerset Maugham was sorely limited. I first heard of him during my teen years in the context of “the guy who wrote the book that became the movie that starred Bill Murray in his first serious role.” (I was a bit of an SNL fanatic in those days.) After reading Cakes and Ale, I wonder what took me so long.

Cakes and Ale will possibly sound disorganized when described, but flows logically when read. The narrator, William Ashenden, is a middle-aged author who’s approached by a more commercially successful peer, Alroy Kear, to help with a biography Kear is writing. The subject is Edward Driffield, a novelist with whom Ashenden was acquainted when he (Driffield) was married to a vibrant but unfaithful former barmaid named Rosie, but who spent his later years with a respectable second wife who struggled for years to make him fit the mold of a venerated elder statesman of literature.

Despite Kear’s assertions that he wants to know everything that Ashenden has to tell about Driffield’s former marriage, Ashenden realizes that, with the second Mrs. Driffield backing the biography project, there’s no way any of it would be usable anyhow. The fact is, Driffield wrote better books when he was married to Rosie and though she was wildly unfaithful, it wasn’t done from malice. Rather than tell Kear what he wants to know, Ashenden instead reminisces privately about his awkward first meeting with the Driffields as a boy of fifteen—during which period he obediently adopted the class prejudice of the aunt and uncle with whom he lived—and the later resumption of their friendship when he is a 20-year-old medical student living in London.

Maugham’s writing style is especially appealing to me, managing to be clever, witty, insightful, and concise all at the same time. There aren’t words enough to express how much I adore the passages about young Ashenden. He’s so self-conscious and awkward, and I love how Maugham depicts Ashenden’s struggle between the warnings he’s received about working-class people versus what he is actually seeing for himself. It’s a nostalgic sort of portrait, fond and sympathetic, of a boy who gradually sheds the things he’s been led to believe and learns to think for himself. This isn’t the only portrait to be found, of course. Both Rosie and Kear are quite extensively developed, and the reaction of other characters to them also allows for some wry commentary on communities both rural and literary. Oddly enough, the least developed character is probably Driffield himself, about whom the biography is being written!

The only complaint I have about Cakes and Ale is that it’s too short! That’s not to say that the story is incomplete, for it isn’t, but I enjoyed the book so much I could have gone on reading it for thrice as long! Happily, Maugham wrote quite a few other things, one of which is waiting for me at the library and another of which is on its way from Amazon at this very moment.

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  1. Nice review, Michelle. Enjoyable to read that somebody else loves Maugham, and especially his most satirical masterpiece.

    Being somewhat of a Maugham buff myself, I wonder why I had to read Cakes and Ale twice before I realise its greatness. I have read it quite a few times since then and have never ceased to wonder at Maugham’s mastery of plot narrative and character depiction.

    Small wonder Maugham himself once said Cakes and Ale was the book of his he liked best, isn’t it?

    • Thanks for the comment and praise!

      I admit I’m a little worried at having chosen Maugham’s personal favorite to read first. I’m sure the others can’t be bad by any stretch but I hope I like them as much.

      As for not liking it much at first reading, this has happened to me, too. Sometimes I think I was just too young to enjoy things. Like, for example, Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence. I just can’t seem to get over my first impression of “ugh, dull” even though it’s been nearly 20 years since my first attempt and I know I should give it another try.

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