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cakes and ale

23 november 2019

Somerset Maugham's Cakes and Ale is a sneaky-postmodern novel. Meta-literary, it might also seem esoteric to many readers, and I don't think it's quite as great a novel as The Razor's Edge. But I waxed about as lyrical as I ever get, here, about The Razor's Edge, a few years ago, and if Cakes and Ale is a step down, that still leaves it pretty high up on the slopes of English fiction.

Google will tell you that Cakes and Ale is Maugham's roman à clef about Thomas Hardy. Though it's fairly easy, even with a googler's knowledge of Thomas Hardy, to reduce Edward Driffield, the Hardy avatar of the novel, to a single similarity with the great Wessex novelist. Like Hardy, Driffield lives long enough to outlast a first marriage beset with problems, and surprises everyone or no-one by marrying a much younger second wife who's been his nurse. Everything else in the novel is Maugham's embroidery on this basic dynamic.

Unlike Hardy, Driffield is from Kent. Both Driffield and his first wife Rosie are lower on the social scale than Hardy and his first wife. Driffield runs away to sea; Hardy was more respectably apprenticed in architecture. Driffield never abandons fiction to become a poet. (And Hardy, for my money, was a greater poet than novelist, but that's another angle altogether.) Hardy was eventually widowed; Driffield's first wife survives him.

Most salient for Cakes and Ale: though the narrator Willie Ashenden is closely modeled on Maugham himself, it is impossible that Somerset Maugham had an affair with Thomas Hardy's first wife. Not just because of Maugham's sexuality, which might have been flexible enough in his youth to accommodate such an endeavor. Much more because of timing and opportunity: Maugham barely knew Hardy himself, let alone Emma Hardy. Thus the whole saga of the young Ashenden's deep involvement with Ted and Rosie Driffield is wholly imaginary. Maugham sets these recollections in a Kent disguised with absurd transparency: Whitstable becomes "Blackstable," Faversham is "Haversham," and Canterbury, somehow, becomes "Tercanbury." The effect is to beg the reader to identify elements of the fiction with real places, while seeming to ascribe them to fictional places, in order to heighten the sense that the events in them really happened, when of course they did not. Like I said, sneaky-postmodern.

Cakes and Ale achieves a marvelous balance between the relentlessly bitchy and the deeply sympathetic. Its narrator is no more sympathetic than the narrator of The Razor's Edge, which is to say not very much at all: he's vain, snobbish, carping, even somewhat anti-Semitic. But because of his manifest flaws, he comes across as believable and wise. Willie Ashenden is above all a middle-aged man reporting (for the most part) on the insufferability of his own youth. And he is a writer determined to convey what he values about literature and the writing process itself. Once you strip away the novel's topical bitchiness, you find a remarkably layered portrait of a wide range of human possibilities.

In Cakes and Ale, Maugham can be digressive: about the passage from late Victorian to post-WWI manners, about the literary world, about writing itself. These digressions, after the fashion of digressions, can seem pointless or can seem to be the whole point of the book. The story itself is less plot than portrait. Maugham himself contended that the fiction was an excuse to depict Rosie Driffield. But it is far from a simple depiction. Ashenden filters his perception of Rosie through that of others to a great extent, even through that of other artists like the painter Lionel Hillier. Inevitably the novel accumulates a layer of meta-representation.

It's a book with good guys (Ted and Rosie), bad guys (Amy Driffield, the second wife), scamps one can't help like ("Lord George," Rosie's second husband, and especially Alroy Kear, the relentless self-promoter who drags Ashenden into the story to start with). And it's got an ambivalent narrator, neither good nor bad: yet another example of a fiction where the supposed central observer turns out to be far more the subject of the book than the characters they're supposedly observing.

Maugham, W. Somerset. Cakes and Ale. 1930. London: Pan, 1976.