January 2017 re-reading: Cakes and Ale

My list of “books read” from 1977 is quite an impressive one: it starts with Anna Karenina and ends with Beryl Bainbridge’s Injury Time, it includes The Mayor of Casterbridge, Gulliver’s Travels and several volumes of poetry. The writer who gets the most mentions, though, is Anthony Powell: I started what was to be a long journey through his 12-volume sequence by reading the first three – A Question of Upbringing, A Buyer’s Market and The Acceptance World – in 1977. But I’ve chosen something else to return to: Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale. This seems to be for two reasons: (1) I can hardly remember anything about it, and (2) it’s still there on my bookshelves (A lot of what I read back then came from either Westminster or Waltham Forest libraries: this was an old second-hand paperback, bought I don’t know where).

So what did I think of it? Perhaps I shouldn’t have first read Maugham’s introduction (presumably added for the Penguin edition, first published in 1948) where he denies the accusation levelled at him that his novel was based on the life of Thomas Hardy, and specifically the behaviour of his second wife in protecting his reputation (Hardy died in 1928, survived by a second wife who had been his secretary, and Maugham’s novel came out two years later). Well, it’s true that Cakes and Ale is all about a dead author’s reputation, and the suppression of uncomfortable facts that accompanies the writing of that author’s biography. But Rosie, the first wife of the fictional author Edward Driffield, is nothing like Hardy’s Emma; Driffield’s novels, from the vague outlines we are given, don’t sound much like Hardy’s; and apart from London the setting is a thinly-disguised Whitstable rather than Wessex.

Actually, the best things about Cakes and Ale are, I think, (1) the observations about class distinctions in the first half of the book, where the narrator looks back on his adolescence in “Blackstable” and Driffield’s ambiguous status vis-à-vis his (Maugham’s alter ego’s) higher position as the vicar’s nephew; and (2) the inside view of literary London of the 1920s and an earlier (undated) period, which is presumably around the same time as Maugham’s early literary career – his first book came out in 1897. In fact, the first chapter, which is all about man-of-letters “Alroy Kear” and his collaboration with Driffield’s widow to write a biography, made me wonder if Kear was to be the central figure. He seems to be more definitely realised than Driffield is, and seems to have more pages devoted to him than anyone else. Meanwhile Rosie, Driffield’s cheerfully promiscuous first wife, becomes more and more central as the novel goes on – at the same time as she becomes less a real-life woman and more a typical fantasy figure, especially when she takes her clothes off (“her breasts were straight and firm and they stood out from the chest as though carved in marble. It was a body made for the act of love.” Really).

Here I am going to quote from a contemporary review (not something I think I will do much) by Arnold Bennett, who was seven years Maugham’s senior. In the last few years of his life Bennett wrote a weekly column for the Evening Standard – it came about because of Bennett’s friendship with Lord Beaverbrook – and his review of Cakes and Ale was written just a few months before he died.

“In principle I am against authors as protagonists in a novel,” Bennett writes; but Maugham has “seen and avoided” the danger of over-stressing the “literary side of these fellows”: “To the general public novelists are, rightly, more interesting … as husbands, lovers, and ingenious exploiters of their own talents” (as is perhaps even more the case in the 21st century). For Bennett, Cakes and Ale’s portrait of Alroy Kear is “delicious” and “will intimately amuse and exasperate the ten million [sic] authors of Great Britain”. Bennett also notes that the novel is “oddly constructed … [in that] Maugham jumps to and fro between ‘present day’ and thirty years ago”; but the best point made in the review is that the book “stops too soon. We do not learn what kind of a sticky mess [Alroy Kear] made of the biography of Driffield nor what were his methods of preparing the book-market for it.” Well said, Arnold.

Final (for now) confession: I am a member of the Arnold Bennett Society (www.arnoldbennettsociety.org.uk), which is celebrating the 150th anniversary of his birth this year, so I will probably return to Bennett if this blog continues … There doesn’t seem to be an equivalent Somerset Maugham Society. I wonder why not?

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