Thursday, May 29, 2014

Cakes and Ale, by W. Somerset Maugham

The Barmaid,
oil on canvas by Alan Lowndes
In a 1958 radio interview, Maugham considered all the novels he wrote and concluded that Cakes and Ale, published in 1930, was his favourite. I've read only three of his 29 novels, but so far, I also like this one best.

In The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton wields her status-conscious, censorious characters as weapons -- they destroy those they deem their moral inferiors. In Cakes and Ale, Maugham uses drollery, and it's the self-satisfied snobs who turn up on the receiving end of it.

William Ashenden is the narrator, and as the book opens he recounts the day in his youth when he met novelist Edward Driffield and his wife Rosie pedalling their bicycles through Blackstable, Kent. Driffield teaches the boy to ride his own bicycle and invites him to join them on outings, a proposition which appals Ashenden's uncle, who is also the church pastor.

William asks his uncle and aunt if they've read any of Mr. Driffield's fiction; they certainly have not. Why would anyone write about the often unpleasant realities of life? Fiction should be uplifting! The young man mentions the often grim realism of England's most beloved novelist.
"I suppose it's a matter of taste," said my aunt. "I always found Dickens very coarse. I don't want to read about people who drop their aitches."
William later asks the household maid, Mary-Ann, why his uncle forbade him to spend time with the couple. Mary-Ann has no compunction about dishing the dirt, and she tells him that Rosie Driffield (née Gann) had been a childhood friend but grew into a dissolute young woman, working in a pub and having an affair with a flamboyant married man in the town. I love the adolescent William's reaction to this salacious tale -- fascination turning to disbelief -- but his initial admiration of Rosie is undimmed; it will stick with him, it turns out, throughout his life, her many critics be damned. In the meantime, though, the thought of "old people" (over 30) having such feelings strikes him as implausible.
I was shocked and thrilled by what Mary-Ann told me, but I had difficulty in believing it. I had read too many novels and had learnt too much at school not to know a good deal about love, but I thought it was a matter that only concerned young people. I could not conceive that a man with a beard, who had sons as old as I, could have any feelings of that sort. I thought when you married all that was finished. That people over thirty should be in love seemed to me rather disgusting.
Fast forward to William's own mid-life.  He is unmarried, a writer. A fellow author, Alroy Kear, approaches William and announces that the late Edward Driffield's widowed second wife, Amy, has commissioned him to write a biography, and Alroy wonders if William could reveal his history with the novelist over the years. For the rest of the book , Maugham switches between the present, where William contends with Alroy's and Amy's desire to sanitise Driffield's life, and years past, during which William's relationships with both Edward and Rosie Driffield deepened.

William doesn't seem to begrudge Alroy this commission; he has no plan to write a biography of Driffield. In fact, he delivers a deliciously back-handed compliment of Kear's prolixity, noting that speech just rolls effortless out of the man's mouth in a veritable flood of clichés, doubtless familiar to all audiences. His speech is so colloquial, in fact, that people say he sounds not a bit like an author.
The Americans, who are the most efficient people on the earth, have carried this device to such a height of perfection and have invented so wide a range of pithy and hackneyed phrases that they can carry on an amusing and animated conversation without giving a moment's reflection to what they are saying and so leave their minds free to consider the more important matters of big business and fornication.
Unfortunately for his widow and biographer, Edward Driffield's life (and certainly his first marriage) don't lend themselves to bowdlerisation. Maybe not even worthwhile to try, William suggests.
"Don't you think it would be more interesting if you went the whole hog and drew him warts and all?"
"Oh, I couldn't. Amy Driffield would never speak to me again. She only asked me to do the life because she felt she could trust my discretion. I must behave like a gentleman."
"It's very hard to be a gentleman and a writer."
"I don't see why. And besides, you know what the critics are. If you tell the truth they only say you're cynical and it does an author no good to get a reputation for cynicism. Of course I don't deny that if I were thoroughly unscrupulous I could make a sensation. It would be rather amusing to show the man with his passion for beauty and his careless treatment of his obligations, his fine style and his personal hatred for soap and water, his idealism and his tippling in disreputable pubs; but honestly, would it pay? They'd only say I was imitating Lytton Strachey...  You know, however gross a subject is you can soften its unpleasantness if you treat it with dignity. But I can do nothing unless I am in complete possession of the facts.
"Obviously you can't cook them unless you have them."
Of all the characters in the book, Maugham really outdoes himself with Mr. Barton Trafford, the Victorian precursor to the modern literary agent. Although she oozes gentility, her opinion and patronage can either launch a writer's career or end it. When a poet's second book of verse fails to meet the promise of his first, this fine lady realises that she may have misjudged.
Mrs. Barton Trafford at this juncture was perfect. She did not repine. No harsh word escaped her lips. She might have been excused if she had felt a certain bitterness because this man for whom she had done so much had let her down. She remained tender, gentle, and sympathetic. She was the woman who understood. She dropped him, but not like a hot brick, or a hot potato. She dropped him with infinite gentleness, as softly as the tear that she doubtless shed when she made up her mind to do something so repugnant to her nature; she dropped him with so much tact, with such sensibility, that Jasper Gibbons perhaps hardly knew he was dropped. But there was no doubt about it...

She would say nothing against him, indeed she would not discuss him at all, and when mention was made of him she merely smiled, a little sadly, and sighed. But her smile was the coup de grâce, and her sigh buried him deep.
Mrs. Barton Trafford heartily endorses Edward Driffield's novels, as does William, who gives an interestingly synaesthetic review of his favourite.
The Cup of Life, though certainly not the most celebrated of his books, nor the most popular, is to my mind the most interesting. It has a cold ruthlessness that in all the sentimentality of English fiction strikes an original note. It is refreshing and astringent. It tastes of tart apples. It sets your teeth on edge, but it has a subtle, bitter-sweet savour that is very agreeable to the palate.
Mrs. Barton Trafford marginalises Rosie as she promotes Driffield's fiction; in her view, Rosie, like most authors' wives, offers nothing but distraction from her husband's precious work. Years later, Driffield's second wife, Amy, wants to expunge Rosie entirely from the biography.
"From what I hear she was absolutely promiscuous."
"You don't understand," I said. "She was a very simple woman. Her instincts were healthy and ingenuous. She loved to make people happy. She loved love."
"Do you call that love?"
"Well, then, the act of love. She was naturally affectionate. When she liked anyone it was quite natural for her to go to bed with him. She never thought twice about it. It was not vice; it wasn't lasciviousness; it was her nature. She gave herself as naturally as the sun gives heat or the flowers their perfume. It was a pleasure to her and she liked to give pleasure to others. It had no effect on her character; she remained sincere, unspoiled, and artless."
Mrs. Driffield looked as though she had taken a dose of castor oil and had just been trying to get the taste of it out of her mouth by sucking a lemon.
William recalls Rosie, whom he's not seen for years, immediately remembering her smile, with its "childlike and mischievous sweetness". (I lost count, but Maugham must have used that same phrase to describe Rosie's smile at least a half dozen times, and he is too meticulous with his words for it to have been an oversight.) I suppose Maugham grew genuinely fond of Rosie and all her unpretentious ways; he doesn't allow the Mrs. Barton Traffords and the Amys of the world to ruin her. He uses his own literary gift to reveal their hypocrisy, leaving them hoist with their own petards, as it were. Revenge, with a childlike and mischievous sweetness.

1 comment:

  1. Have always liked Somerset Maugham. A very perceptive man. And his characters are often very intriguing and colourful.


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