W. Somerset Maugham, Cakes and Ale

Cakes and Ale is the latest reading selection for the Slaves of Golconda group. I think I read Of Human Bondage years ago, but I have no recollection of it, so at this point Cakes and Ale represents the sum total of my knowledge of W. Somerset Maugham’s oeuvre. Based on what I know about Of Human Bondage, though, it would be a mistake to attempt any generalizations about Maugham based on Cakes and Ale–so I won’t!

Cakes and Ale struck me as quite an odd book. It has many passages in it that are amusing, interesting, and eminently quotable, such as the set pieces on the role of beauty in art and criticism, or on the place of the first-person singular in the art of fiction. The book is about a writer writing about a writer, narrated by another writer; between this set up and the embedded commentaries on fiction and criticism, the book overall seems as if it must be metafiction of some kind, and yet it doesn’t seem so, and this is one reason I found it odd: I can’t quite see how to connect all this self-referential potential with the story the novel tells about Edward Driffield and his putatively enchanting first wife Rosie, bar-maid turned society beauty turned scandalous absconder. That is, the metafictional commentary doesn’t seem to be saying anything about the kind of book Cakes and Ale actually is. I suppose this means it isn’t metafictional after all but incidental, just the kind of stuff a narrating writer would write about. Here’s a bit from the excursus on first-person narration, for instance:

A little while ago I read in the Evening Standard an article by Mr Evelyn Waugh in the course of which he remarked that to write novels in the first person was a contemptible practice. . . . I was much concerned, and forthwith asked Alroy Kear (who reads everything, even the books he writes prefaces for) to recommend to me some works on the art of fiction. On his advice I read The Craft of Fiction by Mr Percy Lubbock, from which I learned that the only way to write novels was like Henry James; after that I read Aspects of the Novel by Mr E. M. Forster, from which I learned that the only way to write novels was like Mr E. M. Forster; then I read The Structure of the Novel by Mr Edwin Muir, from which I learned nothing at all.

Amusing, as I said. Ashenden goes on to conclude that the value of first-person narration is that in an increasingly confusing life, it makes sense to focus on our own limited experience, which is, after all, all we can really be sure of and hope to understand. Yet Cakes and Ale is not really about him, is it? Or, is it? If so, it does a good job effacing his part in it: he’s a Nick Carraway type, significant (or so it seems) primarily as a device for delivering Maugham’s gentle literary and social satire and for telling us about other people, especially Driffield and Rosie.

Driffield, too, is a fairly absent main character: in his case he seems to be there to provide the occasion for the literary commentary, as well as for some pretty funny stuff about the rise and fall of literary reputations and the dubious reliability of critical judgments. Ashenden does not admire Driffield much himself:

But of course what the critics wrote about Edward Driffield was eyewash. His outstanding merit was not the realism that gave vigour to his work, nor the beauty that informed it, nor his graphic portraits of seafaring men, nor his poetic descriptions of salty marshes, of storm and calm, and of nestling habits; it was his longevity. . . But why writers should be more esteemed the older they grow, has long perplexed me. . . . After mature consideration I have come to the conclusion that the real reason for the universal applause that comforts the declining years of an author who exceeds the common span of man is that intelligent people after the age of thirty read nothing at all. As they grown older the books they read in their youth are lit with its glamour and with every year that passes they ascribe greater merit to the author who wrote them.

Let’s not start naming contemporary authors we think might be unduly revered for just this reason! Again, this is funny, with just enough sting to make it interesting too. But the novel does not give the issue of literary merit any momemtum as a theme (by, say, really focusing on whether Driffield does have any genius besides longevity), and I don’t think it also takes it on as a formal problem by trying to embody in its own narrative any special genius.

The only element of the novel that has much forward momentum is the story of Rosie–but to me, she was too flat a character, and too representative of a kind of male fantasy of undemanding available amoral female sexuality, to captivate me the way she (to me, inexplicably) enchants young Ashenden. So enamoured is he that even after she has run off with the coal merchant of Blackstable and started a new life as Mrs Iggulden in America, he defends her for having “carried on” behind Driffield’s back: “She was a very simple woman. Her instincts were healthy and ingenuous. She loved to make people happy. She loved love.” Challenged on this sappy conclusion (“Do you call that love?”), he responds,

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.

Well, not so artless she doesn’t welcome the gift of a very expensive fur cloak from one of her lovers, and not so fond of giving pleasure to others that she hesitates before causing them pain. Her acts have little effect on her character because Maugham (or Ashenden) gives her very little character to begin with. The absence of complexity in her personality is not liberating: it’s limiting, if you intend the portrait to be in any way related to reality. But maybe Rosie isn’t intended to be more than an animated, good-natured fantasy figure. Or maybe there’s something dimly progressive about the freedom with which she enjoys her own sexuality, and about Maugham’s (or, again, Ashenden’s) refusal to judge her for it–but I’m not convinced.

And yet–near the end we learn a bit more about Rosie’s history, something that adds darker shades to the radiant glow in which she always seems bathed (her skin is so “dewy” that at one point Ashenden asks if she rubs vaseline on it). More interesting still, that sad past is linked to the one novel of Driffield’s that Ashenden particularly admires, for having a “cold ruthlessness that in all the sentimentality of English fiction strikes an unusual note.” This novel, The Cup of Life, is also the novel that drew censure down on the novelist for being “gratuitously offensive [and] obscene.” The incident in the novel that so outrages the righteous public turns out to be taken almost straight from life. So perhaps there is a metafictional angle after all, and it turns on Rosie: perhaps her story, and her character, with its overt and unapologetic sensuality, is a challenge to Maugham’s (or Ashenden’s?) readers, to see, for instance, if they will appreciate her beauty without decrying her morality, or find beauty in her freedom from social constraints. Is the novel about the relationship between beauty and virtue? Does that help us make sense of the title? But again, I’m not convinced, because I just don’t find Rosie, or the novel as a whole, for that matter, substantive enough to hang a theory on.

The novel is funny, though, if only in strange fits and starts, so to close, another of the many quotable passages, this time about a poet who becomes, for a time, the rage of London literary society:

Now that he is so completely forgotten and the critics who praised him would willingly eat their words if they were not carefully guarded in the files of innumerable newspaper offices, the sensation he made with his first volume of poems is almost unbelievable. The most important papers gave to reviews of it as much space as they would have to the report of a prize-fight, the most influential critics fell over one another in their eagerness to welcome him. They likened him to Milton (for the sonority of his blank verse), to Keats (for the opulence of his sensuous imagery), and to Shelley (for his airy fantasy); and, using him as a stick to beat idols of whom they were weary, they gave in his name many a resounding whack on the emaciated buttocks of Lord Tennyson and a few good husky smacks on the bald pate of Robert Browning. The public fell like the walls of Jericho.

Maybe fun is the key: Maugham had an idea for Rosie, he tells us in his Preface, and wanted a book to put her in, and he also had a lot of experience with the vagaries and vapidities of literary celebrity and the satirical skill to write them up elegantly. Why not put these ingredients together into a little confection of a book?

I’m sure I’ll learn from the discussion. Anyone interested is welcome to join in; usually we cross-post at the Slaves of Golconda blog, and there’s contact information there for those who also want to participate in the forum as well.

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