10 August 2007

Tasty Cakes & Bitter Ale

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

To say that W. Somerset Maugham had an incredible way with language is rather silly: silly because it is both so obvious and so much an understatement of the author’s skill. Critical to Maugham’s long-term success was his concision, as he evolved from verbosity in Of Human Bondage to the very sharp and precise – almost but not quite spare – language of novels like The Razor’s Edge.

Cakes and Ale is another of his slim, focused novels, in which the author (in the role of William Ashenden) shifts ably between telling two stories – his own, and the intersection of his own and his characters’ – while gently philosophizing about the world. I should say that the version I read suffers (lightly) from a terrible back-of-book summary by publisher Vintage: it suggests that the core of the story is about an author’s attempt to write a biography of a famous Victorian novelist by the name of “Edward Driffield,” and the troubles he runs into when he begins to learn some of the truths about that Driffield’s very promiscuous first wife, Rosie. (The Wikipedia entry for the book also reinforces this sense of the plot direction.) At some level, this is accurate; but more than anything else, Cakes and Ale is a story of a young, enchanted, and somewhat bittersweet love affair, and it is the relationship between Ashenden and Rosie, the aforementioned first wife, that carries the action along.

Well, that ... and Maugham’s wit. In contemporary terms, you might say that Maugham was very fond of verbal riffing, of meandering into a subject or a tangent area of a subject, and then running with it for a page or two until he had played out the idea. Sometimes these are serious diversions, connected to an underlying philosophical point he wants to make about the nature of the world. In three pages, Maugham skewers both the idea of an inherent respect for the old – “A man who is a politician at forty is a statesman at three score and ten.” – and the idea that writers “should be more esteemed the older they grow.” (Page 142.) [Note: all page references are to this version of the book.] Often these jabs are simply fun, the humorous expressions of ideas that make one laugh at both their cleverness, playfulness, and inherent truth. For instance, on page 136 , Ashenden tells the reader about the characters in Driffield’s stories, and writes:

His women difficultly come to life. But here again I must add that this is only my own opinion; the world at large and the most eminent critics have agreed that they are very winsome types of English womanhood, spirited, gallant, high-souled, and they have been often compared with the heroines of Shakespeare. We know of course that women are habitually constipated, but to represent them in fiction as being altogether devoid of a back passage seems to me really an excess of chivalry. I am surprised that they care to see themselves thus limned.

Even though the basis for this passage is (arguably) the fictional novels of a fictional novelist, Maugham nonetheless renders one of the sharpest and most concise critiques of the portrayal of women in literature I have yet read. (One wonders what would have happened had Maugham met Toni Bentley.) It is incredibly astute, skillfully constructed, and hysterically funny. Only a few pages later, Maugham swings in a slightly different direction, taking whack at the equally boring idea that the most important thing in life is beauty, writing that “There is really nothing to be said about it. It is like the perfume of a rose: you can smell it and that is all: that is why the criticism of art, except in so far as it is unconcerned with beauty and therefore with art, is tiresome.” (Page 140.) Two sentences and several clauses later, and whatever one’s expectations about the world, they might just have shifted. Take that, Keats.

What is more remarkable, however, is that over the story’s remaining pages, Maugham makes the case for this perspective (and without referring back to it). His declaration about beauty serves as an underlying theme, as Maugham’s Ashenden lays out the case for his entangled affair with Rosie, whose very beauty derived in large measure from her lack of those same qualities. Rosie is radiant, with a phenomenal smile, but it is her personality – her love of life, not any external beauty – that defines who she is as a person and even how and why she is so promiscuous. “Let’s have a good time while we can,” says she. (Page 231.)

Even a kiss from Rosie leaves Ashenden with more than just the memory of that act: “It was not a hurried peck, nor was it a kiss of passion. ... I accepted her kiss stupidly. I remained inert. I turned away and walked back to my lodgings. I seemed to hear still in my ears Rosie’s laughter. It was not contemptuous or wounding, but frank and affectionate; it was as though she laughed because she was fond of me.” (Page 211.) As the reader, there were moments when I felt much the same way: present for the affair, stunned by its suddenness in so many ways, and thinking about – indeed, wholly absorbed by – the lustrous love that Rosie offered to Ashenden, and to the world.


Cakes and Ale sparkles with love, joy, and and a keen awareness of the value of what remains unknown and unstated. It may not be Maugham’s strongest work, but it is a wonderful story and a refreshing summer read.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home