The Universe of Discourse

Mon, 24 Jun 2019

Cakes and Ale

I just finished Cakes and Ale, by W. Somerset Maugham. I have enjoyed Maugham all my life, and this is considered one of his best books (it was his personal favorite) but I hadn't read it before.

I enjoyed it a lot. It has a story, but at the center instead of a big problem there is a character, Rose Gann. (To other characters she appears to be a big problem, but she sails placidly through the book doing what she wants.) She's really sweet, and I'm glad I had a chance to meet her.

The other side of the book is that it is a very pointed satire of the social-climbing literary circles in which Maugham traveled. Another such satire is his short story The Creative Impulse. That one was exaggerated for comic effect. This one isn't, and because of that it's much more biting. Rose, who is not literary, is contrasted with the literary characters, who are hypocritical, self-serving, manipulative, and pretentious. Rose is none of those things.

The book is quasi-autobiographical, the way Of Human Bondage or the Ashenden stories are. The narrator is named Willie Ashenden and the pattern of his life is the same as Maugham's, growing up in Whitstable with his vicar uncle (in the book it's called “Blackstable”) and then going to medical school in London, etc. Rose Gann was inspired by a woman that Maugham had been in love with. There was a scandal when the book was published; one of the characters was widely understood to be a rather vicious parody of Maugham's literary acquaintance Hugh Walpole. (Maugham denied it, but I've also read that later, when the danger of a libel suit was past, he confessed it was true.)

Parts of Cakes and Ale reminded me strongly of Robertson Davies' The Manticore. In both books, a famous and important man has died and everyone is rushing around to grab a piece of his legacy. In both cases there's also an embarrassing first wife that everyone wants to write out of the story. I imagine Davies had probably read Cakes and Ale and I wondered if he had been thinking of it.

Davies wrote an essay about Maugham, which I suppose I've read, but I don't remember what he said.

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