W. Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale attempts to show writers not as celestial beings that float above the hoi polloi, but as embarrassingly human, full of failure and weakness. It’s a deeply iconoclastic novel that’s interesting enough, revealing as it does Maugham’s experiences of the literary world, but its lack of emotional disclosure makes it not entirely successful.
The blurb on the back of the Vintage Classics edition of W. Somerset Maugham’s wonderfully titled Cakes and Ale (1930), proclaims it to be a ‘wickedly satirical novel about contemporary literary poseurs and a skilfully crafted study of freedom’. It’s not really that. There isn’t much wicked satire in Cakes and Ale; Maugham doesn’t indulge in bitchy barbs and witty put downs. While the novel clearly relies on much first hand observation of the literary scene and its ambitious participants, the tone is more sombre and brooding.
The narrator, Willie Ashenden, is a writer himself, and with a sigh accepts the ruthlessly competitive nature of the literary world. Rivalries, petty jealousies and duplicitous friendships are the order of the day. These writers may publish high minded tomes, but underneath the exalted prose lies vain, flawed human beings. Willie Ashenden sees and describes the messy, embarrassing and often ignoble side of the writer’s life, the one that the adoring public doesn’t. Touch our idols, wrote Gustave Flaubert, and the gilt comes off on our hands. Cakes and Ale is a very iconoclastic novel.
Nor can it be said that Maugham has written a ‘skilfully crafted study of freedom’. The free spirit of the piece, Rosie Driffield, first wife of famous novelist Edward Driffield, is a morally dubious character that fascinates but also repulses. To put it politely, Maugham suggests that she’s a woman of easy virtue. Rosie’s philosophical utterances about free love and jealousy can’t be taken seriously either. She is, to a large extent, a selfish adventurer. It’s hard not to think that there’s a whiff of misogyny in Maugham’s characterisation of Rosie Driffield, and of women in general.
The plot, without confusing the reader too much, is essentially a biography of the early life of Edward Driffield, a famous writer recently deceased. When Driffield’s second wife - his nurse that he later married - commissions an authorised biography of her famous husband, Willie Abersham is brought in to recollect some of his early memories of Edward Driffield and his somewhat notorious first wife, Rosie. What we learn of this first marriage turns out to be very sordid indeed.
The various aspects of Cakes and Ale don’t really gel that well. It’s hard to believe that a figure like Edward Driffield would have married the fast track Rosie in the first place (an excuse is given late in the novel, but it seems like a literary device to explain an unlikely union). The emotional dynamics of the novel don’t make sense either. Maugham’s misogyny (if indeed that’s what it is; he even talks about all women being constipated at one stage, which seems bizarre) gets in the way. His highly accomplished literary style, which features a strong, muscular prose, could be a fog to hide emotional deficiencies.
Cakes and Ale turns out to be an interesting literary curio, but one that leaves you scratching your head. The interesting aspect is the iconoclastic portrait of the great writer, but it’s depictions of women and love disappoint.
Cakes and Ale, by W. Somerset Maugham. Published by Vintage Classics. ISBN: 978-0-099-282778.