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Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham

Cakes and Ale (1930)

by W. Somerset Maugham

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completed 7/5/14, 4.5 stars ( )
  bookmagic | Jul 7, 2014 |
A sweet and nostalgic read, this is one of those transporting novels that leaves you amused and relaxed, lounging and quiet as if you've had a longer than usual conversation with an old friend. Maugham's characters are real enough that you'll think you recognize them from your own life, and his stories have the same tinge of familiarity that makes them so memorable, even where apparently mundane.

On the whole, this novel is a lovely escape, full of both sensation and beautiful language. Simply: recommended. ( )
  whitewavedarling | Mar 9, 2014 |
Perfect last line! I really enjoy Maugham's writing. He has a gift for character description. His people come to life. This was a fascinating look at the literary world and class in England. It was Maugham's favorite of his books. ( )
  njcur | Feb 13, 2014 |
[4.5] After some terribly serious books, a palate cleanser, as it were. ("As it were" is a bit of a Maugham-ism. Also a phrase I remember seeing a lot in Hunter Thompson.)

This book has the same crisp clarity and dry wit I saw in The Moon and Sixpence (1919), honed and polished over ten subsequent years of writing. And here I only spotted one clumsy mixed metaphor in the whole book. The reworkings of Kentish placenames - Tercanbury, Blackstable, Ferne Bay - were cringeworthy but forgiveable. I like the self-awareness with which Maugham described himself as "in the very first row of the second-raters". His sentence-by-sentence style is excellent in a readable better-than-potboilerish way, not a spectacular innovator like his modernist contemporaries. I still don't expect classics to be quite this light a read. Makes me think, I would be quite content if I could write this well.

Cakes and Ale's main ingredients (sorry) are memorable characters and a wonderful little history of British literary circles c.1880-1930. The narrator, Ashenden, about the same age as Maugham, was in his youth during the days of "art for art's sake", draping his rooms in fabrics &c: so that Wildean tinge to those sardonic sentences isn't just my imagination. The tale of Alroy Kinnear's rise could almost be a satire on Dale Carnegie self-help books, and an unfortunate flash-in-the-pan poet was like someone from the build-em-up and knock-em-down music press of the pre-internet era. (I spent hours trying to remember a particular one, an actual poet ... Murray Lachlan Young!)

Through the narrator's reflection on his acquaintance with recently-deceased literary lion Ted Driffield, first as a teenage boy living in the same town and later as an aspiring and increasingly successful writer, there's also a rather fascinating screencap of the class system and public morals in the process of change. First the narrow-mindedness of his aunt and uncle and practically a whole town who disapproved of Driffield (and his wife and a local coal merchant) who dared to talk to anyone, rich or poor as an equal. (The boy spending time with a transgressive couple in an idyllic late Victorian summer was also oddly similar to The Go-Between, published a couple of decades later.) Then plenty of observations on social change such as that nowadays - c.1930 - even well-bred young ladies pepper their conversations with "bitches and bloodys" that would never have been heard from their counterparts a couple of decades ago. The narrator retains snobbishness of his own and quite pleasingly it's not always possible to tell what is said in jest.

Maugham is less judgemental of his characters than most authors of his day (or plenty of contemporary ones); basically, people get away with things. He said "It must be a fault in me that I am not gravely shocked at the sins of others unless they personally affect me." This is probably most noticeable in the character of Rosie Driffield. My memory could be failing me but I can't recall a female character who blithely sleeps with lots of people with either neutrality or approval from the narrator at least until Erica Jong's Fear of Flying circa 1970. And even then Jong's heroine didn't in the end seem to get much long-term enjoyment out of her zipless fucks. (As far as I can remember from reading it in my late teens.) Rosie, though, is essentially polyamorous as she has long-term friendly attachments to a number of different people. Perhaps she's somewhat two-dimensional as she doesn't seem to grow more philosophical about this life as she gets older, but I've certainly known younger people of a similar temperament, sunny and energetic, underneath it somewhat detached, who'd as happily go to bed with someone as hug them. Maugham apparently wrote characters like Rosie because as a (necessarily closeted) bisexual man he saw attractive women as rivals, and others have said that Rosie is a gay male character made female because of the restrictions of the era. Though I think she's still significant because for a long time outside erotica female characters didn't get to live that way without consequences. (And even now in a lot of literary fiction such a life is considered something to get over and grow out of, regardless of gender.)

Structurally the book is a little flawed: the purpose and intent of the narrative is slippery. Is this Ashenden's book about Driffield to rival Kear's official biography? Are these his personal notes about the "real" Driffield and the construction of his public persona? At one point there was a double-take post-modernist reflection on whether he should be writing this in the first-person. Though this story has a fair bit in common with The Moon and Sixpence - an artist flouting social norms, narrated by an acquaintance - Cakes and Ale is a more sophisticated , layered novel.

Incidentally - there's no mention in the novel of the title items which have always made it sound appetising. If it were more popular, I'd have looked forward to seeing a joke review testing which cakes and which ales go best together.

Read 26-27 September 2013 ( )
1 vote antonomasia | Sep 28, 2013 |
What a wonderful book! Even though it was written over 70 years ago, so many of Maugham's jabs at writers, critics, and the reading public are still right on the mark. In particular, I smiled in appreciation while reading his description of how writers become what we now call trendy - reminded me a lot of the "Fifty Shades of Gray" frenzy:) ( )
  leslie.98 | Jun 26, 2013 |
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I have noticed that whenever someone asks for you on the telephone and, finding you out, leaves a message begging you to call him up the moment you come in, as it's important, the matter is more often important to him than to you.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375725024, Paperback)

Cakes and Ale is a delicious satire of London literary society between the Wars. Social climber Alroy Kear is flattered when he is selected by Edward Driffield's wife to pen the official biography of her lionized novelist husband, and determined to write a bestseller. But then Kear discovers the great novelist's voluptuous muse (and unlikely first wife), Rosie. The lively, loving heroine once gave Driffield enough material to last a lifetime, but now her memory casts an embarrissing shadow over his career and respectable image.  Wise, witty, deeply satisfying, Cakes and Ale is Maugham at his best.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:39:48 -0400)

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Novel, first published in 1930, which traces the fortunes of a famous writer and his extraordinary wife.

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