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Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham
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Cakes and Ale (1930)

by W. Somerset Maugham

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Cakes And Ale by W Somerset Maugham

The novel opens with the narrator, Willie Ashenden, considering the character and career of Alroy Kear, a man he has known for twenty years. Ashenden and Kear are both novelists, but men of quite different stripe. "Than Roy no one could show a more genuine cordiality to a fellow novelist whose name was on everybody's lips, but no one could more genially turn a cold shoulder on him when idleness, failure, or someone else's success had cast a shadow on his notoriety". Ashenden, not currently being in the public eye, has been out of Kear's notice for some time, and is bemused by finding himself suddenly the recipient of multiple phone messages requesting urgent contact. Ashenden describes Kear as an old friend, but this seems merely to be a reference to a long acquaintance, and perhaps a former closeness. "It sounds a little brutal to say that when he had got all he could get from people he dropped them; but it would take so long to put the matter more delicately, and would need so subtle an adjustments of hints, half-tones, and allusions, playful or tender, that such being at bottom the fact, I think it as well to leave it at that." The description of Kear is a savagely funny skewering of a self serving sycophantic writer grafting his way to prominence despite having only a tablespoon of talent. The savagery goes on for pages, and I began to get the uncomfortable feeling that this was personal, and reading it was rather like being trapped at dinner between rowing hosts who have forgotten one's presence. Turning to the introduction, I found that it was indeed personal, and seems to have come as a bolt from the blue to it object.

Kear is a barely disguised Hugh Walpole, a novelist who had been Maugham's friend for twenty years. Walpole was sent a proof copy of Cakes And Ale to see if it would be suitable for the Book Club. Walpole began reading the book whilst undressing after a night at the theatre. His diary records "Read on with increasing horror. Unmistakable portrait of myself. Never slept." Virginia Woolf, a friend, added "There he sat with only one sock on until 11 the next morning reading it .... in tears".

Walpole was only the first victim. Kear is anxious to meet up with Ashenden because Mrs Driffield has engaged Kear to write a biography of her late husband, Edward Driffield, and Ashenden knew Driffield in the days before he became famous, in the days when he was married to the first Mrs Driffield. Driffield is a stand in for Thomas Hardy, and many of the other characters fall into place from Hardy's or Maugham's circles. Hardy died only two years before Cakes And Ale was published, and the novel was received with headlines such as 'Hitting Below The Shroud' and 'Trampling Upon Hardy's Grave'. For many years Maugham tried to maintain that resemblances to persons living or dead were purely coincidental and not at all intended, despite the manifest evidence to the contrary.

Away from the delicious background information in Nicholas Shakespeare's introduction to this Vintage edition of Cakes And Ale, and the savaging of Walpole/Kear, there is a delightful novel drawing heavily on Maugham's own youth in Whitstable (appearing here as Blackstable), a small town in Kent. Ashenden is a lonely boy living with his aunt and uncle, the later being the local vicar. The boy is isolated by the strict class boundaries of the time, too 'respectable' to socialize with most of the locals, but not high enough in status to have other friends. There is a splendid moment when a local builder, a man of comparative wealth and social prominence, horrifies the vicar's household by calling at their front door. Edward Driffield and his pretty young wife take up temporary residence in Blackstable, causing a degree of consternation among those to whom social boundaries matter. How does one deal with a man once a sailor now a writer married to a former barmaid? As Driffield and his wife are Blackstable born and bred there can be no ignoring their past. None of this seems to affect Driffield and the delightful Rosie, and they befriend the young Ashenden, taking him on picnics with them and teaching him to ride a bike. His friendship with the couple makes for more crossing of class boundaries, as the Vicarage servants knew them well of old, and the Driffields have not the snobbery to cut them. The Driffields come to have a profound effect on Ashenden.

Years later Ashenden is unwillingly obliged to impose on Driffield's hospitality in the company of rich and titled tourists, who visit the grand old man of letters as they would a rare and curious animal at the zoo, to be seen before it dies.
1 vote Oandthegang | Apr 2, 2015 |
It’s difficult to gauge how contemporary readers would have responded to Somerset Maugham’s novel which focuses so much on class. On the one hand Maugham clearly criticises entrenched social perceptions about class but at the same time today’s reader is very much aware that his narrator, William Ashenden, is still what we would call very class conscious in his dealings with people in different strata of society.

I also wonder how his contemporaries would have felt about his lengthy ruminations, such as his response to Edward Driffield. He goes into such detail about this apparently fictitious writer that it really does seem as if Driffield represents some famous novelist – even though in the preface Maugham denies this. If that’s so, why analyse his work in such detail? And then there’s all Maugham’s whimsy, such as his seeing the imminent demise of the House of Lords and his suggestion that all these men should now take up writing, so noble are they.

Although ‘Cakes and Ale’ must be one of Maugham’s most well-known novels (second, perhaps, to ‘Of Human Bondage’), I can see why now his writing, judging from this book, has lost its popularity. There’s a certain attractive lightness to his style but the issues he dealt with were ones of his time and hold less interest for today’s reader.

Apparently this was the author’s favourite novel and I think that’s why it’s less successful to me today. It is obviously very autobiographical in many respects, it deals with other writers whom Maugham knew and in the other part of the story, that about Rosie Driffield, it’s equally autobiographical celebrating a major relationship in Maugham’s life. All this is highly personal but not of enduring interest. ( )
1 vote evening | Feb 3, 2015 |
William Ashenden is an author of reasonable success, who is contacted by an old friend – fellow author and literary darling Alroy Kear, who in turn has been asked to write a biography of a recently deceased writer named Edward Driffield, by Driffield’s widow. Kear – and Driffield’s widow Amy – want William’s help, as he knew Driffield many years earlier. This request sparks William’s memory, and the majority of Cakes and Ale is written in flashback, as William – who also narrates the story recalls his friendship with Edward Driffield and his first wife Rosie.

Here, he faces a dilemma, because Rosie is remembered with disdain and even disgust by most people, due to her promiscuity, and her unfaithfulness to her husband. However, William remembers her with affection, and is concerned over how much to tell Kear, and what exactly should appear in Kear’s biography.

I have never read anything by W. Somerset Maugham before, and was not sure what to expect, but I was thoroughly charmed by this novel. It is narrated in a meandering fashion – laced with cynicism, but also very wry and humorous in parts. William, who was clearly something of a wannabe snob in his earlier years, has clearly mellowed with age, and is able to think of Rosie without disapproval; seemingly the only person who is willing or able to do so. The story is written in a conversational manner, and William’s observations about small town life, and the people who inhabited his childhood village were sharp and very ‘on the ball’ (I definitely felt like I knew some of these people!)

It sounds contradictory, but while quite a lot happens, it feels also like not much happens – perhaps because the main bulk of the story is written as a reminiscence, rather than events which are taking place in the present time. It’s a light and easy read, and one that is perfect to curl up on the sofa with on a rainy day.

I would definitely recommend this book, and will be seeking out more work by Maugham as a result of reading it. ( )
  Ruth72 | Nov 7, 2014 |
Read this for the 2014 Category Challenge. It took me awhile to get into the writing style of the author. The flashbacks also threw me off until I figured it out. This is the story of a writer who is asked to write a biography of a famed author. Secrets of the past come out when he starts to dig into the past, and the author's wife seeks to obliterate evidence of what she considers a sordid part of his life, not as proper as she would like. The book also explores the personality of a larger-than-life amorous woman and her exploits. Several parallel lives are explored in this novel. ( )
  LadyoftheLodge | Oct 8, 2014 |
completed 7/5/14, 4.5 stars ( )
  bookmagic | Jul 7, 2014 |
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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 Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:01 -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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