The 2013 book list is moving along at its own steady pace as I complete Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (a book I’ve read about a dozen times and am savoring as I plan a long piece on what for me is the great Jane’s most problematic work), so I’ve decided to write something about a book I finished late last year.
The book is Cakes and Ale and the author, W. Somerset Maugham, is an important 20th century writer whose work you’ve likely never read – though you probably have seen at least one film adaptation from his vast canon of novels, plays, novellas, and short stories. Sadie Thompson (based on his story “Rain”), The Razor’s Edge, The Painted Veil, Being Julia (based on the novel Theatre), Up at the Villa, and his masterpiece, Of Human Bondage – there are film versions of all of these (in several cases, such as with Of Human Bondage, The Painted Veil, and The Razor’s Edge, there are multiple adaptations). So likely, even if you don’t think you know Somerset Maugham’s work, chances are you’ve run into it.
The reason for this is simple: while Maugham had a long and highly successful career as a writer, his critical reputation pales compared to his contemporaries such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, or William Faulkner. Stylistically, Maugham writes in what is called “plain style”: his language is conversational and he uses none of the tricks of the aforementioned stylists who attempt to evoke psychological states via language (you know, or should know the term used to describe the Joyce/Woolf/Faulkner gimmick – “stream of consciousness”). Nor does he go “minimalist” à la Hemingway, omitting as much as possible in an effort to engage the reader in “active reading” by forcing him/her to fill in those omissions to “create meaning.”
Maugham simply writes engrossing stories about interesting, often fascinating characters and gives readers plenty to ponder both while reading and after finishing his works. Cakes and Ale, which Maugham once called his favorite of his novels, is vintage Maugham.
The story involves literary types. There’s the narrator, successful novelist William Ashenden (loosely based on Maugham); his “frenemy,” Alroy Kear, a literary biographer (loosely based on Hugh Walpole) who wants Ashenden to give him information on his friendship with the late Edward Driffield (loosely based on Thomas Hardy), and especially on Ashenden’s friendship with Driffield’s first wife (and muse) Rosie (who is something of a cross between Sue Bridehead and Tess Durbeyfield with more than a hint of Eustacia Wye). Kear’s motives are, as you might guess – impure. Despite having been hired by Driffield’s second wife to write a hagiographic biography that omits – or at least white washes – Driffield’s past bohemian life with Rosie, Kear wants to get at the scandal to enhance his own reputation as a literary biographer who gets the dirt.
Ashenden doesn’t give Kear the info (which is, of course, bohemian and, for its time, scandalous) about his and other men’s more than platonic relationships with Rosie – but he shares it with us. What we learn is a lot about how marriages work, how men and women love each other in spite of their flaws, and how art is inspired not necessarily by the pure and beautiful but by the people and relationships which sparks one’s passions and creativity – no matter how questionable that inspiration might be to conventional thinking.
It’s a fast read, a good read – and a read that both validates and questions all one’s pre-conceived notions about “the artistic life” – and about those who live it and who, like Kear, feed off it.
One wishes more “literary fiction” were as engaging.
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