Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?
~Sir Toby Belch to Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night
Cakes and Ale by Somerset Maugham and I didn’t enjoy each other’s company all that much. It wasn’t the story, I liked the story. It was Maugham. His voice rubbed me the wrong way and I hated how he would occasionally slip into using “you” in describing things, saying how “you” feel when this or that happens, or how “you” think about certain things. It makes assumptions about who the reader is and leaves the door wide open for the reader, as it did in my case, to say no, not me, I don’t feel or think that way. And as for Maugham’s voice, I can’t say exactly what bothered me about it so much. It felt to me like it had an all-knowing and condescending sort of flavor to it, a sort of wink wink, nudge nudge quality due in part to the narrator revealing the whole story to the reader but not to the other characters in the book. That probably doesn’t make sense. I could be making it all up and when I type it out it seems such a silly thing to not like a book over, but there it is.
As for the story, the narrator is William Ashenden, an author who was popular once but has now slipped to the midlist. Still quite respectable though. He is asked by his acquaintance and fellow author, Alroy Kear, who happens to be a bit of a golden boy type, to share his recollections of Edward Driffield for a biography Kear was asked to write by Driffield’s second and now widowed wife. Driffield became the author of his day for his realistic portrayal of working-class people – the coal merchants, the tavern keepers, etc. Ironically, when Driffield first came on the scene, genteel readers were shocked by his subject matter. To say that there is much in this book about class is to state the obvious.
Driffield came from the class that he wrote about as did his first wife, Rosie. Our narrator Ashenden meets them when he is a boy and they move into the small town where he lives. Driffield teaches him how to ride a bicycle and both he and Rosie are kind to this teenage boy who got a transgressive thrill from sneaking to their house for tea while at the same time looking down his nose at some of their behavior and what he considered lack of manners. Things happen to cause Ashenden and the Driffields to lose touch until many years later when Ashenden is in med school in London.
Alroy Kear, the biographer, wants all the details, but he doesn’t really. He only wants the socially acceptable side of Edward Driffield. Anything unsavory he sees no reason to include in the biography, though an occasional allusion might be okay. Much of what Ashenden knows about Driffield pretty much falls into the unsavory category especially as it relates to his first wife Rosie.
There are some amusing passages on writers and writing such as this one:
After mature consideration I have come to the conclusion that the real reason for the universal applause that comforts the declining years of the author who exceeds the common span of man is that intelligent people after the age of the thirty read nothing at all. As they grow older the books they read in their youth are lit with its glamour and with every year that passes they ascribe greater merit to the author that wrote them. Of course he must go on; he must keep in the public eye. It is no good his thinking that it is enough to write one or two masterpieces; he must provide a pedestal for them of forty or fifty works of no particular consequence. This needs time. His production must be such that if he cannot captivate a reader by his charm he can stun him by his weight.
Mildly amusing but not enough to make the book come alive. And that, now that I think of it, is what is missing for me. The book had no spark. It should have, all the elements are there for it, but it was only meh.