Late in life, Somerset Maugham claimed that this was the favourite among his novels and it is easy to see why, with its wit and provocative themes handled with consummate skill. It is certainly among his most autobiographical, resurrecting the author’s occasional alter-ego William Ashenden for this tale of social mores, notions of respectability and literary one-upmanship. Subtitled The Skeleton in the Closet, this is not a crime or mystery novel, so I’ll keep this post nice and short but wanted to draw attention to one of the best books I’ve ever read (or re-read).
I offer the following review for Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, hosted today by Todd Mason at Sweet Freedom.
“You must take me as I am, you know,” she whispered.
“All right,” I said.
Ashenden, a successful author now in his mid 50s, much like Maugham himself at the time, tells his life story, focusing in particular on his friendship with the late Edward Driffield and his first wife, the earthy and charming Rosie. He has been contacted by Amy, Driffield’s second wife, via Alroy Kear, a popular writer who plans on writing the official biography (or rather, hagiography) of what is now generally considered to be a great man. Ashenden ultimately opts not to contribute to the project having initially supplied his memories of the time they spent together in his youth, and we eventually find out why and what he really thought of the lovely ex-barmaid Rosie and the talented Driffield, a figure closely modelled on Thomas Hardy.
“I could think of no one of my contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent.”
Despite the author’s denials at the time, the entire work is constructed and designed as an elaborate roman a clef, with Hardy clearly the inspiration for the central figure, Ashenden self-evidently Maugham, while Kear was based on the then popular but now little-read Hugh Walpole. This caused something of a scandal in 1930, with Hardy’s widow Florence taking particular umbrage at her literary equivalent, Amy Driffield, going so far as having a friend publish a novel attacking Maugham entitled Gin and Bitters under the pseudonym ‘A Riposte’ (!) in which he appears as ‘Levesron Hurle.’ While Maugham laughed this off, Walpole was very deeply hurt, ending a friendship between the two men that had lasted almost twenty years. Maugham was known to be cruel but as the subject is truth and the way the establishment tends to filter it in the name of respectability both in fiction and in life, it does make a hard kind of sense and posterity would seem to back up Maugham’s judgements of Walpole’s talents and the banalities that kept realism in art at bay for so long.
“We know of course that women are habitually constipated, but to represent them in fiction as being altogether devoid of a back passage seems to me really an excess of chivalry.”
And yet, for all the intertextual playfulness, this remains an exceptional novel for its witty dialogue, its damning of both literary pretensions and the literary establishment and its unconventional portrait of unconventional lives; and for its general unwillingness to blame or condemn anyone for their choices, even when these cause pain to to others. As my old English Lit teacher used to say, trust the text not the author, and this is triumphantly proved here. Maugham lied a lot about his inspiration for this novel and was apparently not a very nice man at all; but his work, especially in short form, remains remarkably fresh and insightful. Of his novels Of Human Bondage, Cakes and Ale and The Razor’s Edge are the ones that I think stand up the best.
“My imagination played with terrible possibilities. Bigamy, murder, and forgery. Very few villains in books failed to hold the threat of exposure of one of those crimes over some helpless female.”
Cakes and Ale is a fine portrait of a vanished age and about literary heritage, prestige and pretension – and about what a bad idea respectability really is. But mostly it is about posterity, and how people seek to construct and manipulate it, a theme that it seems will never go out of fashion, not when politicians can lie relentless day after day, week after week in 140 characters or less, and nobody cares. Maugham reminds us that we should, that people matter and that truth should always be respected and faced, bravely, intelligently, and humorously. We are not here for long after all – why waste time passing in judgement on others instead of getting on with your own life and making sure you live up to your own standards and expectations?
I’ll be back to reviewing crime and mystery fiction (and Ed McBain!) from next week but probably on an increasingly occasional basis, due to pressures of work and other sorts of real life entanglements – thanks for reading and participating.