When Cakes and Ale was first published in 1930 it roused a storm of controversy, since many people imagined they recognised portraits of literary figures now no more. It is the novel for which Maugham wished to be remembered.
©2009 W. Somerset Maugham (P)2014 Audible, Inc.
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"A neglected masterpiece from a neglected master"
This was a book that I read more than thirty years ago, and more recently perhaps just seven or eight years ago. A quick dip through it over the last week confirms why I am so fond of it and why I enjoy it so much - and my enjoyment only seems to deepen with the recent publication of a much heralded biography of Thomas Hardy by Claire Tomalin in 2007. On the surface this 1930 novel and the 1930’s Maugham seems to run parallel to Wodehouse - with whom the early pages ring. The young Ashenden and his comic Parson uncle function perfectly well as a Wodehouse playhouse, but this theme is quickly transcended and we have high satire, aimed - it is alleged but let’s say it is true squarely at Hugh Walpole (?) - Alroy Kear - and, of course Thomas Hardy - Edward Driffield. The beauty of this novel is twofold. Firstly it is in the development and treatment of Rosie Driffied (n?e Gann). It would be well worth surveying all of Maugham’s female characters to see his complete lack of patronage towards a well-drawn picture that his narrator does not ever understand, but also never judges. The former barmaid is at the heart of this story of high-end literary types and, whilst they are subject to ribaldry and stereotyping, the functions of Rosie remain unique and never quite explained. Her role is to cast all of the other characters - Driffield, Mrs Barton Trafford and Lord George - as shadows and imaginings against the Realism of her own story in the novel. Secondly, it is the plotting of the narrative line that is really extra-ordinary and a great achievement which demonstrates what can be achieved in the last throes of authentic Realism. In casting aside a request to write the life of a great writer, our narrator writes the life of a great character and turns the whole thing on its head by playing with the notion of real life impinging on a fictional form.
"Not one to fall asleep to."
With an intriguing storyline and subtle yet clever characterisation, Cakes and Ale makes for an educational and insightful book. However, this is not for those who don't always pay attention to what they are listening to; Maugham enjoys his tangents, and they are not always brief, so near full attention is required. Otherwise a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding audible experience.
The life of Thomas Hardy is said to have inspired much of this work, and it explores the balance between a writers fame and worth. As such some have argued that it is an attack on Hardy himself, leading to the penning of 'Gin and Bitters' as a parody of Maugham's efforts.
An engaging and personal narrative, with careful hints in his tone of his possibly protective presentation of some of his memories, despite his insistence otherwise. Even if you are a little taken aback at first, when you get used to his voice and rhythm, you are swept up in the story.
To delve further into the Maugham canon, and to read around the authors who are supposedly the influence for this piece.
An alternative name for this book is 'The Skeleton in the Cupboard', but on reflection 'Cakes and Ale' is much more appropriate in the subtle and vaguely ironic tone that it imparts to the novel as a whole.
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