Thursday, June 30, 2011

Cakes and Ale

I think I read Of Human Bondage years ago, but I have no recollection of it, so at this point Cakes and Ale represents the sum total of my knowledge of W. Somerset Maugham's oeuvre. Based on what I know about Of Human Bondage, though, it would be a mistake to attempt any generalizations about Maugham based on Cakes and Ale--so I won't!

Cakes and Ale struck me as quite an odd book. It has many passages in it that are amusing, interesting, and eminently quotable, such as the set pieces on the role of beauty in art and criticism, or on the place of the first-person singular in the art of fiction. The book is about a writer writing about a writer, narrated by another writer; between this set up and the embedded commentaries on fiction and criticism, the book overall seems as if it must be metafiction of some kind, and yet it doesn't seem so, and this is one reason I found it odd: I can't quite see how to connect all this self-referential potential with the story the novel tells about Edward Driffield and his putatively enchanting first wife Rosie, bar-maid turned society beauty turned scandalous absconder. That is, the metafictional commentary doesn't seem to be saying anything about the kind of book Cakes and Ale actually is. I suppose this means it isn't metafictional after all but incidental, just the kind of stuff a narrating writer would write about. Here's a bit from the excursus on first-person narration, for instance:

A little while ago I read in the Evening Standard an article by Mr Evelyn Waugh in the course of which he remarked that to write novels in the first person was a contemptible practice. . . . I was much concerned, and forthwith asked Alroy Kear (who reads everything, even the books he writes prefaces for) to recommend to me some works on the art of fiction. On his advice I read The Craft of Fiction by Mr Percy Lubbock, from which I learned that the only way to write novels was like Henry James; after that I read Aspects of the Novel by Mr E. M. Forster, from which I learned that the only way to write novels was like Mr E. M. Forster; then I read The Structure of the Novel by Mr Edwin Muir, from which I learned nothing at all.

Amusing, as I said. Ashenden goes on to conclude that the value of first-person narration is that in an increasingly confusing life, it makes sense to focus on our own limited experience, which is, after all, all we can really be sure of and hope to understand. Yet Cakes and Ale is not really about him, is it? Or, is it? If so, it does a good job effacing his part in it: he's a Nick Carraway type, significant (or so it seems) primarily as a device for delivering Maugham's gentle literary and social satire and for telling us about other people, especially Driffield and Rosie.

Driffield, too, is a fairly absent main character: in his case he seems to be there to provide the occasion for the literary commentary, as well as for some pretty funny stuff about the rise and fall of literary reputations and the dubious reliability of critical judgments. Ashenden does not admire Driffield much himself:

But of course what the critics wrote about Edward Driffield was eyewash. His outstanding merit was not the realism that gave vigour to his work, nor the beauty that informed it, nor his graphic portraits of seafaring men, nor his poetic descriptions of salty marshes, of storm and calm, and of nestling habits; it was his longevity. . . But why writers should be more esteemed the older they grow, has long perplexed me. . . . After mature consideration I have come to the conclusion that the real reason for the universal applause that comforts the declining years of an author who exceeds the common span of man is that intelligent people after the age of thirty read nothing at all. As they grown 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 who wrote them.

Let's not start naming contemporary authors we think might be unduly revered for just this reason! Again, this is funny, with just enough sting to make it interesting too. But the novel does not give the issue of literary merit any momentum as a theme (by, say, really focusing on whether Driffield does have any genius besides longevity), and I don't think it also takes it on as a formal problem by trying to embody in its own narrative any special genius.

The only element of the novel that has much forward momentum is the story of Rosie--but to me, she was too flat a character, and too representative of a kind of male fantasy of undemanding available amoral female sexuality, to captivate me the way she (to me, inexplicably) enchants young Ashenden. So enamoured is he that even after she has run off with the coal merchant of Blackstable and started a new life as Mrs Iggulden in America, he defends her for having "carried on" behind Driffield's back: "She was a very simple woman. Her instincts were healthy and ingenuous. She loved to make people happy. She loved love." Challenged on this sappy conclusion ("Do you call that love?"), he responds,

Well, then, the act of love. She was naturally affectionate. When she liked anyone, it was quite natural for her to go to bed with him. She never thought twice about it. It was not vice; it wasn't lasciviousness; it was her nature. She gave herself as naturally as the sun gives heat or the flowers their perfume. It was a pleasure to her and she liked to give pleasure to others. It had no effect on her character; she remained sincere, unspoiled, and artless.

Well, not so artless she doesn't welcome the gift of a very expensive fur cloak from one of her lovers, and not so fond of giving pleasure to others that she hesitates before causing them pain. Her acts have little effect on her character because Maugham (or Ashenden) gives her very little character to begin with. The absence of complexity in her personality is not liberating: it's limiting, if you intend the portrait to be in any way related to reality. But maybe Rosie isn't intended to be more than an animated, good-natured fantasy figure. Or maybe there's something dimly progressive about the freedom with which she enjoys her own sexuality, and about Maugham's (or, again, Ashenden's) refusal to judge her for it--but I'm not convinced.

And yet--near the end we learn a bit more about Rosie's history, something that adds darker shades to the radiant glow in which she always seems bathed (her skin is so "dewy" that at one point Ashenden asks if she rubs vaseline on it). More interesting still, that sad past is linked to the one novel of Driffield's that Ashenden particularly admires, for having a "cold ruthlessness that in all the sentimentality of English fiction strikes an unusual note." This novel, The Cup of Life, is also the novel that drew censure down on the novelist for being "gratuitously offensive [and] obscene." The incident in the novel that so outrages the righteous public turns out to be taken almost straight from life. So perhaps there is a metafictional angle after all, and it turns on Rosie: perhaps her story, and her character, with its overt and unapologetic sensuality, is a challenge to Maugham's (or Ashenden's?) readers, to see, for instance, if they will appreciate her beauty without decrying her morality, or find beauty in her freedom from social constraints. Is the novel about the relationship between beauty and virtue? Does that help us make sense of the title? But again, I'm not convinced, because I just don't find Rosie, or the novel as a whole, for that matter, substantive enough to hang a theory on.

The novel is funny, though, if only in strange fits and starts, so to close, another of the many quotable passages, this time about a poet who becomes, for a time, the rage of London literary society:

Now that he is so completely forgotten and the critics who praised him would willingly eat their words if they were not carefully guarded in the files of innumerable newspaper offices, the sensation he made with his first volume of poems is almost unbelievable. The most important papers gave to reviews of it as much space as they would have to the report of a prize-fight, the most influential critics fell over one another in their eagerness to welcome him. They likened him to Milton (for the sonority of his blank verse), to Keats (for the opulence of his sensuous imagery), and to Shelley (for his airy fantasy); and, using him as a stick to beat idols of whom they were weary, they gave in his name many a resounding whack on the emaciated buttocks of Lord Tennyson and a few good husky smacks on the bald pate of Robert Browning. The public fell like the walls of Jericho.

Maybe fun is the key: Maugham had an idea for Rosie, he tells us in his Preface, and wanted a book to put her in, and he also had a lot of experience with the vagaries and vapidities of literary celebrity and the satirical skill to write them up elegantly. Why not put these ingredients together into a little confection of a book?

(cross-posted at Novel Readings)

Cakes and Ale

Cross-posted at Of Books and Bicycles.

Cakes and Ale is the fourth Somerset Maugham novel I’ve read, and with each book I keep changing my opinion of him. I really liked Of Human Bondage, which was my first book, and then I listened to The Painted Veil, which I loved. So far so good; I thought at this point that I should eventually read everything he wrote. Then I got to The Razor’s Edge, which I didn’t like at all. It felt dull and ponderous. I like idea-driven novels, but in that one, I didn’t care about the ideas and didn’t like how they were presented. With Cakes and Ale, I’m beginning to think Maugham may not be quite as good as I thought. There were interesting aspects of the novel and enjoyable moments — particularly the discussions of authors and writing — but I was hoping to love it and I didn’t.

The novel tells the story of the Driffields — Edward Driffield, a famous author, and two Mrs. Driffields, his first wife, Rosie, and his second, Amy. (My edition has a preface by Maugham that says Edward Driffield is most emphatically not Thomas Hardy, in spite of what anybody says, which meant that I spent the entire novel thinking of him as Thomas Hardy, of course.) It’s narrated by William Ashenden, a writer himself who knew Edward and Rosie at various points in his life. There’s another writer involved as well, Alroy Kear, who is planning on writing a biography of Edward, who in the present tense of the novel has passed away. Alroy approaches the narrator in an effort to gather information about Edward’s life, which sends him off on long reminiscences of his time with the Driffields.

The difference between what the narrator remembers about the Driffields, what he chooses to tell Alroy, and what Alroy will actually put in the biography is the novel’s source of tension. The Driffields — Edward and Rosie — were…not quite proper. The narrator first meets the couple when they move into Blackstable, his hometown. Edward’s father was a bailiff and Rosie had worked as a bar maid, which was a big part of the problem, but they also never quite followed the rules as they were supposed to, and everyone knew it. Eventually Edward’s fame as a writer comes to make up for his social deficiencies, but Rosie was always a bit of a scandal.

The novel is really Rosie’s story in many ways, in part because of the narrator’s fascination with her and her bohemian ways that stayed with him all his life. But there’s also the problem of what to do about the troublesome, sexually-suspect first wife after she is gone and the second wife is trying to establish her husband’s reputation as a respectable, important writer. How should that first wife be portrayed in the biography, and what to do about episodes such as the time the Driffields skipped town with debts and servants left unpaid? And what about Rosie’s sexual history?

It’s all a question of class, of course, about how Alroy and Amy Driffield try to transform Edward from his working-class roots into a solid bourgeois, respectable writer and how the narrator questions and resists them. It’s also about writers and writing. Alroy Kear is the object of much scorn from the narrator; not only is he going to whitewash Edward’s past in what is sure to be a bland biography, but his writing, at least according to the narrator, sounds blandly boring as well:

I could think of no one among my contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent. This, like the wise man’s daily dose of Bemax, might have gone into a heaped-up tablespoon. He was perfectly aware of it, and it must have seemed to him sometimes little short of a miracle that he had been able with it to compose already some thirty books. I cannot but think that he saw the white light of revelation when first he read that Thomas Carlyle is an after-dinner speech had stated that genius was an infinite capacity for taking pains. He pondered the saying. If that was all, he must have told himself, he could be a genius like the rest; and when the excited reviewer of a lady’s paper, writing a notice of one of his works, used the word … he must have sighed with the satisfaction of one who after long hours of toil has completed a cross-word puzzle.

There is no room in Alroy Kear’s world for the exoticism that someone like Rosie Driffield can offer, and so the narrator scorns him.

I was disappointed in part by Rosie as a character; the back cover of my edition promises that she is Maugham’s “greatest heroine,” but she never quite came to life for me. It was the moment when the narrator tells us what she wasn’t a big talker that did it: I had pictured her as vivacious and voluble, and when I tried to picture her being quiet, I couldn’t do it. Then I began to doubt that I had really understood her at all. I’m also not entirely sure I like the narrator. There are times his mildly ironic tone is amusing and I can’t help but agree with his dismissal of Alroy Kear, but there’s something off-putting about the voice, something distancing. I suppose the mildly ironic tone gets a little wearying after a while. I don’t think that we are meant to read the narrator uncritically; as a writer himself, he is not exactly a disinterested observer of the fates of Driffield and Kear, and his detached, judgmental attitude toward his subjects seems self-serving. But critiquing the narrator in this way wasn’t enough to make the book a satisfying read.

Something Missing

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.

Cross-posted at So Many Books