Cakes And Ale, by W. Somerset Maugham
This is a novel that succeeds in being timeless and relevant by not trying at all to be. This may seem a bit counterintuitive, if not outright paradoxical, but this novel achieves a high degree of universality by being a very particular story, of the kind that is likely mainly to appeal to writers and other artistic people. Originally, as the author notes in the very informative preface to this volume, the author had intended on writing a short story with the female lead–a very fascinating and somewhat immoral character–as the main character, but eventually the short story became a novel of about 200 pages in which the woman was the most lively but by no means the main character. Of interest as well is the fact that when this book was released the author had to defend himself from libel proceedings because some authors thought he was writing about them (he probably was) and to which he successfully responded by claiming he based a few superficial details on unnamed writers and wrote mainly about himself (which he probably was doing too). The end result is a great novel if you like reading about writers talking about writing and dealing with the personal drama of their lives, which is admittedly something I enjoy.
It took me a while to figure out what this story was about. In many ways, the author’s approach to his main character is rather antiheroic. The protagonist does very little except for gossip in company and associate with more famous and illustrious and important people. He carries on an affair with the aforementioned not very virtuous woman for a year, but there is no portrayal of this relationship as being anything other than furtive adultery that both had to hide in order to preserve their reputation and well-being, as well as housing, since single men in that time were not permitted to have overnight visitors of that kind. The author uses the admittedly not particularly exciting plot to examine issues of character, on the one hand, and the lack thereof, and also to examine what writers think about other writers, whether they struggle with someone’s prose or whether they dislike someone who is nearly universally liked, or whether they grouse about the real life antecedents about what was thought to be a fictional novel, sometimes unable to admit the real inspiration for writing when it proves controversial or difficult to defend to one’s audience.
And that is what gives this book timeless relevance. In writing about a very specific set of people and making no pretensions to be writing something for all time, the writer indicates the way that a narrow world and deeply personal motives inform many writers, myself included. The very smallness of the world and lack of excitement in the plot mirrors the way that many writers live lives that are not particularly thrilling in terms of their behaviors but that are full of rich mental action and the allusive importance of other people’s writings. I think W. Somerset Maugham might be a new favorite author of mine, because this is the third book of his that I have read and it is the third sort of work that I have read–one play, one historical romance, and one excellent examination of the constricted life of a writer who does not have great ambition, perhaps, but who loves the written word and engaging with the writing of others as well as with the material of his own experience. And it is from our connections with both texts and other people and our own memories that forms what we write, something that more writers should celebrate as Maugham does here.