Monday, November 5, 2007

Cakes and Ale by W Somerset Maugham

This quiet book is a joy to read. In another writer's hands the subject matter could easily have become rather sordid and angst-ridden, but Maugham has a light touch that is so engaging and delightful you are won over by the character of Rosie, even when your intellect tells you that you shouldn't be - which reflects how the characters in the story react to her.

The story begins at the end. Edward Driffield, a famous novelist, has died a little while before the story begins; from humble beginnings, at the end of his life he was considered to be the Grand Old Man of English letters, in large part due to the exertions of his second wife. The narrator, Willie Ashenden, knew him and his first wife when he was younger; he is called upon by Alroy Kear, who is about to write a life of Ted Driffield and wants to know about his experiences of Driffield.

Kear's attitude towards writing Driffield's life is a warning to us all about not implicitly accepting the veracity of biographies - they will always be written to portray the writer's idea of the subject.

'It would be rather amusing to show the man with his passion for beauty and his careless treatment of his obligations, his fine style and his personal hatred of soap and water, his idealism and his tippling in disreputable pubs; but honestly, would it pay? They'd only say I was imitating Lytton Strachey. No, I think I shall do much better to be allusive and charming and rather subtle, you know the sort of thing, and tender.'

Ashenden has no intention of discussing most of his recollections with Kear but begins to privately reminisce about his experiences of Ted Driffield, a quiet man in a loud suit when he first met him, and his wife Rosie who used to be a barmaid. The couple were frowned upon in the small town because of their humble backgrounds and Rosie's less than pure reputation, and Ashenden, as an awkward fifteen year old, is prepared to cut them as his social inferiors.
However, from the moment that Rosie collides with him on her bike she begins to weave a magical spell over him.

'I did not, of course, realise it then but there was a disarming frankness in her manner that put one at one's ease. She talked with a kind of eagerness, like a child bubbling over with the zest of life, and her eyes were lit all the time by her engaging smile. I did not know why I liked it. I should say it was a little sly, if slyness were not a displeasing quality; it was too innocent to be sly. It was mischievous rather, like that of a child who has done something that he thinks funny but is well aware that you will think rather naughty.'

Rosie dominates the book; even when she is not directly in the action it all revolves around her and the feelings she inspires, positive feelings from those who knew her but also negative ones, as Kear attempts to whitewash over her part in Driffield's life and writing.

Rosie should not be appealing; she is promiscuous, giving herself to every man who wants her, cheating on poor Ted virtually in front of him but still she remains a loveable, attractive character. The novel describes Ashenden's development from a boy into a man and the large part that Rosie played in that, as he becomes closer to the Driffields and their circle. He has to deal with becoming aware of her as a woman, and then with the jealousy and other emotions that are an inescapable part of such a relationship. However, as everyone in Rosie's life, he is unable to be bitter about her; she is described by an artist in her circle as 'like the sun shining silver' and, like the sun, while she may shine on someone for a time, she belongs to no one. This is what is so attractive about her, she takes a joy in everything, and moves through life determined to have the best of it.

Although the character of Rosie dominates the novel, the gentle smiling Ted is the one that I felt most attached to. Quietly sitting in the background while everyone discusses his work, not seeming to care about playing the author but taking everything in and knowing a lot more about his wife's actions than anyone, including her, realises, he is a sympathetic character. It is hard to not feel sorry for him when at the end of his life his second wife, who was conscious of his literary reputation, tries to stop him from stealing out to prop up the bar at the local pub despite the fact that it makes him happy.

This book is funny, charming and, at times, incredibly moving but all in such a simple unpretentious way that it was only after I finished it that I realised just how powerful it is and how much the story will stay with me.


Becky said...

This book sounds far more tempting than any blurb I have looked at has managed to convey. I agree with you about Maugham's writing too - his simplicity is deceptive because his characters really live. And so they do stay with you.

Leigh Russell said...

Maugham writes in a very readable style, and the other thing I like about him is that he tells a good story.

Eloise said...

Thanks Becky. The blurb on the back of my 1970s edition talked of 'the barmaid with a heart of gold', which made me imagine a sort of Darling Buds of May story, completely misleading.

Your right Leigh, he tells an excellent story in this book.