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Fiction (1900-1945) > Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham

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message 1: by Susan (new)

Susan | 774 comments This is the novel that Maugham wanted to be remembered for. I really enjoyed re-reading this and look forward to discussing it with my fellow BYT's.


message 2: by Susan (new)

Susan | 774 comments My review:

This novel was one of the very first I read from the adult section of the lending library, when I was finally allowed to ascend the stairs to what I perceived as, ‘the real books,’ and leave the children’s section behind. W. Somerset Maugham has always remained one of my favourite authors and re-reading this was a delight. It features a returning character; the narrator being William ‘Willie’ Ashenden. Much of this novel is autobiographical and, indeed, Maugham himself always said it was his favourite.

Ashenden is a novelist, who knew the great ‘man of letters,’ Edward Driffield as a young man. Driffield has recently died, leaving his widow, and former nurse, looking for a biographer to help present the vision of his life that she approves of. She asks Alroy Kear to write Driffield’s life and he, in turn, asks for Ashenden’s help. Ashenden knew Driffield well, and also his first wife, Rosie. Rosie is something of an embarrassment in terms of the biography – a former barmaid, she was notoriously unfaithful and Driffield’s widow is keen to play down her role.

This is very much a satire of literary London and you sense that Maugham is having a great deal of fun in writing this. He is keen to point out literary trends; gleefully pointing out that nobody remembers many of the people he met at literary soirees at the time. It is said that Edward Driffield was based on Thomas Hardy, while Alroy Kear, who approaches Ashenden for his reminiscences, is based upon Hugh Walpole. It was later suggested that this novel ruined Walpole’s literary reputation and, indeed, the remaining years of his life, although Maugham refused to acknowledge the suggested connections between the above mentioned authors and his characters. He certainly takes a side swipe at Evelyn Waugh (another favourite author of mine) and is at his best when sniping at the literary world and also laughing at himself as a young, priggish and snobbish youth.

Rosie, it is obvious, is not the embarrassment that Driffield’s widow wants her to be. As Ashenden recalls his life and his relationship with Driffield, it is Rosie who really comes to life on the page. Her character, charm, beauty and humour which draws everyone around her; like moths to a flame. This is a wonderful book and I am not surprised that Maugham wanted to be remembered for it. It contains much of himself and he obviously uses his young life to good effect, while cleverly poking fun at literary pretentions and how reputations are created.


message 3: by Ivan (new)

Ivan | 561 comments The conclusion was devastating. I read this maybe twenty-five years ago and didn't remember much about it. It's a very special book about one writer being asked to recall his association with an older distinguished writer he knew in his youth. The people asking are the second-wife (now widow) of the celebrated older writer and the biographer she has selected. However, the recollections that come flooding back run counter to the image the widow and biographer are trying to portray. The memories are idiosyncratic, intimate and would be viewed as unflattering to himself, the writer and his first wife Rosie; then there is the fact that the widow and biographer are rather facile, they seem to lack the ability to appreciate that each of us have flaws and foibles of character, but are none the less beautiful and admirable and special and all too human. This is a very special work of art.


message 4: by Susan (new)

Susan | 774 comments Assuming the character of Alroy Kear was based on Hugh Walpole, do you think it was so bad that it could really have destroyed his reputation? I didn't think it was that awful, even though Kear was obviously compromised in his writing the biography, by bowing to the second Mrs Driffield's wishes...


message 5: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 140 comments Hi Susan! You probably know what I'm going to write here so I won't. Ha ha! Is this thread running spoiler free or are spoilers ok? Just asking?

Lovely choice for the month!


message 6: by Susan (new)

Susan | 774 comments I think spoilers are fine in the thread, but I never write them in reviews, Haaze :)


message 7: by Nigeyb (last edited Oct 02, 2017 04:54AM) (new)

Nigeyb We can always used the hide spoiler command. Personally I try to avoid them, at least until everyone has a had a few weeks to read the book, but I don't really care if others want to mention spoileresque plot points.

Susan wrote: "Ashenden is a novelist"

Ashenden is also the narrator of W. Somerset Maugham's wonderful book about spying called, somewhat predictably, 'Ashenden’ and another one we read for the 2014 BYT WW1 challenge and a book I loved. It was based on WSM’s experiences as spy during WW1 & was the first book I ever read by W. Somerset Maugham, and what a great introduction it proved to be.

Since reading it, I’ve also read - and loved - Of Human Bondage (a BYT fiction group read in 2013). I've also read Up at the Villa and Christmas Holiday (yet another BYT fiction group read). I plan to read Cakes and Ale during the next few weeks.


Ashenden by W. Somerset Maugham


message 8: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 140 comments It seems like you have already read most of the BYT selections, Nigeyb? Do you find that the works from the past are now entering a "rerun" phase? Thanks for the Ashenden suggestion.


message 9: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 140 comments Susan wrote: "I think spoilers are fine in the thread, but I never write them in reviews, Haaze :)"

Yes, I try to avoid that as well. Good habit! :) (I guess I'm used to several threads for a book). I really need to catch up with you guys. So you are already reading the November selections at this point?


message 10: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb It happens from time to time Haaze - that said, I'm always happy to revisit an old favourite, or - as oft times happens - old threads get revived as someone reads a book BYT discussed back in the mists of time. The 'search discussion posts' box is a very effective way of finding old threads, or whether there even is an old thread.


message 11: by Susan (new)

Susan | 774 comments I am currently reading, Lenin on the Train (next months non-fiction choice) and hope to get to the fiction choice, The Edwardians (time permitting!).

On other groups, there are often two threads, Haaze, a 'spoiler' and a 'non spoiler,' but in this group there is only one discussion thread and I think we have a tacit agreement to avoid spoilers until later in the month.


message 12: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 140 comments Excellent. Personally I dislike the spoiler/non-spoiler thread groups, and prefer either a solo thread (where people are careful) or a more intricate division (especially larger novels/texts) into several threads. Lenin on the Train sounds like a great read (and kind of fits with my inner WW1 theme). You certainly plan ahead in your reading - I always find myself behind (almost always).

I did finally find an internet copy of Cakes and Ale at:
https://archive.org/details/CakesAndA...
So now I don't need to wait for the mailman!


message 13: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb Haaze wrote: "I did finally find an internet copy"

Wonderful. Thanks Haaze. That's saved me a c35 minute cycle ride to and from the library.


message 14: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 140 comments Nigeyb wrote: "Haaze wrote: "I did finally find an internet copy"

Wonderful. Thanks Haaze. That's saved me a c35 minute cycle ride to and from the library."


But we all need the exercise! ;-)


message 15: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb Haaze wrote: "But we all need the exercise! ;-) "


Especially after all the Cakes and Ale


message 16: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 140 comments Ha ha!


message 17: by Jan C (new)

Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments Nigeyb wrote: "It happens from time to time Haaze - that said, I'm always happy to revisit an old favourite, or - as oft times happens - old threads get revived as someone reads a book BYT discussed back in the m..."

There's a "search discussion box"? Who knew! D'oh!


message 18: by Susan (new)

Susan | 774 comments Ha Ha, you are as good as me, Jan :) I can never find which books have been discussed before.


message 19: by Jan C (new)

Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments Susan wrote: "Ha Ha, you are as good as me, Jan :) I can never find which books have been discussed before."

If looking, I usually just go through the list. I didn't know there was a shortcut.


message 20: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 140 comments I started this last night. The first chapter kind of surprised me in its intricate description of a savvy author's rise to fame. Not exactly what I expected, but Maugham is definitely catching my interest as I presume we will learn much more about what was going on behind the scenes. Perfect choice for BYT with its style and setting. Thanks for bringing this book forward!


message 21: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 140 comments It is interesting how Maugham leads the reader into the main story in such a roundabout way (at least from my perspective). I feel quite immersed in socialite England. Maugham has an unusual writing style, or, alternatively, I haven't read enough British novels from the 1930s. It is a charming novel that definitely is growing on me as I progress. How do you like his writing style?


message 22: by Ivan (new)

Ivan | 561 comments Haaze wrote: "It is interesting how Maugham leads the reader into the main story in such a roundabout way (at least from my perspective). I feel quite immersed in socialite England. Maugham has an unusual writin..."

I would characterize his style as deceptively simple. I heard that he was looked down on by more high brow authors because his works were popular with the masses and turned into lush Hollywood films with Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, George Sanders, and Tyrone Power.


message 23: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 140 comments Ivan wrote: "I would characterize his style as deceptively simple. I heard that he was looked down on by more high brow authors because his works were popular with the masses.."

I agree with you in terms of it appearing simplistic. I think this is partially due to a fair amount of conversation taking place on the pages. At the same time it is deceptive as it seems as if Maugham is weaving a subtle web of circumstances in layer after layer. I'm intrigued as I'm learning more about the relationship between the main character and the famous author in a combination of the present and vivid recollections from boyhood. It has color and intrigue but in a very low key real life fashion. I like it so far (quite a bit actually).


message 24: by Ivan (new)

Ivan | 561 comments Just keep reading - there are more and more layers.


message 25: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 140 comments Like an onion, eh? ;)


message 26: by Ivan (new)

Ivan | 561 comments With the tears


message 27: by Nigeyb (last edited Oct 09, 2017 04:50AM) (new)

Nigeyb I've just started 'Cakes and Ale' and am completely smitten so far.

I've generally enjoyed all the Maugham I have read but, have not read any for a few years now, so Jennifer's successful nomination has been most timely and welcome.

Maugham's deconstruction of how Alroy Kear has achieved his success is so biting, and yet so plausible, that I was gripped. I can almost see WSM cackling away to himself as he puts the boot in.


message 28: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 140 comments I wonder how much of his own experience that he is pouring into this fictional career?


message 29: by Jan C (new)

Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments Haaze wrote: "I wonder how much of his own experience that he is pouring into this fictional career?"

My copy has an introduction by Maugham and he indicates that a fair amount is. In addition, a number of authors thought he was using them.


message 30: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 140 comments Jan C wrote: "My copy has an introduction by Maugham and he indicates that a fair amount is. In addition, a number of authors thought he was using them."

So some of these comments are pretty pointed and directed towards the literary crew at the time?


message 31: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 140 comments I very much enjoy Maugham's writing style in this novel. There is a very close connection to the narrator. Besides, Maugham transports us so effortlessly in time as he conveys the narrator's experiences. My imagination is completely suspended in space and time.


message 32: by Jan C (new)

Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments Haaze wrote: "Jan C wrote: "My copy has an introduction by Maugham and he indicates that a fair amount is. In addition, a number of authors thought he was using them."

So some of these comments are pretty point..."


A number thought one character was Thomas Hardy but Maugham had only met him once and, although he talked with him for 45 minutes at the dinner party, couldn't remember what they discussed. Several other writers saw themselves in Alroy Kear but he was a composite character: "the appearance of one writer, the obsession with good society from another, the heartiness from a third, the pride in athletic prowess from a fourth" and a lot from himself.

"For all the characters we create are but copies of ourselves."


message 33: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 140 comments Jan C wrote: ""For all the characters we create are but copies of ourselves." "

Ah, very profound. Interesting thoughts - hmm, a composite of an author. Is that all from the introduction of your copy of the novel?


message 34: by Jan C (new)

Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments Haaze wrote: "Jan C wrote: ""For all the characters we create are but copies of ourselves." "

Ah, very profound. Interesting thoughts - hmm, a composite of an author. Is that all from the introduction of your c..."


Yes. Actually, it is a preface, just 4+ pp.


message 35: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 140 comments I just read in an essay that Alroy Kear is modeled on the novelist Hugh Walpole (per Maugham's preface in the 1950s for the Modern Library edition). I must admit that I have never read any of Walpole's books.


message 36: by Ivan (new)

Ivan | 561 comments Haaze wrote: "I just read in an essay that Alroy Kear is modeled on the novelist Hugh Walpole (per Maugham's preface in the 1950s for the Modern Library edition). I must admit that I have never read any of Walpo..."

Me neither.

"For all the characters we create are but copies of ourselves."

Some, like Gore Vidal, deny this. But I've read a lot of his works and then a lot about him - and I found him in his fiction. Capote is in almost all his early fictions, Isherwood even uses his own name. Steinbeck and Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Woolf and London and even H. G. Wells in his non-science-fiction works. People write what they know.


message 37: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 140 comments I came across this passage in an essay:

"Not until 1950, in his Preface to the Modern Library edition, did Maugham admit what he had taken pains to repudiate: that Alroy Kear was based on his friend, the novelist Hugh Walpole, one who had praised Florence Hardy’s Life of her husband as “discreet and reticent”. Walpole, wrote Maugham, personified that body of writers “who attempt by seizing every opportunity to keep in the public eye, by getting on familiar terms with critics so that their books may be favourably reviewed, by currying favour wherever it can serve them, to attain a success which their merit scarcely deserves. They attempt by their push and pull to make up for their lack of talent.”


message 38: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 140 comments Have you read any of Maugham's plays, by any chance?


message 39: by Ivan (new)

Ivan | 561 comments Haaze wrote: "Have you read any of Maugham's plays, by any chance?"

I have not.


message 40: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb Nigeyb wrote: "I've just started 'Cakes and Ale' and am completely smitten so far."


My enthusiasm continues unabated. What a marvellous read. I'm currently enjoying the section when Ashenden first meets Driffield and Rosie his first wife - and the stifling snobbery that his family exhibits at the thought of his associating with them.

I was amused to read the reactions of older people when the bicycle started to become popular....

Shanks’s pony was good enough for middle-aged gentlemen, and...

....elderly ladies made a dash for the side of the road when they saw one coming.

Wonderful.

This book has been a delight so far.


message 41: by Nigeyb (last edited Oct 10, 2017 07:18AM) (new)

Nigeyb Part of the book's raison d'être seems to be to cleverly expose the hypocrisy and stupidity of the social snobbery that was then so common (in the late 19th/early 20th century)

It prompted a few questions. Please respond if you feel inspired...

How did people cope in that sort of oppressive environment? How many people questioned it, and railed against it? What were the factors that finally resulted in a more open, accepting society? How much further do we still have to go? What might seem oppressive about the way we live today to future generations?




message 42: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 140 comments True, Ashenden seems to continuously combat the more conservative social conventions he grew up with while associating with the Driffields. I guess one can see him as an amalgam between the old and the new as he becomes more accepting of these new social norms and interacts with classes "below" him. It is very eloquently described by Maugham in this novel. I'm noticing that I'm laughing more and more as the book progresses as the author is getting a bit more sarcastic (or is that just my imagination?).


message 43: by Donald (new)

Donald Whiteway | 24 comments Read this about 2 weeks ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. Glad to read these comments and relive the experience. A wonderful story!


message 44: by Haaze (last edited Oct 11, 2017 08:26AM) (new)

Haaze | 140 comments Nigeyb wrote: "What might seem oppressive about the way we live today to future generations?"

Hmm, I was thinking that the environment we live in is getting oppressed. We live our lives in the developed world (most of us) without considering our tremendous environmental impact (i.e. our huge foot print of greenhouse gases as well as waste and much much more). Everything in city areas is altered into an artificial environment of concrete and steel with occasional trees and planters. I think future generations will look back on this time and seriously wonder why we couldn't live in a social system that integrated environmental consciousness and respect for other species. I know this is different from the social issues Maugham describes.
On a different level I think we still have a long way to go in terms of social justice and equality issues!!! A loooooooong way!


message 45: by Nigeyb (last edited Oct 11, 2017 08:21AM) (new)

Nigeyb Good to hear that the thread is helping you to relive the magic Donald.

Haaze, I couldn't agree more with your points and I hope that future generations will have seen the error of our ways.

I am particularly passionate about equality for other species especially regarding the mass incarceration of animals, to enable us to eat their flesh or eggs or drink their milk. While we call ourselves animal lovers, and lavish kindness on our dogs and cats, we inflict brutal deprivations on billions of animals that are just as capable of suffering. The hypocrisy is so rank that I hope that future generations will marvel at how we could have failed to see it.


message 46: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb I haven't had much time to read since yesterday but still thoroughly enjoyed the few pages I have got through. Young Willie Ashenden's memories of the Driffields are wonderful - I love the way Rosie Driffield manages to charm everyone she meets, even the highly critical Mary-Ann who knew her as a child.


message 47: by Janice (JG) (new)

Janice (JG) I'm delighted to be able to join this discussion, it's been a while since I was able to visit this group... I couldn't stay away when I saw the author for this month's reading, Maugham is one of my favorites and I'd never read Cakes and Ales. My favorite Maugham so far has been The Painted Veil.

I love how Maugham cares about his characters, they are made up of many dimensions, loveable and laughable and despicable and all mixed up together (Rosie seems to be the cream of the crop of contradictions so far).


message 48: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb This is still a joy. I'm about 70% through the book and the action has moved to London (or one strand of the action). The device of two parallel narratives is working very well.

I can quite see why it's Maugham's favourite of all his novels.


message 49: by Haaze (last edited Oct 14, 2017 10:42AM) (new)

Haaze | 140 comments I was impressed with how Maugham seamlessly weaves the past and the present. It is so subtle and works very well in terms of the book's "voice".


message 50: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb I finished this last night - very very enjoyable


I'll pen a review in the next 48 hours


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