Over the first days of Passover, I rested from my labors and reread Cakes and Ale (1930). It is W. Somerset Maugham’s best, the only one of his novels, as Joseph Epstein says, that is “completely successful.” A hilarious “easel picture” of literary life in Edwardian England (“I have painted easel pictures,” Maugham later confessed, “not frescoes”), the novel can also stand on its own as Maugham’s artistic credo. That it was once regarded as a roman à clef, having great fun at the expense of Hugh Walpole and the two-years-deceased Thomas Hardy, is no longer very interesting or significant. Contemporaries found the portraits so exact that, as the Chicago Tribune reported, “there were loud cries of ‘Slay the Monster!’ ” Six months after the novel was published a counterattack appeared under the title Gin and Bitters by “A. Riposte.” But who now reads Hugh Walpole, or giggles at the scandal of describing Hardy’s novels as boring?
And yet a good part of the fun in reading the novel is to be found in its literary opinions. When asked whether he remembers any of Edward Driffield’s remarks about literature, for example, Ashenden (the book’s narrator, who knew the Grand Old Man of English Letters when both were much younger men) replies,
The critics never approved of him. David Daiches spoke for the clan when he dismissed Maugham as an “accomplished professional” who lacked “any original vision of humanity or any great distinction of style.” The lack of an original vision did not seem to dissuade book buyers (and theatergoers), who approved of him sufficiently to place him in “the £20,000 a year class,” as the New York Times reported in 1925—more than $97,000 in U.S. currency. Popular approval had its costs, however, which Maugham continued to pay for the rest of the century. As Anthony Daniels (better known as Theodore Dalrymple) wrote in the New Criterion in 2000, “[A]dmitting to an admiration for Maugham is to an intellectual what voyaging overseas once was to an orthodox Brahmin: it leads automatically to a loss of caste.”
Maugham was unapologetic about being a popular writer. In a central passage of Cakes and Ale comparing literary reputations, Ashenden says:
Alroy Kear, the author of some thirty books, has enjoyed a career that “might well have served as a model for any young man entering upon the pursuit of literature,” because no one else among his contemporaries has “achieved so considerable a position on so little talent.” Kear rises in the world of letters by means of what would now be called social networking and seizing every opportunity to advance himself:
His problem is the first Mrs. Driffield—a working-class beauty with a mischievous smile, a former barmaid, a tart who is spectacularly unfaithful, chucking Driffield and England over for another man and America. Kear does not want to “make a sensation,” nor does he want to be accused to “imitating Lytton Strachey.” He should like to do something “with a good deal of atmosphere, you know, and a certain gravity, and with a sort of aristocratic distinction”—in about eighty thousand words. “I don’t want to say anything that’s untrue,” he tells Ashenden, “but I do think there’s a certain amount that’s better left unsaid.”
Cakes and Ale is the reverse image, the book that Kear has no intention of writing. Telling the story as if he were writing a casual gossipy memoir, Ashenden says everything about Edward Driffield’s first marriage that Kear plans to leave unsaid—although an age that has been informed that Lincoln was gay or has learned that Flannery O’Connor liked racist jokes will find the revelations mild enough. The first-person narrative moves gracefully between the literary present, in which Kear hopes to forestall Ashenden from turning out anything about Driffield and “blowing the gaff,” and the extraliterary past, when Ashenden knew the Driffields as neighbors and friends and spent many happy hours in their company. Although he is no less a hack than his rival—Maugham scorches himself as badly as Hugh Walpole—Ashenden writes to a different standard. If Kear’s is a policy of “reserve and delicacy,” his is one of unembarrassed plainness. He explains in the novel’s last pages. No matter how badly he is treated by posterity and a “fickle public,” the writer has one compensation: