Monday, April 13, 2009

Posterity makes its choice

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,

[W]hen I was lunching with the Driffields a few years ago I overheard him saying that Henry James had turned his back on one of the great events of the world’s history, the rise of the United States, in order to report tittle-tattle at tea parties in English country houses. Driffield called it il gran rifiuto [the great refusal]. I was surprised at hearing the old man use an Italian phrase and amused because a great big bouncing duchess who was there was the only person who knew what the devil he was talking about. He said, “Poor Henry, he’s spending eternity wandering round and round a stately park and the fence is just too high for him to peep over and they’re having tea just too far for him to hear what the countess is saying.”This is at once unerringly true and wide of the mark. Something like it could also be said of Maugham himself, of course. Cakes and Ale he calls his novel, meaning not bread and water. Moreover, the one time he tried to cook up a novel around one of the great events in world history—England at war—he wound up with a blackened pot of melodrama. As Granville Hicks said, The Hour before the Dawn (1942) included “a German spy, a conscientious objector, an escape from France after Dunkirk, and an air raid, to say nothing of a collection of landed gentry, some evacuees, and a triangle”—everything, Hicks concluded, “except a literary conscience.”

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:The elect sneer at popularity; they are inclined even to assert that it is a proof of mediocrity; but they forget that posterity makes it choice not from among the unknown writers of a period, but from among the known. It may be that some great masterpiece which deserves immortality has fallen still-born from the press, but posterity will never hear of it; it may be that posterity will scrap all the best sellers of our day, but it is among them that it must choose.The modern quarrel between popularity and posterity is Maugham’s theme. With the exception of Driffield, who must have “thought about his writing, but never mentioned it,” the literary men of Cakes and Ale are the sort whom I described yesterday as bureaucrats of literature. They are anglers for succès d’estime if not £20,000 a year.

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:He could be counted on to reply for literature at a public dinner and he was invariably on the reception committee formed to give a proper welcome to a literary celebrity from overseas. No bazaar lacked an autographed copy of at least one of his books. He never refused to grant an interview. He justly said that no one knew better than he the hardships of the author’s trade and if he could help a struggling journalist to earn a few guineas by having a pleasant chat with him he had not the inhumanity to refuse. He generally asked his interview to luncheon and seldom failed to make a good impression on him.Driffield’s widow has asked Kear to write the late great novelist’s biography. In typical fashion, Kear had sent a letter to Driffield several years earlier, professing admiration for his novels, was invited to visit, and eventually came to know him well. At first he hesitated over the biography, but he has decided to do it. “[I]f I can make a pretty good job of it,” he tells Ashenden, “it can’t fail to do me a lot of good. People have so much more respect for a novelist if he writes something serious now and then.”

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:Whenever he has anything on his mind, whether it be a harassing reflection, grief at the death of a friend, unrequited love, wounded pride, anger at the treachery of someone to whom he has shown kindness, in short any emotion or perplexing thought, he has only to put it down in black and white, using it as the theme of a story or the decoration of an essay, to forget all about it. He is the only free man.This was also Maugham’s credo. He did not seek to claim more for himself than he deserved. He knew his limitations as a writer; his prose style, which (as Theodore Spencer memorably put it) “conceals its real economy under an air of apparent garrulity,” perfectly suits the modesty of his literary ambitions. Like Alroy Kear, he hoped to be chosen by posterity. But he knew that his best chance was to be straight with it, and to leave questions of greatness to another time.


Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

Leaving your legacy to be determined by THE HISTORY BOOKS may be seen as feigned nonchalance about how you're perceived by contemporaries (and the fear that they'll detect your slender skills?) but....

I like Maugham. The Razor's Edge was one of my favorite books in high school (even with its drifting into longueurs of mixed Eastern philosophies near the end) and I got HELL from my AP Lit teacher for writing about it.

And I'd agree with your assessment of Maugham's credo. The writer can say most anything - criticize his king, his peers, his country, the society he keeps - under the guise of LITERATURE, can write almost nothing that time won't forgive, because, like you mentioned, who now cares that Cakes and Ale took shots at Hardy and Walpole??? - not that context doesn't add a layer of humor... it just doesn't pack the same scandalous punch as when the blows were fresh.

R/T said...

I especially like the narrator's comments on James: "Poor Henry, he’s spending eternity wandering round and round a stately park and the fence is just too high for him to peep over and they’re having tea just too far for him to hear what the countess is saying." To the extent that I still cannot warm up to Henry James, I offer a hearty second to the narrator's (Maugham's?) indictment of James' and his characters' inability to fully engage in more meaningful and compelling issues.

R/T said...

Your reference to Flannery O'Connor ("Flannery O’Connor liked racist jokes"), which is apparently based upon Brad Gooch's tenuous assertions in his recent biography of O'Connor, is--I would suggest--a bit over-the-top when thrown into your commentary as a casual (flippant?) aside. The uninformed reader, without having a proper O'Connor context, will mistakenly--I would argue--conclude that the statement is proof simply because it is stated.

While I continue to find some of O'Connor's diction (in fiction and nonfiction) fair-game for tough inquiry (with respect to her position on race matters), I nevertheless think Gooch's conclusions and your casual aside on the issue are conclusions based on insufficient evidence. I respectfully suggest that you ought to have been less dismissive and derogatory about O'Connor's racial attitudes which I think were more complex than the snipped phrase suggests.

D. G. Myers said...


My “over-the-top” allusion to Brad Gooch’s biography of O’Connor (or, rather, to Maud Newton’s review of it: follow the link) was intended to be ironic. Hence my yoking it to C. A. Tripp’s self-evidently stupid claim that Lincoln was gay.

R/T said...

I apologize for not grasping the irony. My mind was hazy, at best, when reading and reacting to your comments. (I should have noticed the beam in my own reading eye before seizing upon the mote in your view of O'Connor.) Therefore, I retract my indictment of your ironic indictment of O'Connor.

D. G. Myers said...

No need to retract. It is becoming increasingly clear to me that I suck at irony.

At the same time, the hoo-hah over O’Connor’s racism seems, to coin a phrase, much ado about nothing.

R/T said...

Harold Bloom, a critic I reluctantly admire, says that irony is the most difficult of concepts to apprehend. Students in my classes consistently and (to my mind) sadly prove his point. During a recent series of classes, students nearly unanimously overlooked (and could not grasp when shown) the extensive use of irony in Oedipus the King and Wise Blood (two texts I find remarkably similar in many ways). Ah, well. Such is the life of teaching.