What a pity the novelist W. Somerset Maugham is forgotten in the twenty-first century. His brilliant, readable books are in print, but no one calls for a Maugham revival. I love his well-plotted short stories and incisive short novels, among them The Moon and Sixpence, The Painted Veil, The Razor's Edge, and Ashendon.
My favorite is Cakes and Ale, a roman à clef about the business of writing literary biographies. It begins when the crusty narrator, Willie Ashendon (Maugham), a middlebrow novelist, receives an urgent phone message from his rival, Roy Kear. Ashendon dislikes Roy and isn't eager to speak to him.
And indeed Roy wants to pick Ashendon's brain. The character Roy is based on Hugh Walpole, another once popular English writer whose books I have enjoyed. In Cakes and Ale, Roy is an opportunist who woos reviewers, editors, writers - and socializes with them only as long as they are useful.
I had watched with admiration his rise in the world of letters. His career might well have served as a model for any young man entering upon the pursuit of literature. I could think of no one among my contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent. This, like the wise man's daily dose of Bemax, might have gone into a heaped-up tablespoon.
It turns out Roy is writing a biography of the late Edward Driffield, a famous Victorian writer based loosely on Thomas Hardy. And since Ashendon as a boy knew Ted and his first wife, Rosie, Roy wants him to share his reminiscences.
Roy and Ashendon have different ideas about biography. Roy intends to edit the facts to make Driffield a more conventional figure. And both Roy and the widow, Amy Driffield, are intent on minimizing the importance of the first marriage. They believe that Rosie, a former barmaid, was a lower-class "slut." And indeed she did sleep with everybody - but she was kind, charming, and very sexy. Ashendon recognizes the double standard: men can sleep around, but Roy calls Rosie a "nymphomaniac."
And so Ashendon rebels against the
constraints and writes a charming history of his friendship with Ted and Rosie, first when he was a boy - Ted teaches him to ride a bicycle in their hometown - and later in London when Ashendon was a medical student.
Cakes and Ale is a classic, and Maugham deserves a revival.