Cakes and Ale Books Cover, Bookside Table, EM Keeler,

The first time I read W. Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale I was almost 15 years old. I picked it up in a second hand book shop, titillated by its pulpy cover and the promise of scandal. I read it twice that year, almost back to back, with only Of Human Bondage in the middle. For a while, I considered it one of my favorite books, always with the secret hope that I would miraculously mature into a writer like Ashenden. Perhaps because I was so young and knew so little, I didn’t then appreciate the pathos of this fantastically well crafted little book. How wonderful it is to have discovered that an old favorite book can also be a new favorite!

Cakes and Ale is a novel that reads like a partial memoir, both in the history surrounding its release and in the way that Maugham frames his story. The narrator, Ashenden, is approached by a writerly colleague for material for a biography being written on another writer, Edward Driffield, who has recently died, a giant of English letters. The book is really really British, brimful with snark and occasional pomp, and Maugham evinces a near total command of the language he employs, which is precise and droll and often grey.  There are some brilliantly vicious lines detailing the colleague: “I could think of no one among m y contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent. This, like the wise mans daily does of Bemax, might have gone into a heaped up tablespoon.” The memoir quality of the work, with it’s first person framing and detailing of nostalgia, is doubled in these instances of insult; Maugham delivers brutal little jabs out of Ashenden’s mouth, but at the time they were read as pointed arrows signalling out some of his real life peers.

This cruel wit was lost on my adolescent self, so enamored was I by the part of the story where the fifteen year old Ashenden is taken in by the eccentric and ‘common’ Driefields. Edward Driffield and his first wife Rosie meet the young Ashenden by happenstance, and he falls immediately in love with them. By proxy, so did I.

I had to buy a new copy of Cakes and Ale when I decided it was time to revisit it. The one I’d read before,that I’ve carried with me to my first apartment, then across Canada, from place to place, has been held by too many hands. It has that dusty vanilla smell of a book that has begun to decay, and it is literally held together with a piece of tape. The newer edition has roomy margins, a sturdy glue spine, and a rather boring cover, if we’re comparing the two.

And reading the newer edition, through my slightly older eyes, really deepened my appreciation for the book. On the one hand, it’s a lurid story about class tourism and sex. It’s also a bitter barb thrown like a rock at a literary establishment that relies on cannibalization and knowing how to order a good luncheon. It’s a coming of age story in the middle of a novel about coming into the winter of ones life. It’s about love, and lineage, and language so clear that we can only wish our memories were made of it.

 

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