Writing the Outsider’s Biography: Thoughts on W.Somerset’s Cakes and Ale.

Cakes and Ale or The Skeleton in the Cupboard
by W. Somerset Maugham
Penguin Books, 1979
ISBN: 0140006516

Let’s start by saying something about this slim little book: I had never heard of it nor its author before coming across it. And it was in the fine shelves of Indy Reads Books bookshop a couple of weeks back that I found this particular book. I picked up likely because of the name or the cover or any one of the numerous reason that consumers usually grab items like bottles of wine. And like many bottles of wine I’ve picked up by chance (Fat Bastard for example), I was pretty satisfied with this shortish novel.

W.Somerset Maughan's Cakes and Ale
Cakes and Ale and thoughts of  the good life of a British author.

W. Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale was originally released in the UK in 1930. It takes it title from the famous line Shakespeare’s Sir Toby Belch to Malvolio in Twelfth Night, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” At only 202 pages, this particular printing was a pretty quick read. It is ostensibly a biography of a fictional writer (Edward Driffield) talked through by the first person narrator, William Ashendan. Ashendan is well to do, getting along in age, and shared some of his youth with Driffield and his first wife. While the book could be considered a sort of outsider’s biography, non-biography, of this famous fictional writer in Edward Driffield, you might more appropriately call a greater proportion of the book to be centered on the first wife of Driffield, Rosie.

The story opens with the narrator being approached by a Mr. Alroy Kear about getting information for the recently deceased Edward Driffield. The novel and its narrative then unfold in series of events and memories surrounding the lives of the Driffields and the points at which they intersect with Ashendan. The majority of the narrative is nestled between 1880s and the 1910s and spans the streets of London and the sleepy seaside English town of Blackstable. The events are more like a ramble through the countryside on a bicycle to the extent that at moments you can and do feel lost without a sort of temporal map. Sometimes you can’t be all that sure you are in the narrative present or past, but maybe that’s part of the point that Maugham is working towards. What place do biographies and writing have in the life of the author and those around them. Perhaps it is there that Cakes and Ale really succeeds as a book.

If anything beyond the simple interest that mystery of  a life lived being offered, Somerset does let Ashendan expound on some absolutely wonderful thoughts on writing, poetry, and the lives that writers lead. In one portion of the book he talks about poetry being the most elite of the literary enterprises: “The crown of literature is poetry. It is its end and aim. It is the sublimest activity of the human mind.” In others he chats over the purpose or end goal of literature. And in perhaps the most personal diatribe regarding writing he talks at length about the writer’s life declaring at diatribe’s end that “[The writer] is the only free man.” Despite all the story telling and involvement with characters it is these glimmers of literary reflection that to me make this book a particular little gem.

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