Skeletons and Scandals

I have not been reading much lately. If you live in Europe, you know it´s damn cold everywhere, and our barometer is nearly through the roof. The atmospheric pressure has gone from 976 to 1055 (1070 on our meter) this last month and I have been experiencing headaces of a most stubborn sort. It´s like someone is sitting on my sinuses.

However, last night I took a pill and went to bed with Somerset Maugham´s "Cakes and ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard".  I have been recommended to read his "Of human bondage" but never really felt inspired to do so. But when I saw this one, the title intrigued me. It sounds like a farce, one of those where there are lots of running through doors and hiding in cupboards and under beds. And to some extent, it is. It´s a very funny book. Maugham is a sharp satirist when it comes to the quirks of English snobbery and class awareness. And while that is a good enough reason to read any sort of book, it´s far from all that this novel is.

According to Wikipedia (the source of all knowledge, haha) it´s considered to be a roman à clef about Thomas Hardy/Edward Driffield and his first marriage, and Hugh Walpole/Alroy Kear trying to write a biography about him. The narrator of the story, William Ashenden, is clearly Maugham himself. I don´t know enough about either of them to say whether there is anything in it or not. Maugham himself denies it in his introduction, and really, it doesn´t matter. This novel is, not unlike Kerstin Ekman´s latest, a story about literature. On the one hand, what it takes to write a great novel. On the other hand, what it takes to become a great novelist. It´s the introvert versus the extrovert. The content man versus the social climber. The absorbed artist versus the manipulating ass-licker.

It´s also a story about great tragedy, and great love. And about every person being a bit of an island, a mystery even to those closest to them. The narrator sympathises with both Kear and Driffield, and I imagine Maugham could have identified with both. A huge role in this drama is played by Driffield´s first wife, Rosie, also his muse. What is it that inspires an artist to do his best? Rosie doesn´t really do anything, she just is. Totally mindful, to use a modern concept. She is loving and inspires love in others. Even when she behaves badly (according to the moral of the times) she is wonderful. And when Driffield looses her, he has his best work behind him.

And anyway: what kind of cake goes with ale?
I read somewhere that "Cakes and ale" was Maugham´s favourite work. I can see why. There are so many layers to this story, and it´s a bit of a declaration of what he wants his art to be about, what he aspires to. You could say that it´s a writer´s skeletons in the cupboard that becomes his cake and ale. It´s the shady parts of his experience that he can turn into literary gold if he can look at them straight, with an empathic eye, and tell it like he sees it without the opportunistic judgement that may please his critics but makes literature obsolete within a generation.

I love love love this book. It´s complex and serious and funny. Great stuff. I suppose I have to read "Of human bondage" next.

No comments:

Post a Comment