Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?
Shakespeare: Twelfth Night
Better beans and bacon in peace than cakes and ale in fear.
Aesop: The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse
When I was young and listening to my parents talk, there would sometimes come a pause in the conversation and then my mother would say, thoughtfully: And then, of course, there’s Maugham. I must have been some years older before I realised that this strange word referred to the English writer W Somerset Maugham; and older still when I inherited, not my mother’s mingled admiration and perplexity, but the then fashionable opinion of him as an unserious, perhaps lightweight, writer. I think I might have read The Moon and Sixpence in my twenties but that would have been because it is about Gauguin, in whom I was interested; I remember very little of it. It wasn’t until I was in Kuala Lumpur in 2004 with nothing to read and found an English language bookshop that featured dozens of his titles (along with, curiously, titles by Charles Dickens and Margaret Atwood) that I bought a copy of Don Fernando, his book about the Spanish Golden Age, and read it with interest and increasing delight, that I changed my ill-informed view of him. Subsequently a friend of mine became enamoured of him and started lending me volumes of his stories, which also gave me great pleasure. He is readable, knowledgeable, wry, funny, humane and often, though subtly, outrageous. Now, if I come across anything by him I tend to pick it up and read it, so when someone last week gave me a battered old Penguin copy of Cakes and Ale (1930), I read it in a few days. It’s a short novel, reputedly the author’s own favourite, and highly accomplished. It concerns an attempt by a contemporary writer, Alroy Kear, a consummate literary politician, to extract from the narrator, a Maugham-like figure, biographical details of yet another writer, Edward Driffield, now deceased, whose life Kear is, with the help of Driffield’s second wife, writing. Ashenden, as Maugham calls himself, doesn’t tell Kear anything much but does tell the reader all he knows, particularly about Driffield’s first wife, Rosie, who is the central figure and heroine of the book. As well as a disquisition on English snobbery, the book is also a fairly disenchanted account of literary politics in England before and after the Great War; mainly, though, it is a hymn in praise of the remarkable Rosie, whom critics have compared to Joyce’s Molly Bloom. The book was controversial when it was published because of other affinities the critics found, or thought they did: Driffield, they said, was based on Thomas Hardy; Kear was (Auckland born) Hugh Walpole. Maugham denied this was the case but then he would, wouldn’t he? It doesn’t matter; the book works perfectly well as a fiction.
I thought again of Cakes and Ale when, last Friday, I attended a literary lunch at an expensive French restaurant in Darlinghurst. Not the kind of event I usually go to, at all, at all; most of those, all men, around the big oblong upstairs table I did not know. There were academics, critics, film-makers, novelists, painters, photographers, poets, rare-books dealers . . . at the centre of the gathering was a well-known writer of fiction who has just published the third, perhaps the last, volume of his magnum opus and, although I knew nothing of this when I received the invitation, the lunch was apparently a celebration of that event. He sat with his back to the wall in the middle of the long side of the table with his lifelong friend, loyal critic, former academic, at his side: both portly, well-fed, high-coloured men in their sixties or even their seventies. I do know this man, the well-known writer of fiction I mean, or I did; there was a period when, in the late 1980s, with a film-maker friend, I hung out with him fairly consistently over a period of months. With the sole exception of his fiftieth birthday party – in the waterside mansion of a wealthy lawyer – our meetings took place in expensive restaurants at which I was never asked to contribute towards the paying of the bill. There was a lot of heavy drinking. I remember eating, at one of the places, up in Oxford Street, Paddington, for the very first time a kangaroo steak garnished with beetroot. That night the well-known writer of fiction’s putative girlfriend, a wan scholar of English, left early, in a pique, and he offered her a dollar for the cabman as she headed for the door. Another time my film-maker friend came home with me and we spent our one and only night together; next time we met the well-known writer of fiction he inquired if that is what we had in fact done and chortled happily when his suspicions were confirmed. On a third occasion I remember his eyes bulging and his colour rising as he rebuked me, sternly, for my jejeune romanticism; I had remarked that the oldest rocks in the world were found in Western Australia and this for some reason incensed him. Years passed, I drifted away from my friendship with the film-maker but continued, now and again, to attend literary events; at one of which I was introduced to the well-known writer of fiction. I said that we had already met, mentioned our mutual friend . . . and was astonished to realise that he had no memory of me or of our previous meetings. He was unphased however; he gave me his card. Let’s have lunch sometime, he said. If you have lunch . . .
I do not think this lunch, the one last Friday, was that lunch; I was invited by another. I enjoyed it – I was seated next to someone I also knew from years ago and had not seen for quite a while. He did remember me and we had a good long talk. There was poet I knew next to him and next to the poet a photographer whose sister is married to one of my oldest friends; on my other side was a fellow who used to work at the Art Gallery of NSW; and next to him a painter whom I did not know but whose work I like. We were at the bohemian end of the table I guess; we were not suited or tied, we weren’t wearing braces over our ample bellies, we still had that thin and hungry look we’d always had. I often think that, in what passes for high society in Sydney, the default position, especially among the men, is that of a Regency buck; and as the wine flowed those florid, portly, rakish men became more florid, more portly, more rakish. When I left to pick up my kids from Strathfield station they were ordering apple brandies. I didn’t speak to the well-known writer of fiction, simply because there wasn’t an opportunity to do so. A couple of times, as his benevolent eye swept the table, I felt his gaze linger briefly upon me, as if I might have stirred some fugitive, some errant memory; but I could be imagining things. I’ve read some of his early work but not the magnum opus so I can’t comment on that; the reason I stopped reading him is because the work, which was posited first and foremost as entertainment, failed to entertain me. His later, serious fiction is perhaps, or certainly, different in kind from those earlier entertainments and I may at some point get to it; but I may not. In that brief period when I knew him (if I did know him) I became aware that quite a large part of the activity of his life was political as much as it was literary; he was, and I’m sure still is, an expert literary politician. Nothing wrong with that: the cultivation of influence is intrinsic to all forms of success in the world these days and a person would be a fool not to realise it. There’s another side to the politics of celebrity however; what might be called the politics of nonentity. To go unrecognised among the famous is in some sense not to exist; and to have met and had dealings with the famous and still remain unrecognised is, perhaps, even worse: never to have existed at all. Despite having a good time at the lunch, that’s how in some part of myself I felt as I drove away into the clotted Friday afternoon traffic: as if I didn’t, never had, never would, exist.
One of the many ironies in Cakes and Ale is that, had Ashenden told Kear all he knew about Ted Driffield and his wife Rosie, Kear would not have published it. He wouldn’t have done so out of an exaggerated respect for the subject of his biography; he couldn’t have done so because the second wife, Amy, would never have allowed it: Driffield had, after a serious illness, married his nurse, she largely constructed his literary reputation into the monument it became and was now the keeper of the flame. Therefore we, as readers, are privy to things that the characters in the book know they don’t know, want to know but, if they did know them, would attempt to suppress them. How much of any contemporary literary reputation depends upon the suppression of material, whether that be biographical facts or some other sort of information? In my time in Sydney I have seen, more times than I care to remember, what I consider bad or poor work praised in the media because the reputation of the artist, author, film-maker, playwright, or whoever demands the respect of the critic: the consequences of coming up against some people, in a small scene, are simply unthinkable. I’ve also seen good work dissed, or more often ignored, because the person that made it is ‘nobody’. This kind of venality is something we are familiar with in other ages but is peculiarly difficult to identify securely in our own; in somewhat the same way that, these days, we don’t quite accept that there could be major figures, major artists, who are being ignored by contemporary opinion but will be remembered in posterity: the van Gogh syndrome is held not to apply to our time, when everyone will have their fifteen minutes of fame. I have no idea if this really is the case; sometimes I doubt that there will be such a thing as posterity at all. In Cakes and Ale the first wife, Rosie, leaves her husband and flees to New York with the love of her life; they change their names and, in New World fashion, make good. She is thought by both biographer and second wife to be long dead; but here, too, Ashenden knows better. He (who was also, briefly, her lover in younger days) has been to see her in Yonkers, had tea; she has filled him in on the rest of the story of her life after she left Driffield. It’s a beautifully understated end, with no moral drawn; but the implication is that posterity is nonsense anyway and all that matters is the life we live in the here and now; which is surely the case. And thus, as I negotiated the traffic on the way to pick up my boys, I gradually felt myself becoming real again; so that, by the time I met them on platform 1, I knew that, though I might lack past or future existence, I was, in the present, fully alive.