14 April 2010

Cakes and Ale (W. Somerset Maugham)

Satire does not make you smile. Satire makes you sneer knowingly. Or shake your head helplessly. Or flap your hands about nervously. But it does not make you giggle gleefully or find you with a stupid smirk on your face, tongue stuck between your teeth, lost in thought. Satire, in short, does not make you silly.

So then why do I find myself acting so vapidly whenever I look at the cover of Cakes and Ale? Maugham's favourite of his own works, this novel takes a direct stab at the London literary scene, satirising the elevation of popular authors and the artistic appreciators who surround them. The narrator Willie Ashenden is Maugham's voice and conscience throughout, although how much their experiences overlap is anyone's guess. I suppose I could read the introduction and then hazard a more informed opinion in this area but I DON'T HAVE THE TIME! Also, introductions bore me. The unfortunate person who pens such a chapter is so often enamoured with their own brilliance and insight that they mistakenly assume they are the main event between the covers.

The novel is chock-a-block full of tasty literary mouthfuls I plan to immediately turn into sound-bites. Sigh. One of these days I really must stop being so referential and find out if I have an actual brain beneath all the stuff I have absorbed over the years. Probably not.

However, the real charm that I now associate with this novel is what happened to me whilst coming home on Sunday evening on the tube. I was reading Cakes and Ale, scribbling in the margins as I am wont to do. I could feel the person next to me staring. This often happens on the tube and most of the time it is someone creepy or it is some old professor who lectures me about writing on my books. So I steadfastly refused to look up. The next moment-
"Excuse me, do you have the time?"
I looked up and saw a guy whose smile was too big for his face, in a very charming kind of way. I was not in the mood, having spent several hours with a friend. I have a limit to how much time I can spend with people these days and my socialising quota for the day had been filled. Thus, I fixed him with a stern look.
"I don't wear a watch. I will get my phone out of my bag but please don't snatch it and run off because I'm too tired to chase you."
He assured me he would not and then seized the covers of my book.
"I love Maugham! Although, as a woman, don't you find him quite sexist?"
"I suppose. Can I have my book back?" See? I was still not in the mood.
"You're so friendly! You're definitely not from London."
At this point, with me glowering at him, I decided he was probably still wired from a big evening the night before. This was further affirmed with his next, loud declaration.
"You're not supposed to talk to strangers on the tube. Everyone in here is looking at us! Because we're enjoying each other's company but we're on the tube! We're breaking down social barriers here!"
I tried in vain to snatch my book back but he had opened it at a random page and began quoting out loud. The people opposite me looked horrified. Despite myself, I was beginning to enjoy the conversation. No sooner had I begun to talk about Faulkner then he started quoting Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls (he got a bit muddled, but full marks for effort I suppose). His next musing was how films and books would be different if all wartime stories were totally populated by female characters. Very seriously he said "Now, I'm not saying you'd be giving each other manicures, but I'm having trouble coming up with a female equivalent for the male camaraderie that prevails in all those stories... OH! This is my stop! What's your name fair lady? I must find you on facebook and we can continue!"

At this point I decided I had nothing to lose and gave him my name. He gave me a cheeky salute and vaulted off the tube, pausing to stick his head back inside. "It was a pleasure. An absolute pleasure Miss." I then had to sit through three more stops with everyone in the carriage staring at me. It was quite, quite mortifying yet an altogether satisfying way to end the weekend.

So despite Maugham's fantastic wit and the highly sympathetic character of Rosie, this book will always make me think of that idiot on the tube and thus will always make me smile.

Rating: 7/10.
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