Chapter 4--Cakes and Ale
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The narrative then goes to the recent past as the Narrator recalls the last meeting he had with Driffield and his second wife. At this point Maugham rachets up the wittiness in his description of this unfortunate visit with a group of literary snobs who want to visit Driffield "before he dies". They do not think of themselves as pests. "He's pestered by all sorts of people who want to see him just out of idle curiousity, and interviewers and authors who want him to read their books, and silly hysterical women. (Perfect description of the company now assembled!) "Naturally we're different", says the leader of the group.
"Of course I thought I was. (different) but as I looked at them I perceived that the dutchess and Lord Scallion (members of the party) throught they were too; so it seemed best to say no more". Glorious satire peppered with a layer of irony!
The party visits the Driffields, are impressed with the house ("---you felt (the dinner, the manner) exactly fitted a literary gent of great celebrity but moderate wealth.")and during the visit Driffield winks twice at the Narrator during stilted and socially pretentious conversation with the others. It is as if Driffield is party to an elaborate joke, which he shares only with the Narrator. Driffield's study is shown to the visitors and the books on the bookshelves noted. (The Narrator sees none of his work there but all of Alroy Kear's, N.B. probably placed there by Mrs. Driffield).
The Narrator is named as Mr. Ashenden when one of the visitors notes that Driffield knew Ashenden as a boy. "I taught him to ride a bicycle", Driffield says.
The aristocratic visitors depart and make comments about the Driffields on the way back. "He has nice manners and doesn't eat peas with his knife. She was a nurse and he married her after his long illness. She must be 45." The party reaches Tercanbury as the chapter ends.
At this point, I am struck at how masterful Maugham is in his structure of this novel. He is moving the narrative through time in an almost seemless manner. In fact, I sometimes confuse current time with memory time but this is not particularly problem since the satrical aspects (snobbery of the aristocracy, snobbery of the middle class of Blackstable, literary machinations of writers, etc. keep the narrative flow moving beautifully.
As for the books, I enjoyed the fact that it was very clear that the shelved books were seldom touched, if read at all. They were clearly for show, and perhaps the books Driffield did read were on the floor in his bedroom.
As for the structure of the novel, I agree. He does move back and forth through time in a very clear, natural manner. It's the literary harangues that are not seamless. Some of them are tedious. Some of them are situations that haven't changed. Some of them make me weep with laughter. My favorite is in a later chapter, so I won't spoil it here! They do though get a little long and often stop a sense of action. This isn't an action novel of course. Action in this case means the revelation of the relationship among the Driffields and Ashenden.
Great point--that this is a novel of revelation of the realtionship of the main characters!! Also I wanted to write but did not that the books on the shelf is such a fascination to the Narrator but also to me at all times in situations in which I get to look at other people's books (or whether they even have any.) Of course, here we all are at Librarything, looking at each others books all the time---or rather looking at the books each of us have seen fit to display (this sounds terrible)---perhaps as Mrs. Driffield felt compelled to "display" a collection of books suitable to impress visitors. I believe Ashended does say he suspects Driffield only reads gardening and ship magazines now!
Your comment about the shelved books, untouched, hit home yesterday when I read this story about "Selling Books by the Cover in the Times!
I'm a novice bookbinder, have worked a little in leather binding with a bidner who used 18th century techniques. It's hard to find appropriately tanned leather nowadays and there's a lot of not-so-good leather out there. The paper binding is a snap! Don't know why people are so interested in designed libraries. Wonder if they ever intend to read them.
His literary digressions made him look like a curmudgeon that didn't enjoy the success he had. It seems he wouldn't have been pleased with anything short of worship.
Then he went on with a bit of outrageous stereotyping by genre that hearkened back to the Renaissance where a painter's status was determined by his field. Portrait painters and landscape painters were inferior to history painters, etc. The same thing happens today, but it isn't official. Many a ya/children's book writer has been asked when they will graduate to writing real books for adults, and academics have certainly let the "genre" writers know where their place is. Never mind that "literary fiction" is just as much a genre complete with genre expectations as "romance" and there are proportionally as many failed literary works as their are genre works. That's why it made me laugh. It was an attack on many assumptions and forms of snobbery. The result, if his suggestion would have been put into play, would have made him truly unhappy. It would've put him out of a job and limited his pleasure in "modern" British literature. Poor Willie.