7. Cakes and Ale, W Somerset Maugham (1930)

If I was looking for one author who epitomises the overlooked and critically despised strand in English letters that I love so much, it would be William Somerset Maugham. He was stratospherically successful and ostentatiously enjoyed the rewards. He wrote in a style that he knew would appeal to a wide readership – an enduring, conservative style that evolves from the nineteenth-century masters. He was middle class (son of a lawyer) and didn’t try to hide it. For all these reasons, he’s been elbowed out of the limelight – but if you’ve stayed with me this far you’ll know that I will always prefer a well-structured, clearly-delivered narrative that’s written from the heart to some poncey load of hot air dressed up as art. Maugham’s short stories might be his greatest achievement – it’s hard to beat the artistry of, say, The Letter – but it would be a mistake to dismiss the novels. Of Human Bondage is the big one, and I love that unreservedly. Cakes and Ale, however, is the masterpiece. For a short novel, it packs a lot in – a passionate love affair, a literary detective story and some great observations about sex and art. Like many other books on this list, it evokes a bygone London so powerfully I feel like I’m in a time machine when I read it. But what makes it so great is Maugham’s profound understanding of love and sex. The relationship between narrator Ashenden (Maugham’s fictional persona) and sexy, liberated Rosie Driffield is one of the most realistic love affairs in fiction. And, like every other book in the top ten, it’s very funny.

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