Somerset Maugham’s “Cakes and Ale”

I really enjoyed The Moon and Sixpence, Somerset Maugham’s novel based on the life of Gauguin. I wish I could say the same about Cakes and Ale, which I read on this hot and muggy day.

A short novel, it tells the story of an English author, whose fame may be greater than his talent, and who dies at age 86. He has been married twice, first to a former bar-maid (who is unfaithful to him with virtually everyone she meets, and who finally runs off to America with her old hometown beau), and then to his former nurse (who wants to protect his reputation post-death). But he is hardly a character in the book at all. It is a first person book, written by a younger author, who knew the older man thirty years earlier when he was married to his first wife (and was in fact a lover of that first wife) and who met her again on a trip to New York, when she was a 70 year old widow. But you don’t learn that much about the narrator either.

Some critics say that the first wife is the central character of the book, but I actually could not discern much about her, outside of her activities.

All in all, the book did not speak to me at all. I thought the prose someone dry, the characters not very interesting, and the plot not there at all.

I believe that my view is a minority view among the few who bother to read the book today.

Tel Aviv

This posting is about the city of Tel Aviv. It is not about politics or religion, so don’t worry, you can read on without raising your blood pressure.

I have just returned from my fifth visit to Tel Aviv in the last nine years. On two of those trips to Israel, I have skipped Jerusalem. But I have never skipped Tel Aviv.

It is clear to me that those of you who have not been to Tel Aviv (or who have only been there for a day or two) wonder why I have found (to my surprise) Tel Aviv to be one of the most appealing and comfortable cities I have visited. Those (and especially those who are not Jewish) who have not been to Israel have a distorted view of the country. Often I have been asked why I would want to vacation in a war zone, where I am liable to be blown up at any minute. Once, I was asked what I wear in Israel, do I wear more “traditional” clothes when I am there (an intriguing question, I thought)? But never have I been asked “How do you like Tel Aviv?” or “What is Tel Aviv like?” After visiting anywhere else, these are the two questions you are most likely to hear.

A few basic facts.

First, Tel Aviv (or more correctly, Tel Aviv/Jaffa) itself is not a big city (less than 400,000) but it is the center of a metropolitan area of more than 3,250,000, and it has the feel of a large metropolitan city.

Second, Tel Aviv is the economic and, in most regards, cultural capital of Israel. It is (for the most part) highly prosperous and looks it.

Third, Tel Aviv is a very cosmopolitan city. It is a city where you could say with regard to most residents: “Funny, you don’t look Jewish”. And of course, many of them are not, but those who are come from so many places (Israel, Europe, the USSR, Iraq, Yemen, North African, Iran, Ethiopia, America and Australia to name a few) that they cannot be typed physically.

Fourth, Tel Aviv is primarily a secular city, in that the vast majority of its residents are not Orthodox Jews. But that does not mean that men and women in traditional dress, or men with knitted kippot (yamakahs) of various kinds, are not to be seen on a regular basis.

Fifth, Tel Aviv is well known as a mecca for the young, and so it is. But there are plenty of older (and indeed old) people there as well.

So what’s so nice and accommodating about it?

Of course, it is on the beach. By that, I don’t mean that it touches the sea; I mean that it has a broad beachfront that is miles long, and is virtually all public. And it is right downtown. And there is a beach front with several miles of first class hotels and hotel facilities, along with the usual restaurants and fast food outlets, and a boardwalk (not bounded by shops) that stretches the entire beach. The beach is there for sunning, sitting, swimming, running, frisbee, volleyball and dog walking. And it is in constant use.

And of course, it has its share of museums and cultural venues. The Tel Aviv art museum is a quality museum. The museum of the Diaspora, located on the campus of Tel Aviv University, may not be worth repetitive visits (I am not sure how often exhibits change), but it is clearly worth one or two long and fascinating visits. The Eretz Israel (Land of Israel) museum has displays in several buildings about the long history, art forms and crafts of this part of the world. The Palmach Museum (which I have not visited, but have heard much about) is a world class military museum. And there are more. There is also the home of the symphony orchestra and the Susanne Dallel Center, which is a home for theater and dance. There is the famous Habima and Cameri Theaters, and a theater complex in Jaffa, the traditional Arab section of the city. There are many urban parks (including the large Ha-yarkon Park and many smaller ones). There are homes of famous Israelis, such as the first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and poet H. N. Bialik.

But what I like best about Tel Aviv is its overall feel and personality. The large central portion of the city contains the world’s largest selection of Bauhaus and modernist residential buildings. Tel Aviv is a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its 1920s-1930s architecture, and its urban layout, which provides for a series of long, undulating commercial streets, connected by smaller residential street, with four story white concrete apartment buildings of modernist architecture, with balconies, windows designed to keep out the sun and bring in the breezes, and trees and flowering plants all around. Strict architectural controls and incentives exist to preserve and protect these buildings and neighborhoods.

The commercial streets have their own charm. Generally, you find retail establishments on the ground floor with a variety of residential, hotel or commercial uses above. Some of these buildings are in perfect repair, while others show the ravages of time and some look abandoned above the first floor. But this abandonment does not affect the retail usage, and does not affect the street life.

And, outside the areas of the “white city”, Tel Aviv is a high rise city, with many buildings of 30 to 40 stories, most of which happen to be of exquisite architectural design, like the Azraeli Center, which includes three high rise buildings, one square, one round and one triangular, of otherwise identical design.

Tel Aviv is a cafe city. On virtually every block, you will find cafes flowing out into the streets, serving coffee and pastries and light meals and full meals. It is an ice cream city, and a snack bar city, and a falafel city. It is a restaurant (fancy and otherwise; kosher and non-kosher) city. And it is a club city, with a reputation as the “city that never sleeps” (but that IS for the young).

And it is a shopping city. Women’s designer clothing boutiques abound. Men’s stores, children’s stores, book stores, toy stores, souvenir shops, galleries, Judaica shops. In the hundreds (perhaps the thousands), and all looking like they do a good business.

It is a city of outdoor markets. The large flea market in Jaffa, the enormous Carmel market (daily, with both food and clothing), the Friday craft market. It is a city of districts (the unique historic Jaffa district with its Arab architecture; the restored district of Neve Tzedek, the city’s original Jewish district now about 100 years old; areas where every shop sells fabrics, areas where every shop sells household goods, areas where every shop sells inexpensive clothing and others where the clothing is ultra expensive.

It is a city where, if you speak English, you will not have a problem. Street signs are in English as well as Hebrew and because English is a required language in the schools, all young people and most older ones can converse to some level. It is only the recent emigrees who have had no English (like those from the Soviet Union).

I am not sure if it would be different if I were not Jewish. Perhaps so, not that I think there is anything particularly Jewish about the city itself, but maybe I would note the lack of something that I would miss. And, it may be that one short visit does not do it; that you need to return a few times. And of course, who knows what I will think after visit no. 6.