Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

I have to admit that I was a little disappointed with this one. Generally speaking, Maugham is one of my favorite authors, and I can usually find something of enduring value in his novels and short stories. I struggled with that in The Razor’s Edge, primarily, I think, because I didn’t know who I was supposed to be paying attention to. I may need to read it again.

Read any summary of the novel--and there are many out there--and you will assume that it is a story about Larry Darrell, an American returned and traumatized by the First World War, who decides to reject the comforts and customs of his social position in order to find answers to the transcendental questions of existence.

“I’ve been reading Spinoza the last month or two. I don’t suppose I understand very much of it yet, but it fills me with exultation. It’s like landing from your plane on a great plateau in the mountains. Solitude, and an air so pure that it goes to your head like wine and you feel like a million dollars.”

“When are you coming back to Chicago?”

“Chicago? I don’t know. I haven’t thought of it.”

“You said that if you hadn’t got what you wanted after two years you’d give it up as a bad job.”

“I couldn’t go back now. I’m on the threshold. I see vast lands of the spirit stretching out before me, beckoning, and I’m eager to travel them.”

“What do you expect to find in them?”

“The answers to my questions.” He gave her a glance that was almost playful, so that except that she knew him so well, she might have thought he was speaking in jest. “I want to make up my mind whether God is or God is not. I want to find out why evil exists. I want to know whether I have an immortal soul or whether when I die it’s the end.”

This is a dialogue Larry has with his then-fiancee Isabel Bradley, who has agreed to let him live in France for the two years mentioned, to see, from her point of view, if he can get over the funk he has found himself in, come back to America to marry her and begin a career as a stockbroker in a prestigious firm.

A very respectable and proper set of expectations. But totally in conflict with Larry’s true aims, described, I suppose it should be parenthetically mentioned, in a set of themes and images that are eerily reminiscent of Hugh Conway in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, a 1933 novel I can only assume Maugham read before publishing The Razor’s Edge in 1944.

But, let’s get back to Isabel and Larry.

Isabel gave a little gasp. It made her uncomfortable to hear Larry say such things, and she was thankful that he spoke so lightly, in the tone of ordinary conversation, that it was possible for her to overcome her embarrassment.

“But Larry,” she smiled. “People have been asking those questions for thousands of years. If they could be answered, surely they’d have been answered by now.”

Larry chuckled.

“Don’t laugh as if I’d said something idiotic,” she said sharply.

“On the contrary I think you’ve said something shrewd. But on the other hand you might say that if men have been asking them for thousands of years it proves that they can’t help asking them and have to go on asking them. Besides, it’s not true that no one has found the answers. There are more answers than questions, and lots of people have found answers that were perfectly satisfactory for them. Old Ruysbroeck for instance.”

“Who was he?”

“Oh, just a guy I didn’t know at college,” Larry answered flippantly.

Isabel didn’t know what he meant, but passed on.

“It all sounds so adolescent to me. Those are the sort of things sophomores get excited about and then when they leave college they forget about them. They have to earn a living.”

They have to earn a living. Hark that. A major theme is developing there.

“I don’t blame them. You see, I’m in the happy position that I have enough money to live on. If I hadn’t I’d have had to do like everybody else and make money.”

“But doesn’t money mean anything to you?”

“Not a thing,” he grinned.

“How long d’you think all this is going to take you?”

“I wouldn’t know. Five years. Ten years.”

“And after that? What are you going to do with all this wisdom?”

“If I ever acquire wisdom I suppose I shall be wise enough to know what to do with it.”

Wisdom is only useful if one can “do” something with it. The theme continues to develop.

Isabel clasped her hands passionately and leant forward in her chair.

“You’re so wrong, Larry. You’re an American. Your place isn’t here. Your place is in America.”

Uh oh. Here it comes.

“I shall come back when I’m ready.”

“But you’re missing so much. How can you bear to sit here in a backwater just when we’re living through the most wonderful adventure the world has ever known? Europe’s finished. We’re the greatest, the most powerful people in the world. We’re going forward by leaps and bounds. We’ve got everything. It’s your duty to take part in the development of your country. You’ve forgotten, you don’t know how thrilling life is in America today. Are you sure you’re not doing this because you haven’t the courage to stand up to the work that’s before every American now? Oh, I know you’re working in a way, but isn’t it just an escape from your responsibilities? Is it more than just a sort of laborious idleness? What would happen to America if everyone shirked as you’re shirking?

And there it is. Probably as fully on display as Maugham dared to make it. In this one scene, we seem to have set before us the dramatic tension that will consume the rest of the narrative. Larry, representing the inner drive for spiritual truth and meaning, and Isabel, representing the cultural drive for wealth and domination, in conflict with one another, in society, and in Maugham’s soul. A reader should be excused for thinking that whichever character achieves happiness in the end will reveal Maugham’s bias in this eternal struggle.

Except, much of the novel isn’t actually about Larry Darrell. Much--too much, in my opinion--is about the petty obsessions that go with wealth and privilege. It’s typified by Isabel Bradley herself in an aspiring upper class kind of way, but even more fully developed in the character of an American expatriate living in Paris named Elliott Templeton.

If I have given the reader an impression that Elliott Templeton was a despicable character I have done him an injustice.

Those, of course, are Maugham’s words, not mine, and they come early, after several pages of character sketch and backstory, in which the author basically describes Templeton as a snob, a phony, and a gold digger.

He was for one thing what the French call serviable, a word for which, so far as I know, there is no exact equivalent in English. The dictionary tells me that serviceable in the sense of helpful, obliging, and kind is archaic. That is just what Elliott was. He was generous, and though early in his career he had doubtless showered flowers, candy, and presents on his acquaintance from an ulterior motive, he continued to do so when it was no longer necessary. It caused him pleasure to give. He was hospitable. His chef was as good as any in Paris and you could be sure at his table of having set before you the earliest delicacies of the season. His wine proved the excellence of his judgment. It is true that his guests were chosen for their social importance rather than because they were good company, but he took care to invite at least one or two for their powers of entertainment, so that his parties were almost always amusing. People laughed at him behind his back and called him a filthy snob, but nevertheless accepted his invitations with alacrity.

He is, I realized, having recently read a biography of Somerset Maugham, clearly patterned after Maugham himself--at least the Maugham who publicly resided in the South of France and entertained aristocrats and celebrities at his villa. Which is odd, of course, because Maugham himself is famously the first-person narrator of The Razor’s Edge. “I have never begun a novel with more misgiving,” the novel begins, and from those first words to the novel’s last, the presence of Maugham--as a character, as the narrator, as an author; or, indeed, as all three--is hopelessly intertwined.

So what is Maughan doing here? He’s hiding, clearly. Obviously in the narrator/character of Maugham, and less obviously in the character of Elliott Templeton. But I believe both of those are really meant just to keep you off the scent. Because Maugham, I suspect, is hiding most deeply of all in the character of Larry Darrell.

“It doesn’t surprise me that you don’t understand Larry,” I said, “because I’m pretty sure he doesn’t understand himself. If he’s reticent about his aims it may be that it’s because they’re obscure to him. Mind you, I hardly know him and this is only guesswork: isn’t it possible that he’s looking for something, but what it is he doesn’t know, and perhaps he isn’t even sure it’s there? Perhaps whatever it is that happened to him during the war has left him with a restlessness that won’t let him be. Don’t you think he may be pursuing an ideal that is hidden in a cloud of unknowing--like an astronomer looking for a star that only a mathematical calculation tells him exists?”

This is Maugham the character/narrator speaking to Isabel, but it is also Maugham the author speaking to the reader, revealing a dangerous truth that perhaps everything he has done, all the works he has written, have been in service of an ideal that he doesn’t know for sure is even there.

This is an exciting interpretation. And it probably requires another full read of the novel if I intend to develop it--here on my blog, or in one of those wistful PhD dissertations I actually think I may have time to write someday.

For example, when I complain that there is too much Elliott Templeton and not enough Larry Darrell in the novel, is that also Maugham telling me something about himself? Is he saying that he regrets all the time he has spent being like Templeton and longs, late in his life, for more of that time having been spent being like Larry?

And then, inevitably, we’ll have to deal with Charles Strickland.

“...What I’m trying to tell you is that there are men who are possessed by an urge so strong to do some particular thing that they can’t help themselves, they’ve got to do it. They’re prepared to sacrifice everything to satisfy their yearning.”

“Even the people who love them?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Is that anything more than plain selfishness?”

“I wouldn’t know,” I smiled.

The smile is the dead giveaway, for our course Maugham--Maugham the author, but here, even Maugham the character/narrator--does know. He, both of them, had already famously written about just such a character--and another of his alter egos.

Here’s how the second paragraph of The Razor’s Edge begins:

Many years ago I wrote a novel called The Moon and Sixpence. In that I took a famous painter, Paul Gauguin, and, using the novelist’s privilege, devised a number of incidents to illustrate the character I had created on the suggestions afforded me by the scanty facts I knew about the French artist. In the present book I have attempted to do nothing of the kind. I have invented nothing. To save embarrassment to people still living I have given to the persons who play a part in this story names of my own contriving, and I have in other ways taken pains to make sure that no one should recognize them.

Maugham’s painter in The Moon and Sixpence, Charles Strickland, is also a man “possessed by an urge so strong to do some particular thing”--paint--that he can’t help himself. He sacrifices everything to satisfy his yearning, even the people who love him. But Maugham, I think, goes out of his way to show that this isn’t plain selfishness. It is, he fears, the only way an artist can bring something great into the world.

In the exchange I most recently cited, Isabel is complaining to Maugham about Larry’s desire to learn Greek.

“What can be the possible use of Larry’s learning dead languages?”

“Some people have a disinterested desire for knowledge. It’s not an ignoble desire.”

“What’s the good of knowledge if you’re not going to do anything with it?”

“Perhaps he is. Perhaps it will be sufficient satisfaction merely to know, as it’s sufficient satisfaction to an artist to produce a work of art. And perhaps it’s only a step toward something further.”

The comparison to art is, I think, significant. If Larry Darrell is a kinder and gentler version of Charles Strickland, then he is much more deeply buried in a text preoccupied with the social graces and appearances that both rejected. In The Moon and Sixpence, Maugham fully embraced the misanthrope within. In The Razor’s Edge, he has screened that creature behind several layers of his own better sensibilities and those of most of us who find themselves approaching the text.

As I said, I think I need to read it again.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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