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[96] The Razor’s Edge – W. Somerset Maugham

That some of you are reading Maugham for the Outmoded Authors Challenge gives me a consolation that he was considered out of the in crowd. What irks me even more as I’m venturing into these author, like Anna Kavan, Malcolm Lowry, and Elizabeth Bowen, is that they write some of the most robust, literary, and framed prose that reinforces events and characters throughout the books. This is unfortunately being compromised with superficial and unpolished writing that predominate in books topping the bestsellers. How wonderful to bask in the sharp wit of prose that elucidates layers of emotions, motives and heart conditions. The Razor’s Edge is an example of a novel with sterling qualities.

* * *

razor.jpgIn a disinterested voice, the novel delves into the meaning of life through a glimpse of social eminence, fortune, security, and happiness. Upon returning from World War I, Larry Darrell, an attractive nut enigmatic American who has brushed shoulder with death, resolved to pursue the meaning of life and attain happiness at the expense of comforts concomitant to the Burgeois society. Assured that a (confining) marriage will betray his soul, he broke the engagement with the beautiful Isabel Martin.

As he becomes well-read in works of major philosophers, Darrell wandered off to outlandish places and cultivated wisdom and sanctity. Grew aflame in him was an ethereal detachment as if a part of him was withheld in some hidden territory of his soul. Interactions with his friends was cordial but one can be conscious in his manner a sense of remoteness and standoffish aloofness as though a tension, a secret, or an aspiration that set him apart.

His attempt to save a fallen Sophie MacDonald, who plunged into alcohol and promiscuous capitulation to get even with life, from downward spiral afforded him a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. In what Isabel thought sacrificing his life for the girl, Darrell believed he has attained the highest affirmation of his personality because for a moment he was greater than God. To him it was a passion so overwhelming and larger-than-life that beside it even lust and hunger became trifling.

At the center of this book is Elliot Templeton, the kind arch-snob for whom a grand party was the breath of the nostrils and not to be asked to one was simply an affront. Despite his worldly proclivity to take no interest in people other than their social position, he was capable of turning himself inside out to do people favors. Even though he deemed Darrell’s pursuit an indolence and looked upon it as a joke, he set his heart in establishing him into the society. When the Depression struck, he took Isabel’s family under his wing.

In following the changing fortunes of these people whose lives were entangled, The Razor’s Edge examines the individual choices, social channels, and values. Everyone strives to attain happiness in his/her own way. For some it’s social eminence, for others it’s substantial fortune, and still for the sober lot, peace and relief from the tenterhook of life’s adversity. For Darrell, it’s a kind of happiness that is not allied to the common run of men. Traveling to India, he finds it in the Hindu religion — in the belief in transmigration of souls and in a highly personal mystical experience.

As in his other works, Maugham develops the existential theme of characters attempting to make their lives meaningful in a meaningless world.

“He had been absorbed into that tumultous conglomeration of humanity, distracted by so many conflicting interests, so lost in the world’s confusion, so wishful of good and so cocksure of the outside.”

11 Responses

  1. Thank you for the lovely review. I like the way you alway manage to keep your reviews succinct but meaningful. It’s an art I would like to learn.

  2. Maugham does have a knack to explore the existential theme. It resonates your previous post on inquiry in the meaning of life. I’ll put Razor’s Edge on my reading list. A great review!

  3. I don’t have The Razor’s Edge on my piles, but I do have a few other Maugham titles. Thanks for the call to arms to read a great author!

  4. Dark Orpheus:
    *blush* Thank you. I try getting to the gist without perpetrating a spoiler. The daily journal entries that I keep really help write the review.

    It does actually, but not as far-fetched as the titles I have included in that suite. I think you’ll appreciate Maugham’s stylistic prose.

    I’m so happy there has been a hype on Maugham lately! 🙂

  5. It’s interesting reading your thoughts on Razor’s Edge. I read it many years ago while on a long trip in Europe and I found the whole search for truth theme very romantic. I didn’t know if the novel would hold up to a second reading,but you’ve tempted me to try.

  6. Ted:
    Have you read any other works by Maugham? If you have enjoyed Razor’s Edge, I’d recommend Of Human Bondage, as well as The Painted Veil.

    I agree that Maugham can be a very compatible companion to travel. Another favorite “airport travel” author is Trollope. 🙂

  7. I’ve read Of Human Bondage, but don’t remember it. The one I remember liking well is Moon and Sixpence. Trollope for travel? Gosh. That would weigh down the baggage. I did read all the Palliser novels once about 25 years ago, but it’s when I was staying in one place for a while.

  8. Ted:
    We should do a book swap. I’ve yet to read Moon and Sixpence because I couldn’t find a copy. It’s on my list.

    I brought one thick volume of Trollope with me and it lasted all the way to Bangkok just in time to acquire additional reading there. 🙂

    What kind of novels does Palliser write? I’m not familiar with this author.

  9. The Trollope books that I read were the Palliser novels! – wasn’t that the family name of the characters? It’s been so long.

  10. Ted:
    Hahaha…I don’t even remember. So blanked out! I guess it’s time to make a re-visit to Trollope.

    Henry James, if you don’t mind his over embellished, meandering prose, would be a good choice to indulge in and while away the day. 🙂

  11. […] companionships, and (un)requited love—and his works. One novel that I mandate to re-read is The Razor’s Edge upon completion of the biography. Cakes and Ale, which I haven’t read, sees the […]

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