Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Book Review: The Razor's Edge

Book Review: The Razor’s Edge
Author: W. Somerset Maugham
Date: 1944 (Doubleday), 1969 (Pocket Books)
Publisher: Doubleday (1944), Pocket Books (1969)
ISBN: none
Length: 296 pages
Quote: “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over: thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.”
Of course the salvation Larry seeks is Hindu; had it been Christian this book would have been relegated to the “Christian fiction” ghetto, rather than being praised as “one of Maugham’s three major novels.” And Maugham hesitates to state that Larry has been “saved”; his conclusion is that Larry has found happiness.
Larry was, when Maugham created him, possibly the very trendiest sort of hero—an honorably discharged veteran of World War I who hadn’t disgraced himself during his military service, who seemed employable at home, but who found himself too much haunted by the idea that another fellow had died “for him” to settle back into his ordinary life, and sought refuge in spirituality. Hinduism appealed to Larry because he wasn’t asked to believe any specifically Hindu religious teachings, but allowed to meditate in his own way.
During the events narrated in the novel, Larry finds enough peace of mind in meditation to be able to comfort his friends through hypnosis and pious thoughts. His friends include an older man who has devoted his life and fortune to collecting art and climbing the social ladder, an old girlfriend who dumped him and married another old pal of his for money when Larry indicated that he didn’t want to pursue wealth, the parents of the three young people who of course don’t understand Larry, a cheerful French grisette (whose eventual success shows that Maugham didn’t consider her approach to prostitution immoral), a bitter American widow who chooses death by self-indulgence (whom Maugham does consider immoral), and of course (according to the text) Maugham himself, who appears in the story as a passive confidential friend of all these people. All of them want to learn something from Larry—in Maugham’s case, why—and all of them do, and in the end Maugham tells us that they all got what they wanted. None of the women seems very happy to me, but that’s why we had a feminist movement.
It would have been even more interesting to me if Maugham had chosen to write about a contemporary hero who found his happiness in reconciliation with Christianity, or at least in recognizing the folly of an atheist philosophy. However, biographies of C.S. Lewis and the writer known as George Orwell exist, and it would have been premature for Maugham to have tried to write one.
If The Razor’s Edge doesn’t qualify for a position on a “best hundred books of the century” list, it’s still a clean, tersely narrated, satisfying read—very adult, in the sense of dealing with what real adults do and think about, rather than merely what they try to keep from teenagers; sex and death take place (offstage, except for the natural death of one of the older characters) but the story is mainly about the ethical choices that bring happiness or misery to the characters. The character of Elliott, the social climber who never outgrows his great concern with who’s invited to which parties, is particularly well done; Elliott is a nice, kind, lovable old man to whom all the younger characters have reason to feel indebted, and they do, but none of them even wants to think about growing up like Elliott. 

The Razor’s Edge is recommended to anyone interested in a long, reflective story, with plenty of the sort of “action” relationships have on people’s characters, no murders, and not much attention to adultery. Newer editions are available, which makes the cost of used copies cheap: $5 + $5 shipping if you buy it here, or you can buy it somewhere else and buy something by a living author here.