Book Corner – May 2020 (4)

The Razor’s Edge – W. Somerset Maugham

I must confess that I am a late convert to Maugham. For some reason, I had always considered him a bit passé but I enjoyed Ashenden and decided to explore some more of his works. The Razor’s Edge is one of his later works, published in 1944 and made into a film two years later, starring Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney. As Maugham observes at the end, it is a success story as the major characters strive to achieve their goals, Elliott, described as “that arch-snob…also the kindest, most considerate and generous of men”, social eminence, Isabel, wealth and comfort, and Larry, enlightenment and self-discovery.

The narrative structure is interesting and novel. Maugham as himself flits in and out of the story, sometimes as an observer or a messenger, often giving verbatim accounts of what one or more of the characters have told him. As readers, we join Maugham in trying to piece together what has happened. It is an unusual technique, a little difficult to get your head around at first, but Maugham pulls it off with aplomb.

The book has no geographic lodestone. It starts in Chicago but flits around Europe, following the six principal characters. It is they that Maugham is interested in rather than where they happen to be, giving the story a sense of universality. It is an exploration of character, personality, hopes, ambitions, despair and loss.

The thing I have grown to like about Maugham is the sheer quality of his prose. This is what well-written English should sound and feel like, never too wordy, a flash of wit, never too moralistic, ready to embrace all forms of human life with equanimity. Sardonic wit can be a bit cloying if not used sparingly but Maugham gets the balance right and his jokes don’t seem as dated as those of some of his contemporaries.  

The stand-out character for me is Elliott Thompson, painted with humour and affection, an American broker in fine art who uses his expertise to ingratiate himself into the finest circles of society. He is a snob but will go to extraordinary lengths and suffer no end of humiliations to obtain that golden ticket. As Maugham remarks, “When he had fixed his eye on his prey he hunted it with the persistence of a botanist who will expose himself to dangers of flood, earthquake, fever, and hostile natives to find an orchid of peculiar rarity.”

The central character, though, is Larry Darrell, a First World War flying ace who is suffering what we would now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He eschews the conventions and expectations of society, preferring to drift around finding himself than settling down and earning a living. This attitude loses him the hand of Isabel who decides to play safe and settle down with the stolid Gray Maturin. It is clear, though, she still carried a flame for him. Larry eventually goes to India and finds enlightenment at the feet of a guru, He has the feel of a prototype of a 1960s hippy, but also someone of the inter-war generation who is frustrated with their lot and is seeking a better alternative.

The chapter in which Larry explains his path to enlightenment can be hard going in places, Maugham unusually warns his reader that they could easily skip the section without losing anything of the storyline, but, for me, it is the section that brings the book together and adds gravitas to what otherwise might seem a much lighter novel.

I enjoyed this book immensely and can understand why it was such a bestseller, resonating with the world-weary reading public looking for a better life following the imminent end of the Second World War.

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