Baffling. This is one of those books that was on people’s shelves when I grew up. Grandmothers had Maugham’s novels, along with Galsworthy’s: he must have done very well with the Book of the Month Club. I had never read him, never even tried. But Rick is reading the forthcoming Selina Hastings biography and when I darkened the door of a bookstore a few weeks ago, this was on the table so I bought it for him. He seemed to enjoy it. Now I wonder why. And I wonder why I slogged along to the end. And I wonder even more why it remains in print.
I had the vague idea that it was about someone seeking for enlightenment: must have gleaned that much from ads for the 1984 movie with Bill Murray which I never saw. What I couldn’t grasp was that this description was literally true. The Razor’s Edge was published in 1944 by which time Maugham was already an established novelist. And the central character in the book is the enigmatic Larry Darrell who leaves a comfortable upper-middle-class life in Chicago to, basically, bum around the planet. It’s all there, the tramp steamers and the ashram and the guru, the grubby clothes and the cars in disrepair and the despairing relatives. True, Maugham was one of the first to write in this vein; the wisdom of the non-Christian faiths was not widely appreciated in 1944. And maybe, when he wrote this book, Larry Darrell’s ardent longing for enlightenment spoke to readers who saw a predominantly conventional life before them.
But I kept thinking — where is the conflict? Where the narrative tension? Why do I continue to turn the pages when I have no investment in these characters? Pure curiosity is my answer, but I still don’t grasp the appeal. The tale is heavily framed: Maugham himself narrates and keeps appearing. The action (mostly people sitting around talking) occurs over the course of some two dozen years, and takes place largely in London, Paris, and the Riviera, with Chicago interludes. Maugham’s got a sharp eye and his worldly bachelor, Elliott Templeton, is an entertaining sketch of an adept social climber of the post-Edwardian age. (Papal coronet on his pj’s: nice touch.) There’s a good girl, Isabel, and a girl gone bad, Sophie, and a worldly French former artists’ model whose role seemed pretty expendable. I suppose the fairly frank treatment of sexuality might have made this book “racy” when it first came out, and that could have boosted Maugham’s sales figures.
I understand, dimly, that some readers are looking for a path to transcendence. (Our reading material doesn’t overlap widely, I’ll admit.) I would expect, though, that in 2010 you would go directly to Larry Darrell’s sources, which are pretty main-stream today. The social comedy portion of The Razor’s Edge is delivered more elegantly in Enid Bagnold’s The Loved and Envied, and the Riviera local color in Sybille Bedford’s Jigsaw. Which doesn’t leave Maugham much to do, does it?