The Razor’s Edge (1944) by Somerset Maugham

Book Review by George S: The Razor’s Edge was written during the Second World War, but its story begins at the end of the First one. In 1919 Larry Darrell is in Paris. He is an airman who after the Armistice is behaving oddly. As a character says:

The war did something to Larry. He didn’t come back the same person that he went. It’s not only that he’s older. Something happened that changed his personality.

In Maugham’s plays, like The Unknown (1920) and For Services Rendered (1932) , Maugham had pictured men embittered and psychologically disturbed by war. Larry isn’t like angry like them. His disturbance is a matter of dropping out – ‘to loaf’ as he puts it. He has a vision of something he wants that is beyond the everyday ambitions of his friends. Somehow his quest derives from his war experience:

I wish I could make you see how exciting the life of the spirit is and how rich in experience. It’s illimitable. It’s such a happy life. There’s only one thing like it, when you’re up in a plane by yourself, high, high, and only infinity surrounds you. You’re intoxicated by the boundless space. You feel such a sense of exhilaration that you wouldn’t exchange it for all the power and glory in the world.

The effect of war has gone deeper than this, though; his best friend died saving him from an attack by an enemy aircraft. The friend landed his own plane afterwards but died. Larry says: ‘The dead look so terribly dead when they’re dead.’

Larry is engaged to marry a delightful girl called Isabel, but since he refuses to settle down and get a job, she marries someone else. He is not too disconcerted.

At the start of the book, Maugham reminds the reader that he was the author of The Moon and Sixpence, based on another drop-out, Gauguin. The Razor’s |Edge, he says, is written as a novel, but is in fact a true story, with just the names changed. As in some of the short stories, Maugham the author is a character, meeting and commenting on the other characters, yet not personally involved in the events. Over the years he meets Larry at various stages in his progress, which is gradually revealed as a spiritual one.

‘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.’

For years he reads, then plunges into physical labour, as a coal miner and then a farm worker. He spends a time in a monastery, and visits holy men in India.

A Catholic monk tells him:

You are a deeply religious man who doesn’t believe in God. God will seek you out. You’ll come back. Whether here or elsewhere only God can tell.

Contrasted with Larry are several characters ofdisplaying various kinds of worldliness. As well as Isabel and her stolid husband, there is a woman who has made a life of being mistress to a succession of men who have kept her. Another young woman was in a close and blissful marriage, but when her husband and child were killed in a car smash, turned to drink and drugs. The most notable character is Elliott, an American of great wealth and snobbishness. He made his fortune as an art dealer, but prefers not to remember his exploits in trade, as he now hob-nobs with aristocrats and is on friendly terms with the Pope. Maugham presents him as a social climber whose snobbishness has taken him over almost entirely – yet he is also a man capable of great kindness and concern for others. The characterisation in this book is never simple.

Larry’s quest leads him to Hindu mysticism; a chapter is devoted to his explanation of the quest for ‘the Absolute and the weary wheel of endless becoming.’ (A philosophy that involves reincarnation in a universe of constant flux.) This may be based on Maugham’s visit to the mystic Sri Ramanashram in 1938. At the end of the book Larry gives up the inheritance that has subsidised his years of travel and research, and intends to go back to America, and find work as a mechanic, or possibly a taxi-driver. His search will continue.

It’s a tribute to Maugham’s skill as a writer that I remained interested through this story of spiritual searching -not my usual cup of tea. He is very good at pacing the novel, delivering small surprises that keep you reading. He also writes very well – and has a particular gift for long sentences that guide you through complex ideas or events with perfect clarity.

As the book progressed, I began to wonder about the Maugham who narrates the novel, meeting odd characters over the decades, and hearing new snippets of Harry’s story. All the other characters show quirks and affections, and together make up a remarkable tapestry of human types. The narrator remains an outsider, an observer who never displays emotions of his own.

Maugham of course was homosexual at a time when it was almost impossible for a professional novelist to write about homosexuality, and when admitting his own sexual preferences and experiences could have landed him in jail. In this novel, two homosexual pairs are glimpsed among the couples in a nightclub, but otherwise the interactions are completely heterosexual. Elliott, the outrageous snob, is decidedly unmarried, and camp in some of his affectations, but Maugham leaves it to the reader to wonder whether his social climbing and religiosity are a sublimation of his homosexual feelings. I wonder how far the conventions of the time limited Maugham as a novelist.

The book was filmed in 1946, just two years after publication. I’ve watched parts of it, and it seems pretty faithful to Maugham’s original.

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