Thursday, June 11, 2009

96. The Razors Edge – William Somerset Maugham

History: this book was published in 1944. As with so many other works by Maugham, the book has been popular with readers but less so with critics. Though many might think Larry is an early Beatnik, the book speaks more to the romanticism attached to expatriate and bohemian living in European capitals. Larry does odd jobs just to get by as he scribbles away on a scholarly tome, telling the narrator it doesn’t matter if few people read his finished work. Larry is driven by his quest for transcendence. When Isabel visits him in Paris and rejects his destitute lifestyle, Larry chooses café life and pursuit of wisdom over middle-class security. As his Hindu mentor tells him, there are three paths to enlightenment — knowledge, service, and prayer. Larry chooses the path of knowledge and, ultimately, does attain some level of enlightenment.
Plot: The Razor’s Edge tells the story of an American, Larry Darrell, who, traumatized by his experiences as a fighter pilot in World War I, decides to search for some transcendent meaning in his life. Wounded and traumatized by the death of a comrade in the War, Larry returns to Lake Forest, Illinois and his fiancée, Isabel, only to announce that he does not plan to work and instead will "loaf" on his small inheritance. He wants to delay their marriage and refuses to take up a job as a stockbroker offered to him by the father of his friend Gray, Henry Maturin. Meanwhile, Larry’s childhood friend, Sophie, settles into a happy marriage, only later tragically losing her husband and baby in a car accident.
Larry moves to Paris and immerses himself in study and bohemian life. After two years of this "loafing", Isabel visits and Larry asks her to join his life of wandering and searching, living in Paris and traveling with little money. She cannot accept his vision of life and breaks their engagement to go back to Chicago. There she marries the millionaire Gray, who provides her a rich family life. Meanwhile, Larry begins a sojourn through Europe taking a job at a coal mine in Lens, France where he befriends a former Polish army officer named Kosti. Kosti encourages Larry to look toward things spiritual for his answers rather than in books. Larry and Kosti leave the coal mine and travel together for a time then part ways. Larry then meets a Benedictine monk named Father Ensheim in Bonn, Germany while Father Ensheim is on leave from his monastery doing academic research. Father Ensheim, having certain insights other than strictly western spiritual influences, suggests Larry widen his spiritual perimeters and go to India in search of answers.
Larry has significant spiritual adventures in India and comes back to the City of Light. What he actually found in India and what he finally concluded are held back from the reader for a considerable time until, in a scene late in the book, Maugham discusses India and spirituality with Larry in a café long into the evening.
The 1929 Stock Market crash has ruined Gray, and he and Isabel are invited to live in her Uncle Elliott’s grand Parisian house. Gray is often incapacitated with agonizing migraines due to a general nervous collapse. Larry is able to help him using an Indian form of hypnotic suggestion. Sophie has also drifted to the French capital, where her friends find her reduced to alcohol, opium, and promiscuity — empty and dangerous liaisons that seem to help her to bury her pain. Larry first sets out to save her and then decides to marry her, something that won’t be tolerated by Isabel, who is still in love with him.
Isabel tempts Sophie off the wagon with a bottle of Żubrówka, and she disappears from Paris. Maugham deduces this after seeing Sophie in Toulon, where she has returned to smoking opium and promiscuity. He is drawn back into the tale when police interrogate him after Sophie has been found murdered with an inscribed book from him in her room (along with volumes by Baudelaire and Rimbaud).
Meanwhile in Antibes, Elliott Templeton, who has compulsively throughout his life sought out aristocratic society, is on his deathbed. None of his titled friends come to see him but he ignores his loss. "I have always moved in the best society in Europe, and I have no doubt that I shall move in the best society in heaven."
Isabel inherits his fortune, but genuinely grieves for her uncle. Maugham confronts her about Sophie, having figured out Isabel’s role in Sophie’s downfall. Isabel’s only punishment will be that she will never get Larry, who has decided to return to America and live as a common working man. He is uninterested in the rich and glamorous world that Isabel will move in. Maugham ends his narrative by suggesting that all the characters got what they wanted in the end: "Elliott social eminence; Isabel an assured position; ... Sophie death; and Larry happiness
Review: In later life the English writer W. Somerset Maugham developed an interest in Indian spirituality. He visited India in 1938, and in Madras was taken to an ashram to meet a man who, born Venkataraman, had retreated to a life of silence, self-mortification, and prayer, and was now known simply as the Maharshi.
While waiting for his audience, Maugham fainted, perhaps because of the heat. When he came to, he found he could not speak (it must be mentioned that Maugham was a lifelong stammerer). The Maharshi comforted him by pronouncing that "silence also is conversation."
News of the fainting fit, according to Maugham, soon spread across India: through the power of the Maharshi, it was said, the pilgrim had been translated into the realm of the infinite. Though Maugham had no recollection of visiting the infinite, the event left its mark on him: he describes it in A Writer's Notebook (1949) and again in Points of View (1958); he also works it into The Razor's Edge (1944), the novel that made his name in the United States.
The Razor's Edge tells the story of an American who, having prepared himself by acquiring a deep tan and donning Indian garb, visits the guru Shri Ganesha and at his hands has an ecstatic spiritual experience, "an experience of the same order as the mystics have had all over the world through all the centuries." With Shri Ganesha's blessing, this proto-hippie returns to Illinois, where he plans to practice "calmness, forbearance, compassion, selflessness and continence" while driving a taxi. "It's a mistake to think that those holy men of India lead useless lives," he says. "They are a shining light in the darkness."
Opening Line: “I have never begun a novel with more misgiving.”
Closing Line: “And however superciliously the highbrows carp, we the public in our heart of hearts all like a success story, so perhaps my ending is not so unsatisfactory after all.”
Quotes: “I'm counting the days till I can get a back to Paris. It's the only place in the world for a civilized man to live. My dear fellow, d'you know how they look upon me here? They look upon me as a freak. Savages."
Rating: Very Good.

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