Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham

From the favourer: "I think the reason this book made such a big impression on me had something to do with not settling for things just because other people have certain expectations of you. The only other book that gave me a similar face-slapping sense-check was 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being'. In retrospect, I think 'The Razor’s Edge' smacks more gently and keeps the soft leather gloves on while doing so."

I’ve heard it said that you need to read The Razor’s Edge before you’re 20, preferably while you’re an Arts student. So I’m seven years late on the former and four years late on the latter, but given the fact that I only stopped being a student in 2006, and the added fact that I still haven't managed to leave campus, I think I’ll be okay.

Set amongst the high society of the 1920s and 30s, The Razor’s Edge is narrated by Maugham posing as himself. A writer who suddenly finds moderate success and the fame that goes along with it, he begins to be invited to dinner parties by Elliott. Elliott is an amicable career snob who has made it his life’s work to climb the ranks of the social elite: to charm every rich old lady, attend every important party, and host dinners that are the social equivalent of a golden ticket in a Wonka bar.

At one of Elliott’s lesser (but still beautifully orchestrated) dinners, Maugham meets Elliott’s niece Isabel and her fiancĂ©, Larry. Maugham doesn’t pay much attention to Larry, but notes that “though…he hadn’t said half a dozen words since entering the house, he seemed perfectly at ease and in a curious way appeared to take part in the conversation without opening his mouth.”

As Maugham’s friendship with Elliott and Isabel grows, he learns that rather than obediently taking a highly paid job and marrying Isabel, war veteran Larry has decided instead to pursue a notion unthinkable to the circles in which he moves: he wants to go to Paris and, in his words, “loaf”.

But Larry’s version of loafing doesn’t involve home delivery pizza and a boxed set of The West Wing, he goes there to live in a tiny room, spend basically no money, and to learn. This royal “screw you” to expectations and society obviously does not go down well, but Isabel agrees to allow Larry two years in Paris to get it out of his system before they marry. This was never going to work.

The proposed two years turn into a quest that sees Larry move from studying in Paris, to working in coal mines and on farms, to discovering mysticism in the mountains of India. But what is he really looking for? And what of those he leaves behind?

You’ve gotta love Maugham. Despite the fact that the female characters in his writing are generally whores or heartless bitches (I don't think he liked women very much), he creates such wonderfully varied, intriuging and rounded characters and writes them so wittily you can’t possibly be annoyed.

This includes the whores and the bitches, to his credit. I especially loved Sophie, alcoholic opium addict of 'dubious repute' who Larry intends to marry and ‘save’ from herself. Instead she racks off back to Paris to her old life, and in a great moment drawls to Maugham: “Darling, when it came to the point I couldn’t see myself being Mary Magdalen to his Jesus Christ. No, sir.” Don't blame her myself.

Larry is not a blind crusader, however. When Isabel initially tries to convince him that she could perhaps try his style of life in Paris, he observes:

“One can dress very nicely without going to Chanel. And all the interesting people don’t live in the neighbourhood of the Arc de Triomphe and the Avenue Foch. In fact few interesting people do, because interesting people generally don’t have a lot of money.”

When Isabel says: “Don’t be stupid, Larry…You know I’m not a snob. I’d love to meet interesting people”, he replies:

“Yes, in a Chanel dress.”


I actually found Larry less interesting as he became more spiritual. It’s hard to really like a character that becomes so removed from natural fluctuations of human emotion. Perhaps it says more about me than about him, but I always find a suspicion of smugness in spiritual transformations. It’s the same irritation I have with the smiles on images of mystical gods, they tease: “I know something you don’t know...”

I much preferred Larry in his Paris phase, and even felt a brief touch of first-year-uni nostalgia (craziness, I know) after his conversation with Maugham:

“‘Don’t you think you might tell me what you’ve been up to all the time you’ve been in Paris?’
‘I’ve been reading a good deal. Eight or ten hours a day. I’ve attended lectures at the Sorbonne. I think I’ve read everything that’s important in French literature and I can read Latin, at least Latin prose, almost as easily as I can read French. Of course Greek’s more difficult. But I have a very good teacher. Until you came here I used to go to him three evenings a week.’
‘And what is that going to lead to?’
‘The acquisition of knowledge,’ he smiled.
‘That doesn’t sound very practical.’
‘Perhaps it isn’t and on the other hand perhaps it is. But it’s enormous fun. You can’t imagine what a thrill is it to read the Odyssey in the original. It makes you feel as if you only had to get on tiptoe and stretch out your hands to touch the stars.’”

It gave me a little thrill of familiarity to read that paragraph.

Maugham, in his narrator incarnation, is a sharp and never-impartial observer, able to encapsulate amorphous character traits with amusing brevity. He describes Elliott, who tries to insist on escorting him to his flat every time, as having “the feeling I have noticed in some Americans who have lived many years abroad that America is a difficult and even dangerous place in which the European cannot safely be left to find his way about by himself.” Heh heh.

In fact I found Maugham to be one of the most interesting characters in the book, despite the fact that you spend most of the book standing next to him rather than looking at him. I wonder if anyone else has felt this way? In his way Maugham-as-narrator is just as much a rebel as Larry – always forthright, amused by Elliott’s ambitions, and never hesitating to call someone on a statement if he thinks it's crap. And it is his voice in the final paragraph that reveals, in his light and typically backhanded way, a truth about his friends that you could easily miss beneath the veneer of affectionate sentiment.

While I do understand why this book has a kind of cult following among students, I also think that the under-20 restriction is a bit harsh. Even leaving aside the fact that it’s beautifully written and corner-foldingly, email-signature-quotingly witty, I think it’s a book not just to inspire, but to re-inspire.

If you’ve ever had an overwhelming urge to yell: “Bugger the system, I’m going to hurl the mortgage to the wind and embark on a journey of discovery and adventure/pursue knowledge for the pure love of it/search for wisdom and happiness, and not give a rat’s arse if I end up without two pennies to rub together,” then there’ll be at least a part of this book that will reawaken that urge.

And if you haven’t had that “bugger expectations” urge, ever, in your entire life, then you need this book immediately.

And possibly some kind of electro-shock therapy.


Anonymous said...

hey anna, i just linked you to my blog - also I have to say that the razor's edge is one of my all time favourite books - and the film is quite lovely too (the one with gene tierney, not bill murray - although that' snot bad - just a bit weird because you keep expecting him to pull a dumb face...) A lot of somerset I can live without but not this one - also I love the structure and the way the narrator tells you straight up that he's filled in the bits he can't remember ... hope you're reading is going okay!

Anna said...

Ooh, I feel linked! Snot bad at all.

I seem to be on schedule with the reading...or maybe I'm just getting more ruthless as I go along!