The Razor’s Edge
W. Somerset Maugham
“The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.”
Larry Darrell chooses to live apart from the bourgeois path expected of him. Forever changed by the death of his flight mate during a WWI air skirmish, Larry chooses to seek out truth and the meaning of life through the accumulation of knowledge and experiences rather than follow the working man’s path expected of him. He breaks off his engagement with his beloved Isabel and wanders a path toward enlightenment that leads him to periods working in a coal mine in France, living in a monastery in Germany, and eventually living in India.
Stylistically, the Razor’s Edge is unique in that although the story centers around Larry, it is told through the first person narrative of the author, Maugham himself and follows how others react to Larry’s pilgrimage. The events that occur surrounding the many characters illustrate a balance between the aristocratic excess and moral depravity of the 1920’s that lead into the Great Depression. As many of Larry’s friends experience the boom and bust of these times, his choices lead him toward an inner salvation that is unencumbered by the struggles of those he loves.
I had a hard time figuring out what to make of this novel. Parts of it reminded me of the beat generation writing as Larry Darrell’s pilgrimage serves as a herald to the beat philosophies, however so much of the novel’s action is centered not on Larry but the bourgeoisie interest in parties, art, and the accumulation of wealth. All of these foils are clearly intended to highlight the path that Larry has chosen, however in reading Maugham’s prose I always felt like an outsider, never capable of fully appreciating Larry’s enlightenment because none of Larry’s acquaintances come to appreciate it themselves. This sense of disconnection is highlighted in the following dialogue between Larry and Maugham:
“”[The Absolute] is like a drop of water that has arisen from the sea and in a shower has fallen into a puddle, then drifts into a brook, finds it way into a stream, after that into a river, passing through mountain gorges and wide plains, winding this way and that, obstructed by rocks and fallen trees, till at last it reaches the boundless sea from which it rose.”
“But that poor little drop of water, when it has once more become one with the sea, has surely lost its individuality.”
“You want to taste sugar, you don’t want to be sugar. What is individuality but the expression of our egoism? Until the soul has shed the last trace of that it cannot become one with the Absolute.”” (268-7)
The novel is an important work for its time and I was often reminded of my coming of age love, Herman Hesse. However, with my postmodern interests, I found the realism of The Razor’s Edge not entirely to my liking. I’d recommend it for certain, but wouldn’t place it amongst the highest ranks of my favorite works.