Maugham's Razor

Reported by Jeff Pearce

W hen I was going through the embarrassing rite of passage of thinking I was a bohemian, I accidentally tripped over Somerset Maugham. He fed my earnest fantasies of being a world-weary traveller who knows Paris cafés and the Riviera. (You work with what you've got when you have artistic pretensions in snow-bound Winnipeg, Canada.) While many of us in college wanted to be great writers and, by extension, great bohemians, we had no standard canon. One friend insisted on devouring Kerouac and William Burroughs as Velvet Underground records played on his stereo. When I visited him, my coat pocket was stuffed with Maugham. Today, I am sure I got the author with the better mileage.
         If you're honest with yourself, you can admit to enjoying the Beats while knowing that they belong to a phase of your life like the music of a certain decade. It's ironic that Somerset Maugham wrote The Razor’s Edge, a primer for would-be bohos, and yet its simple, direct style and originality should have earned it a high place in literature long ago. The novel has a cult following, and when I used for a random fact check for this article, I found customer reviews that touchingly raved about it. While a movie has been made out of Of Human Bondage and a good TV mini-series of the Ashenden spy stories, The Razor's Edge has twice lured film makers, and with good cause.
         The novel follows a small circle of characters. They are less than friends but more than acquaintances. The hero is young American Larry Darrell who, like his pal Gray, is about to conquer the world as a stockbroker. Larry has a shallow and spoiled fiancée, Isabel, and a kid sister of a friend in Sophie, the shy poet of the clique. Larry’s experiences as a fighter
Recommended Reading:

The Razor's Edge
Penguin USA

Of Human Bondage
Bantam Classic

Summing Up
Viking Press

pilot in World War I leave him so traumatized that he can't return to his old life in the US. He says he wants "to loaf"—his private code for finding the meaning of life. And so begins a journey of discovery that takes him from Paris cafés to coal mines to German libraries to a guru at an ashram in India. (Maugham himself visited an ashram in India in 1938, where he met a holy man known as the Maharshi—an unusual experience that not only helped inspire Razor but is recorded in A Writer's Notebook and in Points of View.)
         Now consider for a moment that this book came out in 1944, more than a decade before young people in America and Europe dropped out of colleges to go on spiritual quests, take bennies and listen to free verse poetry readings with jazz backup.
         In the hands of a lesser writer, Larry's enlightenment would be it—end of story. But the brilliance of the novel is that we follow Larry afterwards and see the effect of his new spirituality on his friends. Isabel, having given up on him and his poor (bohemian?) lifestyle in Paris, marries the slightly dim but loveable Gray. The stock market crash of 1929 robs them of their secure and wealthy life in Chicago, and the couple is forced to come to Paris and live as permanent guests of Isabel's Uncle Elliott, perhaps the most vividly created American snob in literature. (On his deathbed he declares: "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.") Larry returns to Paris where a financially humbled Isabel and Gray treat him as a dear family friend. He cures Gray's tension headaches with an Indian method of hypnosis. The gang's all here. But alas, Isabel has never really stopped loving Larry. Unfortunately for her, the gang is all here and she has a rival. Sophie has also drifted to Paris, reduced to being a drunken slut who slums in bars after the death of her husband and baby. Larry sets out to rescue Sophie and then to marry her. Isabel will have none of it. If she can't have him, she'll make sure Sophie can't either and so creates an elaborate scenario to tempt her friend into alcoholic ruin. Driven by self-hatred, Sophie flees to the opium dens and to men who will use her. Sainthood, Maugham implies, doesn't rub off, certainly not on Larry's old love or on his new one. "When it came to the point," Sophie explains, "I couldn't see myself being Mary Magdalen to his Jesus Christ."
         In real life, bad people don't always get what they deserve, and the treacherous Isabel is no different. With a large inheritance from Uncle Elliott, she will always be comfortable—but she won't have Larry, which is some consolation for the moralist reader. And what becomes of Larry? In one fell swoop, Maugham anticipates Kerouac; he decides to see America on the road. But unlike the motor-mouth reactive Id of Dean Moriarty, Maugham's hero is an informed, seasoned observer, able to fully appreciate America after graduating from Europe.
         The book's theme is spiritual discovery, but this is well-trod ground in our age, and we can give Maugham more credit than that for the book's resonance. With backdrops of Paris, the Riviera and India, there's a faint whiff of the bohemian to Larry and to tragic poet Sophie, but the characters have no affectations. Larry doesn't want to paint or gain fame, he simply wants to know. The novel strikes a chord because it is a brilliant portrait of friends drifting together and apart, with all the changing appraisals, disillusionment and occasional forgiveness that we bring to our own relationships.
         To achieve this, Maugham achieves unequalled suspension of disbelief. He injects himself into the narrative and presents his story as gossip. A narrator claiming these things actually happened is, of course, a familiar enough cliché of 19th century literature, and Maugham's own life straddled two centuries. "I have invented nothing," he tells us early on, and we follow him into this lie (He eventually admits to us well, yes, he has invented a few things.) But Maugham is writing in 1944, so he takes the old device and turns it inside out. He doesn't offer his tale in a linear way. He plays fly-on-the-wall with his characters, then wanders into his set as an extra. He leaves gaps. Years pass, and The Writer Somerset Maugham mentions how he's getting on with business before casually reporting second-hand news of Larry or Isabel.
         "I did not see Elliott till he came to London towards the end of June in the following year," he informs us at one point. "I asked whether Larry had after all gone to Paris. He had. I was faintly amused at Elliott's exasperation with him." Which is how we do hear about friends from others. It is Maugham our guide who runs into Sophie in Toulon and asks about her leaving Larry in much the same way we'd ask an old friend how a marriage broke up. When he finds her, she is hanging on the arm of a French sailor. "Dumb but beautiful."
         "You like 'em tough, don't you?" our narrator asks.
         "The tougher the better."
         "One of these days you'll get your throat cut."
         "I wouldn't be surprised," she grinned. "Good riddance to bad rubbish."
         She will get her throat cut. Sophie's fall is all the more vivid for her confiding to Maugham at a seaside café instead of in an argument with the hero. And it is Maugham, the narrator turned briefly into detective, who confronts Isabel back in Paris over her betrayal of an old friend:
         "You see, I was right; you cut her throat as surely as if you'd drawn the knife across it with your own hands.'
         'She was bad, bad, bad. I'm glad she's dead.' She threw herself into a chair. 'Give me a cocktail, damn you."
         This has a touch of stagey-ness to it—Maugham was by his time a veteran playwright—but the combination of violent feeling mixed with the banal intrusion of life going on and drinks being served still rings true. Larry does not face Isabel, nor can he. Now enlightened, why would he bother to confront her at all? Isabel can tell the truth because she is talking to Maugham and to us. "I want you to think well of me," she tells our narrator, who replies, "My dear, I'm a very immoral person. When I'm really fond of anyone, though I deplore his wrongdoing it doesn't make me less fond of him." Of course, it cannot be any other way for our writer-guide and man of the world.
         I was disappointed when Gore Vidal dismissed The Razor's Edge in an essay for The New York Review of Books in 1990. He found the narrative "relentlessly told" and the narrator "heavy, garrulous, and awkward..." (This from the weaver of narration with Julian and Burr!) Neither does Vidal care much for Razor's climax, which essentially involves Maugham sitting up all night in a brasserie while Larry fills in pieces of the plot and explains his spiritual journey.
         But the conversation into the night is, in fact, the point. Years ago, I ignored the movie My Dinner with Andre on the principle that I shouldn't pay to see two fellows have a good conversation when I could go find my own. The same should be true of prose, that good dialogue still craves narrative action, which is any book's promise of escape—unless you know how to break the rules and roll out a good yarn. Larry's late-night talk with Maugham works because we wouldn't accept his spiritual enlightenment otherwise. There is an old Creative Writing seminar commandment of "Show, don't tell" but it doesn't hold up very well when you're trying to portray the transcendent.
         We are with friends, and we are getting the account as a friend would. And people—especially young people—do talk about the meaning of life long into the night in bistros. There is, in fact, a brilliant touch of verisimilitude when Maugham interrupts all this serious talk with a quick scene of a whore getting slapped at a nearby table. When the manager rushes up, she tells him off: "If he slapped my face it's because I deserved it." Maugham turns his head and so do we. Back to coffee and Hindu philosophy.
         It isn't so much that Maugham wants to inform us what Larry has discovered as he needs to tell us that he has found it and the others haven't. Larry's quest is juxtaposed against Elliott and Isabel's social climbing and Sophie's self-destruction. "All the persons with whom I have been concerned got what they wanted: Elliott social eminence; Isabel an assured position... Sophie death; and Larry happiness." Like all good literature, the novel lets us make up our own minds over the characters.
         I use the term "literature" deliberately, even though Maugham is often kept off the literature shelf by Those Who Claim to Know. His style is easy and conversational, and I am sure this must be his sin. "The language is such a tissue of clichés," said Edmund Wilson, "that one's wonder is finally aroused at the writer's ability to assemble so many and at his unfailing inability to put anything in an individual way." While this may be true in part, I defy anyone to pick up one of the short stories or novels and not immediately feel involved in the unadorned declarative sentences. "I had known Elliott Templeton for fifteen years," he tells us in Razor. "He was at this time in his late fifties, a tall, elegant man..." Bang, we're off.
         Even Vidal admits to the master's influence: "It is very difficult for a writer of my generation, if he is honest, to pretend indifference to the work of Somerset Maugham. He was always so entirely there..."
         But Razor does suffer from two major flaws. Maugham confesses the first in his introduction—he know he can't put convincing dialogue into the mouths of Americans. Only Sophie approaches authenticity with expressions like "You betcha" and "What sort of a damn fool d'you take me for?" She still sounds too much like a gangster's moll. And Larry never quite comes into focus. He fades into blandness against the snobbish Elliott and tragic Sophie. If anything, his character is redeemed by that late night conversation, just as in real life when the friend of a friend finally lets you know what's been motivating him to stir up the pot all this time.
         I mentioned the book's cult following, and it also has inspired its own peculiar literary feedback. In 2001, V.S. Naipaul used Maugham and the Indian ascetic in Razor and A Writer's Notebook for rather vicious parodies in his own novel, Half a Life. The result, however, wasn't terribly effective. Paul Theroux (who, it must be remembered, has had an ongoing feud with his former mentor) wrote in the Guardian newspaper that Naipaul's story "ends nowhere" and is "about nothing." Perhaps a more interesting and more useful connection lies between The Razor's Edge and Christopher Isherwood, who helped Maugham translate the passage from the Katha Upanishad from which the novel takes its name. "The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard." Like Maugham, Isherwood would invent a famous narrator ("I am a camera...") and journey to India to meet a holy man. Unlike Maugham, he went beyond using India for fictional inspiration and studied Hindu texts and philosophy with a swami. Isherwood became so identified with his friend's novel, in fact, that he felt it necessary to write to Time magazine to set the record straight when his book Prater Violet was being reviewed. "I have only one mild word of protest,” he wrote. “I am not, as you have twice stated in your columns, the original, or part-original, of Larry in Maugham's The Razor's Edge. I can stand a good deal of kidding from my friends, but this rumor has poisoned my life for the past six months, and I wish it would die as quickly as possible."
         Anyone, however, who has dipped into Isherwood's My Guru and His Disciple can be forgiven for considering this book as Larry Darrell's journal—a continuation of that bistro talk into the late hours about Vedic teachings. And if memory serves, I myself discovered Isherwood's Berlin and his guru around the same time I was earnestly strolling through Larry and Sophie's Paris. For me, The Razor's Edge keeps its charm and its power because it offers that bohemian illusion along with its chimera of aesthetic enlightenment. I came back to studying the Bhagavad-Gita years after reading Razor—I also came back to Paris. I have discovered that as much as I like to be good, I also prefer to keep drinking wine.
         It remains a small tragedy that high school students are force-fed Of Human Bondage. The first third of Maugham's so-called masterpiece, which is largely autobiographical, is so bleak and dull that it has succeeded in turning thousands of teenagers off one of the most accessible novel writers in literature. Given power over a curriculum, I would gladly trade it for Razor. On the other hand, it would be a shame if this novel were to be dissected in a classroom. I wrote that the story is presented as gossip, and the book is best passed around like gossip. We can recommend the circle of friends in The Razor's Edge to folks we know; like Maugham, and we can deplore the faults of Larry, Isabel and Elliott while growing fonder of them over the years.