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 Razors 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 Amazon.com 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
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. Larrys experiences as a fighter
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
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
In the hands of a lesser writer, Larry's enlightenment would be it
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
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
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
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
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
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
!) 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
was at this time in his late fifties, a tall, elegant man..." Bang, we're
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
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
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
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
. 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
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
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
. 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
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.