Book 24: “The Razor’s Edge”, W. Somerset Maugham

Some individuals can make a profound difference in our lives, and The Razor’s Edge is testament to this. The book is auto-biographical and biographical. It is written as a recount of the author’s own experience, but it is about another, Larry Darrell, whose life makes a profound difference to others. (In fact, this book was recommended to me by an individual who made a profound difference in my life. Funny how these things happen.)

The book is lengthy and written in five parts. It follows Larry from his young college days through a journey, both spiritual and literal, culminating with the achievement of a degree of self-actualisation. Maughan’s account of this journey is replete with other fine characters: Elliot Templeton, a wealthy American ex-patriate who enjoys haute culture; and Isabel Bradley, Larry’s ex-spouse, who, like Templeton, lives pretty well.

I enjoyed this book spiritually. It sits in my emotional memory alongside excellent meals with friends – maybe it isn’t hugely insightful, maybe it doesn’t change my life, but it is a time very well-spent. It may not alter my life, but it certainly adds to it.

One such pleasure exists in Maugham’s observations about life. Good writers, I daresay, have a certain sixth sense about the world, about our lives, about our relations. Maugham seems to have this and puts it to good effect, his pearly paragraphs evidencing a piercing  understanding of our world. Consider,
In all big cities there are self-contained groups that exist without intercommunication, small worlds within a greater world that lead their lives, their members dependent upon one another for companionship, as though they inhabited islands separated from each other by an unnavigable strait.

While not beautiful per se, this opening paragraph does display Maugham’s ability to step outside a society and reflect upon it.

Or what of,

For men and women are not only themselves; they are also the region in which they were born, the city apartment or the farm in which they learnt to walk, the games they played as children, the old wives’ tales they overheard, the food they ate, the schools they attended, the sports they followed, the poets they read, and the God they believed in.

Now, I’ve read a little identity theory, I get what Maugham is saying here. Surely if I hadn’t though, I’d be struck nonetheless by this obvious revelation. Maughan nails it – and my understanding of people deepens. This occurs throughout the text. In all, Maugham’s observational prowess enriches both the novel and the reader.

Before leaving this point altogether I’d like to add that, curiously, the book is excellently paced but suffers from some clichéd prose. Regarding pacing, the story never happens too quickly or too slowly. At times it moves gently, but this never feels slow – it’s more like chewing on well-made rye than swallowing litre after litre of watery soup. Charting an entire lifetime of personal growth with his novel, Maugham has a significant duration to play with, and he shows excellent discretion, neither overburdening nor shortchanging the reader. There is though some underwhelming cliché. I may be wrong – it could be that Maugham was the first to use what has since become a hackneyed phrase. If I’m right though, Maugham has apparently seen fit to include some fairly rudimentary phrasings. Specifics allude me but it’s fairly predictable – clouds being fleecy, mornings being misty, lips being rosy etc. etc. etc.. While this is not by any means iniquitous, it is noticeable in what is otherwise an excellently written book.

Thematically now, this is a great book to read in adolescence, mainly because of the focus on Larry. (Though I’m now 21, I’m aware that ‘adolescent’ comes from the latin word meaning ‘to grow up’. I’m still growing up and I’m still happy to get better at it.) The author first meets Larry when the latter is an insulated and selfsome teen, but, continuing to meet him at subsequent stages of his life, Maugham is able to chart Larry’s own becoming a full person. We see Larry reject his fiancé, abandon employment, look for greater purpose, visit the orient, and return to others whose lives have turned out quite differently to how they expected. Larry’s grappling with existential questions mirrors my adolescent experience and presumably that of others. Larry’s life demands answers, if not to “what is my purpose?” at least to “what do I want to do with my life?”. Larry’s willingness to ask these questions and his bravery in seeking answers is a valuable demonstration of just what can be made of a life.

Finally, and incidentally, I enjoyed reading about high society! I’m not quite about to live as the landed gentry do, but there is an undeniable quality to it. Is it the fine dining? Is it the absurdly contrived social etiquette? Is it the banter? I don’t know, but I am fond of any society of which it can be non-ironically written,

“I’ve always said that eight was the perfect number,” said Elliott, determined to look on the bright side of things. “It’s intimate enough to permit of general conversation and yet large enough to give the impression of a party.”

 Of course, I now intend to entertain only in groups of eight.

The Razor’s Edge. Brilliant observations. Compelling narrative. Titillating portrayal of aristocratic life. The only thing this book lacks is insight into bringing down dictators. It’s a good one.

Buy a copy from Amazon

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