The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham is the first Maugham I have ever read. I’ve had every intention of reading Maugham for years but if it weren’t for the Outmoded Author Challenge it could have been many more years before I got around to him. Razor’s Edge was first published in 1944 and was Maugham’s last major novel. The book takes place mostly in Europe, particularly in Paris, between the wars. All of the main characters but for the narrator are American. The narrator, a British writer who happens to be named Maugham, tells the stories of Elliott, Isabel, and Larry. There are other characters whose stories also get told, but these three are the main ones.
Elliott is a rich American who lives in Paris. His goal in life is to achieve social eminence. Appearances are everything to him. You have to be seen wearing the right clothes with the right people in the right places. Isabel is Elliott’s niece and at the beginning of the story is only twenty and engaged to Larry. She is clever and pretty and is a definite product of her wealthy upbringing. She doesn’t question the values of her set, nor does she consider that there might be more to life than marrying, making loads of money, having children and giving dinner parties. This of course puts her in conflict with Larry. Larry lied about his age and ran off to fly planes during World War I. During the war one of Larry’s friends gave his life for Larry’s. This had a profound affect on Larry who was not able to return to America and live a “normal” life afterwards.
Larry has a small income, enough to get by without working, and so spends his time “loafing” as he calls it. But he is far from loafing. He is searching for answers to life’s big questions. He wants to know if there is a God and he wants to know why there is evil in the world. His loafing involves spending hours reading. When Larry turns down a job in his best friend’s father’s brokerage firm and decides to live in Paris for a couple of years, it pretty much spells doom for him and Isabel. To her credit she accepts his move to Paris. However, she fully expects that this is just a phase and after he is done sowing his wild oats or whatever he’s doing–she doesn’t understand Larry’s existential crisis–she is certain he will come back to Chicago, take the job at the brokerage and make lots of money. This, as she sees it, is his duty. When the break up comes it is an amicable parting and the two remain friends.
Over the course of the book we follow Elliott who gets richer and richer and even manages to sell all his stocks and buy gold before the market crashes. He achieves the heights of society. But in the end, when he is old and near death, there are few who truly care about him.
Isabel marry’s Gray, Larry’s best friend and the son of the owner of the brokerage firm. Gray makes loads of money. Isabel has two daughters and gives tasteful dinner parties. They lose everything in the stock market crash. They move to Paris where they are supported by Elliott for a couple of years until Gray recovers his health. At which point they move back to America and Gray makes back all the money he lost in the market and then some. But though Isabel is fond of her husband, she wishes he were Larry.
Larry travels Europe and Asia, has some interesting experiences and reads lots. He winds up finding enlightenment in an ashram in India. Larry is happy and content and at peace. He is a good, kind, caring person. He is the kind of person we all wish we could be and try really hard to be but always fall short. He is not perfect, but he is a representation of what we might call our better selves. He is not a symbol or an allegory or anything though, he isn’t a Christ figure, he’s just one of those rare people who are truly and only themselves all the time.
With these three characters and all the others I haven’t mentioned, Maugham shows us various lives and their outcomes and leaves it to us to make the value judgment. He does not condemn Elliott or mock Isabel, nor does he lift Larry above all as a shining example. What he does do, however, is show that we are all looking for something, our lives are all a journey toward a goal, and he shows these various lives and journeys and what it means to achieve that which is desired. No one’s journey is easy.
The book was enjoyable reading. There was only one spot near the end where Larry was explaining Hinduism to Maugham that things veered into a bit of a lecture. And while I found it annoying that Maugham was the narrator and kept making comments about how he came to know certain pieces of information even though he wasn’t present at the time they happened, I got used to it for the most part. Razor’s Edge is not a deep, philosophical novel, it’s more philosophy lite. As such, it makes the reader contemplative but not overly so. Still, it’s better than a good deal of contemporary fiction that aims for the same thing Maugham did. Why he doesn’t get read more often is a mystery. Perhaps it is time for a Maugham revival.