Ten years before the writers and poets of the Beat Generation burst onto the scene with “Howl”, Naked Lunch, and On The Road, Somerset Maugham devoted his most ambitious novel to the themes of Eastern mysticism and the search for meaning in an increasingly materialistic world. It wasn’t the first time Americans had embraced these ideas; the Transcendentalists and, later, the Theosophists had drawn on Asian religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism in the 19th Century.
When Maugham published The Razor’s Edge, in 1944, it struck a chord with readers on both sides of the Atlantic. They were disillusioned and war-weary, like the protagonist, and two years later it was made into a major motion picture, starring Tyrone Power and Herbert Marshall.
The story begins in 1919. Larry Darrell has returned from the war to his home town, Chicago, a very different young man from when he left. He’s engaged to marry Isabel Bradley, a beautiful young woman from a wealthy family, and he has a substantial job offer from the father of a friend. Larry turns down the job, and tells Isabel what he wants to do is “loatf”. He has a small inheritance, not much by Isabel’s standards, but enough to live on while he “loafs”. He leaves for Paris where he lives the bohemian life and travels around the country, reading, studying, and taking on hard manual labour when he feels the need to clear his head. For two years, Isabel stays in Chicago, waiting for him to get it out of his system, so he can come back and marry her and start building a life together.
They meet up in Paris, but instead of agreeing to come back to America, Larry says he intends to continue to travel, to read, and to search for that ineffable something he feels instinctively is out there – what we might call the meaning of existence. Isabel, unable to reconcile herself to marrying the only man she loves who will absolutely not live the life she wants, breaks off their engagement, goes back to Chicago and marries his best friend, Gray.
For most of the book, Maugham gives us few clues about the root of Larry’s existential angst. It certainly has to do with the war and his experiences in it. “The dead look so terribly dead when they’re dead,” he says. “I don’t think I shall ever find peace till I make up my mind about things . . . You say to yourself: ‘Who am I that I should bother myself about this, that, and the other? Perhaps it’s only because I’m a conceited prig. Wouldn’t it be better to follow the beaten track and let what’s coming to you come?’ And then you think of a fellow who an hour before was full of life and fun, and he’s lying dead; it’s all so cruel and meaningless. It’s hard not to ask yourself what life is all about and whether there’s any sense to it or whether it’s all a tragic blunder of blind fate.”
Larry’s story, while essential to the narrative, is only part of The Razor’s Edge. Isabel’s uncle, Elliott Templeton, is another main character. A fantastical, ridiculous snob, Elliott lives his life devoted to securing a place of note among the very rich and very fashionable, but he’s also a man of great kindliness and generosity. Gray Maturin, the millionaire’s son, is just a so-called regular guy but he adores Isabel and remains loyal to Larry throughout the book. When the stock market crashes in 1929 and he, along with everyone they know, is wiped out, he breaks down completely, giving the reader a chance to see a side of Isabel that is strong, sensible, and supportive. She does not love Gray, at least not in the way she loves Larry, but she cares for him and she makes him an excellent wife. With her help, by the end of the book, she and Gray are once again rich and on their way to becoming richer.
Finally, there is the tragic figure of Sophie McDonald, Isabel, Gray, and Larry’s childhood friend, who has lost her husband and baby in a car accident and sets out to destroy herself. In any other writer’s hands, Sophie alone would make a terrific subject for a story all by herself. But Somerset Maugham is not any other writer – he is, or was, a master storyteller, and his characters, from the lead protagonist all the way down to those with bit parts who just walk onto the stage briefly and leave, are so finely drawn you feel you would know them if you saw them on the street.
At the beginning of the book, Maugham says he has invented nothing. He’s taken the story of a man he knew and given him and the other characters different names, in order to protect their identities. This, of course, has led to years of speculation as to who was the basis for Larry Darrell. Several names have come up, including Christopher Isherwood, although Isherwood himself denied this. What’s more probable is that Maugham employed a certain amount of poetic license in creating a character who was a composite of several people he knew. The claim that he “invented nothing” is not meant to be taken literally; in his memoir, The Summing Up, he wrote, “Fact and fiction are so intermingled in my work that now, looking back on it, I can hardly distinguish one from the other.”
Maugham himself plays a part in the narrative, as the peripatetic writer who travels in and out of his characters’ lives, touching base with them every few years, observing the change in their condition and remarking on their fate. Several times, over the span of the story, he steps in to offer a word of guidance or caution, most notably when he lets Isabel know that she is to blame for Sophie’s death. He also provides us, near the end, with the opportunity to have Larry explain what he was doing all the time he was in India and how he came to find an answer to at least some of his questions.
Somerset Maugham described himself as a “resigned atheist”; he found the idea of God, especially one who would dole out rewards and punishment, to be outrageous. Larry feels much the same, but he doesn’t rule out the possibility of the soul’s continuation in some other form, reincarnated or otherwise. As someone firmly on the fence in these matters, I appreciate the sensitivity and fair-minded treatment Maugham gives these otherworldly issues.
Besides which, it’s simply a terrific read.
The Razor’s Edge (1944), was re-published in 1963 by Penguin Books; my own copy was printed in 1988.