From its widest scope, The Razor’s Edge looks at the meaning of life from at least six different viewpoints. Those views belong to six characters (or seven if you include the author, W. Somerset Maugham, who plays himself in this novel), all of whom live in the privileged classes in the years between the world wars in the early twentieth century. Most of their life-views are similar, except for that of Larry Darrell. Prompted by his experiences in WWI, Larry becomes a seeker-of-truth and so comes to eschew (for himself) the materialism of his rich friends. His existential crisis drives him to abandon the US for Paris, leaving his fiancee behind. To his friends, he is a bewilderment, and he stimulates conversations about his nonconformity but makes no converts. The book is largely an examination of Larry’s search for spiritual enlightenment contrasted to the materialistic pursuits of his friends, especially Elliot Templeton.
The Razor’s Edge was twice made into movies, in 1946 and 1984. I saw only the 1984 one where Bill Murray played the part of Larry, and it varied significantly from the book. Still, it piqued my curiosity enough to see it a couple of times and to finally read the novel, which is much better.
In the novel, Larry Darrell returns from WWI, where he served as an aviator, to Chicago and the rich friends he grew up with. He is engaged to Isabel Bradley, but his changed perspectives make him delay the marriage so he can return to Paris for a couple of years where he intends to search for some meaning in life beyond the conventional. Isabel waits for him, but after the two years she finds that Larry doesn’t want to return to the US. He feels his journey of enlightenment has just begun and he doesn’t want to abandon it. So he splits with Isabel. She returns to the US and eventually marries Gray Mautrin, a well-to-do man who affords her the comfortable life she desires.
Larry continues to seek the spiritual life in France, Poland, Germany, and finally in India. When he has achieved a degree of enlightenment, he tries to save the life of the “wanton woman,” Sophie MacDonald. Sophie was a childhood friend who had a penchant for poetry, but she became an alcoholic and drug addict in adulthood. She gets with Larry for a while and seems to be trying to reform, but she falls off the wagon before they can marry (through the machinations of a jealous Isabel), and she abandons him.
Larry recovers from the loss of her and carries on his quest until he finds redemption in the spiritual. His old friends in Chicago find their own sort of redemption in their more materialistic pursuits.
This story is told solely from the viewpoint of it’s author, W. Somerset Maugham (as a character in the novel), who relates the other characters’ stories as they are told to him. Mr. Maugham was an English novelist known for pulling heavily from “real life” to provide the characters, themes, and plots for his stories. It seems that for The Razor’s Edge, he had a conversation with a man who had sought and found enlightenment in India, and it impressed him enough to base a novel on it. That man was the model for Larry Darrell, and there have been those who tried to deduce who it was. I think a good candidate was found, but I’ll leave that discovery as an exercise for the reader.
Mr. Maugham seems to have been an astute observer of life, and it shows in the character portraits he paints in The Razor’s Edge. These are recognizable characters, even for those of us who don’t frequent the haunts of the “upper classes.” He paints in-depth characterizations for the two characters who are opposites in many ways, yet alike in others: Larry Darrell and Elliot Templeton.
Elliot is an uncle to Isabel and is acquainted with all the other characters. He is rich and very materialistic. He lives for rich society and attending parties where he can hobnob with the wealthy, the famous, and the royal. He is connoisseur of art and wine, and may even deal in art on the black market. But, as with all the characters in this novel, he is not a “black and white” personality. There is plenty of gray in him. Though shallow in many ways, he is very caring. He provides for his sister in her old age, and for his niece and her family when they are wiped out by the crash of 1929. He becomes a Catholic in order to make social connections, but he becomes such a pillar of faith that the local Bishop considers his faults as only “surface.”
Larry Darrell, for all his spirituality and good humor, shows himself to be very self-centered and one-track-minded to the point that he can be quite abrupt with others. He leaves without a word of consideration, and appears unfeeling towards those that love him.
Such grayness in personality is typical for all the characters in this novel, and it adds a big dose of realism beyond most such works. Consequently, I identified with many of the feelings expressed, or at least, recognized many of them. For instance, there is a general consensus among the characters that Sophie MacDonald is just a low-life, born that way, and it’s the only way she’ll ever live because that’s the way she wants to live. For instance, Isabel says of Sophie:
“Evil doesn’t spring from good. The evil was there always. When that motor accident broke her defenses it set her free to be herself. Don’t waste your pity on her; she’s now what at heart she always was.”
I’ve heard that sentiment expressed many times, and it may not always be unwarranted. I have, indeed, known people who seem to just desire to live at a very low level. In this novel, it seems that’s what Sophie wants. Even so, in the midst of it all, she asks Mr. Maugham for a signed copy of one of his books. Apparently understanding his doubts, she tells him: “I can read, you know.”
And in her youth, she wrote poetry. So maybe people shouldn’t be written off so quickly. Maybe, she’s just given up on herself too quickly, or is so fearful of death and loss that she wants her joy now. The way she puts it:
“Life’s hell anyway, but if there is any fun to be got out of it, you’re only a god-damn fool if you don’t get it.”
And with that attitude, it’s maybe understandable why she breaks off her engagement with Larry. Though Larry is sincere in wanting to help her, it may be that she understands their incompatibility more than he does. She tells Mr. Maugham:
“Darling, when it came to the point I couldn’t see myself being Mary Magdalen to his Jesus Christ. No, sir.”
Larry is hurt by her abandonment of him, and by her eventual death, but he is the ardent seeker. He keeps on seeking.
And it’s Larry who is the most interesting character for me in this book. He’s the most interesting for all the book’s readers, I’m sure. Though he is flawed in the way he handles social relations, he is single-minded in his search for enlightenment, and will not allow any detriment to his quest.
Larry’s nonconformity is a bewilderment to his friends. They cannot understand why this rich young man does not want to follow the usual pattern of going into business and making more money than he can ever spend, get married and have a big house and fill it with lots of kids. They say of him:
“Well, he can get a job.”
“That’s just it. He’s not trying to. He seems to be quite satisfied to do nothing.”
“A man ought to work. That’s what he’s here for. That’s how he contributes to the welfare of the community.”
These attitudes that Mr. Maugham describes, struck me as so very similar to the story Daniel Quinn tells in My Ishmael about the young man, Jeffrey (in the chapter, “My God, It Isn’t Me!”).
For such people, the normal way of the world is just not enough. It seems Mr. Maugham understood that. And so when Isabel begs Larry to leave Paris and return to “normal” life in Chicago, Larry says:
“I can’t darling. It would be death to me. It would be the betrayal of my soul.”
I can understand that. There are people like that, and Mr. Maugham says of them:
“…there are men who are possessed by an urge so strong to do some particular thing that they can’t help themselves, they’ve got to do it. They’re prepared to sacrifice everything to satisfy their yearning.”
Part Six of the book contains the conversation Mr. Maugham has with Larry concerning the time Larry spent in India, and the ultimate illumination he found there. It is, apparently, an accounting of the real-life conversation Mr. Maugham had with the person he later recreated as Larry Darrell, that so impressed him that he had to write a book around it. In this section, Larry is presented as more verbose than he is anywhere else in the book. He is talkative, and he tells of what he experienced, and learned, from the wise men he found in India.
This part was represented very inadequately in the film version of the story I saw. Mr. Maugham presents it beautifully, and, I think, expresses the idea that enlightenment comes to each of us (if it comes at all) very individually. For Larry, it was a moment of seeing, really seeing, the sunrise:
“…I can’t tell you, so as to make you see it, how grand the sight was that was displayed before me as the day broke in its splendor. Those mountains with their deep jungle, the mist still entangled in the treetops, and the bottomless lake far below me. The sun caught the lake through a cleft in the heights and it shone like burnished steel. I was ravished with the beauty of the world. I’d never known such exaltation and such a transcendent joy…I had a sense that a knowledge more than human possessed me, so that everything that had been confused was clear and everything that had perplexed me was explained. I was so happy that it was a pain and I struggled to release myself from it, for I felt that if it lasted a moment longer I should die; and yet it was such rapture that I was ready to die rather than forgo it…”
There’s very much more in this book, and it’s very quotable, so I’m giving no spoilers here.
As I’ve indicated, this is a much more character-driven, rather than plot-driven, book. And as such, Mr. Maugham says a good bit on a number of things. One that struck me as interesting was his thoughts on money, specifically, on having enough of it. At one point, Larry is considering giving away the wealth that allowed him to travel without concern for money, and live truly day-to-day. Mr. Maugham advises him against it with words that indicate the true value of money beyond any greed to just accumulate it:
“It’s given me what I value almost more than anything else in life—independence. You can’t think what a comfort it’s been to me to think that if I wanted to I could tell anyone in the world to go to hell.”
And then, Larry has an interesting comment about writing and publishing when he tells Mr. Maugham about the book he wants to produce:
“I’m only writing it to get all that material out of the way, and I’m publishing it because I think you can only tell what a thing’s like when you see it in print.”
In other words, he wants to use writing as a way to process all the experiences and ideas he has accumulated, and see it all as a whole in the form of a book. I can understand that.
So I really liked this book. I like that it’s not shallow, with the characters either good or bad. It’s also not a condemnation of rich people and an advocating of poverty as the path to enlightenment. Rather, like the Buddha, it suggests a middle path.
I highly recommend The Razor’s Edge for anyone looking for insight into finding themselves.