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the razor's edge

28 november 2011

I first read The Razor's Edge when I was in college, in 1978, in an early book-club edition I found in my grandmother's attic and still possess. Thirty-three years ago is about half the age of the novel itself at this point; but the changes in the world between 1944 and 1978 were so thoroughgoing that it barely seems any more dated in 2011 than it did when I first read it. In 1978 I was close to the age of the young people in W. Somerset Maugham's novel – to Larry Darrell in particular, the dreamer who throws up a chance at a career and marriage in order to travel the world and learn what there is to learn. I probably found Larry inspiring; Maugham certainly means him to be. The next year, I started graduate school in English literature, which seemed like a close approximation to Larry's project of giving away all his money and living on philosophy alone.

I'm older now than Somerset Maugham was in 1919, when the novel begins (with Maugham as narrator and character). I'm almost as old as Elliott Templeton, Maugham's foil in the novel: queenly and arch, an absurd social climber who ends up climbing up out of the top of European society and dreams of a heaven that will segregate the hoi polloi. I certainly read the novel much differently now than I did when I was Larry's age. I would have told you in 1978 that the book was about Larry; it now seems to me that it's about Templeton, and about Maugham himself, at least the fictionalized version of him at the center of the novel.

It's also about the craft of novel-writing. The Razor's Edge is about as metafictional as fiction can get. Maugham starts the novel by reflecting on the process of writing a novel: this won't be one, he explains, because it's just some stuff that happened to him. Of course it isn't; everything in The Razor's Edge is fiction, including the character of Somerset Maugham. But to frame the fiction as naturally as possible, Maugham casts it as non-fiction. If this is hard to follow, that may be a surprise; one usually thinks of Somerset Maugham, if at all, as the most conventional of throwback storytellers, a Victorian out of place in the 20th century.

To the extent that The Razor's Edge is the story of Larry Darrell, that story gets packed into the novel's sixth chapter, one that Maugham prefaces by saying that the reader "can very well skip this chapter without losing the thread of such story as I have to tell" (194). He adds that without Chapter Six he "should perhaps not have thought it worth while to write this book," but it's tempting to take him at his word and at most skim the chapter, if not skip it entirely. Chapter Six is Larry's exposition of the Indian philosophies that caused him to realize that the West – and the trust fund that has allowed him to go to India in the first place – offer only the most illusory of answers to life's questions. It's a chapter of metempsychosis and abnegation. You sort of already know what it says before it says it; the best thing in it is the acidulous voice of Somerset Maugham himself telling Larry that the whole worldview sounds like the greatest rubbish.

Somerset Maugham obviously knew what Tolstoy and Dostoevsky had figured out long before. You may write novels with a philosophical purpose in mind – you may intend them to be rhetorical, indeed in modern academic parlance theoretical – but people don't really read them for the arguments. The point of Anna Karenina may be to follow Levin as he arrives at many of the same conclusions about the best way to live as Tolstoy did; readers finish the book to see Anna's misadventures with the 5:37 to Minsk. You don't even need to read The Brothers Karamazov to read "The Grand Inquisitor"; the book's long philosophical heart is often excerpted to be read separately, and conversely you can simply skip it if you want to find out what happened to the wacky Karamazovs. Chapter Six of The Razor's Edge is a digression in the Bayardian manner, a bit of philosophy that doesn't need its novel.

Yet to judge from the reviews on amazon.com, Chapter Six is the novel, and the surrounding 215 pages are a way of getting there, a way of counterpointing at best and vamping at worst till one learns the deep philosophical truths about Larry Darrell. Like the producers of the two film versions, and like my own 1978 self, Amazon readers tend to think of The Razor's Edge as the saga of Larry's quest for the meaning of life. Amazon reviewer Anthony P. Mayo makes the interesting point that the surrounding material helps show Larry better. But clever as that suggestion is, it didn't represent my reading of the book in 2011. Larry is little affected by the many things that happen to the other characters in the novel, and they are ultimately little affected by him. Maugham presents Larry unironically and with complete admiration. (That admiration is underscored, oddly enough, by the character Maugham telling Larry off for being an idiot, and making stupid fun of everything Larry says: there couldn't be a better way of ensuring that Larry gets a full hearing.) Larry is about as good as a person can be. He's too good for the world: and his surroundings are as worldly as they could possibly be.

While Larry disappears for chapters on end to follow his Yogis into ashrams, Elliott, Isabel (Elliott's niece and Larry's ex-fiancée), Isabel's husband Gray, and a host of other intensely unascetic people live as materialistically, pruriently, and selfishly as they can. Maugham's sympathies are hardly with these fools, who are all shallow, grasping, or both. But he casts himself as utterly one of them. It's hard to think of a less reliable narrator – to the point of purporting to play no role in the story where he gives himself the largest part and all the best lines.

The dated elements of the book lie in its depiction of a society that was on the brink of fading from human interest even in 1944. It's the high society of France, the milieu of Marcel Proust, with the transatlantic contrasts of Henry James and a strong dash of Evelyn Waugh and Noël Coward. (There are many marvelous parties.) Larry, at novel's end, may become a cab driver in Manhattan; Maugham deliberately loses track of him. Larry, that is, enters a real world that still flourishes; he leaves behind a world that has shrunk ever since into the most marginal of minority cultures: still wealthy, still privileged, but even by 1968, let alone 1978 or 2011, massively beside the point. Maugham tells Isabel that Larry's "America will be as remote from your America as the Gobi desert" (242). Maugham takes his imaginary leave of Isabel with a wonderfully dismissive and prescient passage:

I have never been to Dallas, but I supppose that, like the other American cities I know, it has a residential district within easy motoring distance of the business section and the country club where the affluent have fine houses in large gardens with a handsome view of hill or dale from the living-room windows. (245)
Yes, Mr. Maugham, it does and it's still there. But most of your readers live much more in Larry's world than Isabel's.

Maugham himself remains the most fascinating character in the book – though give me another few years and I may be insisting that Elliott is more fascinating. Maugham presents himself as exceedingly marginal to high society, someone vouchsafed glimpses because he's a successful writer. He presents himself as once having been poor, never having been a gentleman, and having no pretensions whatsoever. Elliott is his double in many ways. Both are bachelors (in the novel, at least; Maugham was in real life a divorcé with a daughter). Both are gay, but closeted, and exhibit no gay identification or desire (though Maugham does quote his most truth-telling character, Sophie Macdonald, as calling Elliott a "cissie"). Elliott Templeton allows Maugham to represent himself in the novel – expatriate, closeted queen, man of the world – while at the same time making vicious fun of himself and admiring a kindness and generosity that he foists onto Elliott, leaving himself (the character Maugham) rather cold and bitchy.

I can't begin to explain how skillful this is as fiction. But even to extol the aesthetic brilliance of The Razor's Edge is to call its value into question. Nobody values novels any more for narratorial brilliance. They have to say something. The Razor's Edge says little about gay life, even about the dimensions of the closet. It says little about the unspeakable of high society in the 1920s and 30s that isn't said better elsewhere, and it says little about Hindu philosophy that is worth reading. It says nearly everything about how a writer can create a fiction, if he is utterly sure of his technique and determined to pull out all the stops of the genre "novel" itself.

And The Razor's Edge is still in print and still being read, though it is getting harder to make anything out of it, and it may collapse some time in the 21st century into sheer self-referentiality. That would be a shame. It is a book from a hand that taught what might be said in prose.

Maugham, W. Somerset. The Razor's Edge. Philadelphia: Blakiston, 1944.