Friday, 1 June 2012

W. Somerset Maugham- The Razor's Edge

The Razor's Edge
Vintage Classics
W. Somerset Maugham
1944

Other Maugham Reviews- Cakes and Ale - The Magician - The Razor's Edge

"It is very difficult to know people and I don't think one can ever really know any but one's own countrymen. For men and women are not only themselves; they are also the region in which they are 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. It is all these things that have made them what they are, and these are the things that you can't come to know by hearsay, you can only know them if you have lived them."

When I first picked this book up off the shelf, I had no real idea of what to expect. W. Somerset Maugham was just a name I'd vaguely heard of, but I really had no idea who he was, nor of the type of novels he wrote. The Razor's Edge caught my attention because, and this is somewhat shallow of me, the edition I found was a really nice-looking Random House vintage classic with an eye-catching Leon Benigni artwork cover (the one above, actually), and a back cover blurb describing it as exactly the type of book I'd like to read.

For the first one hundred and fifty pages or so, I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to say I enjoyed The Razor's Edge or not. Essentially, the book is a concentrated, dedicated character study involving a small cast of characters, following their lives over a series of important and meaningful character developments. One of these characters is Maugham himself; the author is both the narrator and a character in the book, albeit one whose purpose is to provoke the other characters into personal conversations with personal revelations and private admissions, and who slips in and out of their lives with gaps of a year or more before returning.

W. Somerset Boss Mustache
The real lead character in the book is the enigmatic Larry Darrell; a young veteran of the second world war whose life changes dramatically as he finds a new age direction in it. Larry breaks off his engagement to his fiance Isabel, then moves from Chicago to Paris, and then to the East of the world as he searches to explore his own spirituality and for answers to the great questions of life. Maugham, Larry, Isabel, and Isabel's second choice husband Gray Maturin then all meet semi-regularly in Paris, catching up with the changes in each of their lives.

It took me a little while to get into this book, particularly regarding the style and purpose. Maugham isn't interested in directly exploring the adventures of these characters for the sake of the event, but instead writes reels of conversational dialogue that gets to the heart of each of his characters without being ham-fisted or seeming unnatural. By the end of the book I felt as a reader that I'd been given a brief glimpse into a real life, albeit one seemingly influenced by other notable authors of the era. Maugham, an English writer takes a distinctly American tone with his mostly-American characters, and touches on aspects of The Great Gatsby and other Fitzgeraldian tones with perhaps a hint of earlier George Orwell in the style of the narrative prose. Ultimately I enjoyed the book, but wasn't bowled over by it. I do want to read Maugham's other famous work, On Human Bondage, but there's no rush to persue his bibliography just yet.