W. Somerset Maugham – The Razor’s Edge

There’s a story behind this review and, as all stories must, it involves a pretty eyed boy and a girl who thought she knew everything. The short version is thus: your bookslut had never heard of William Somerset Maugham – a man who just happened to be a pretty eyed boy’s favorite author. For Christmas, I received two novels by W. Somerset Maugham: The Razor’s Edge and The Magician. It makes my heart happy when someone I love points me in the direction of a book like this – a book I can see, taste, smell – a book I can see myself in. Maybe it’s the influence of a pretty eyed boy or maybe it’s that sensation I get when I FEEL the words of a book, but The Razor’s Edge is on my “special” shelf.

William Somerset Maugham was one of the most popular authors of the 1930s and it escapes me as to how I’d never come across his name or his works. I guess when you turn your back on the canon and the works of dead white guys, you miss out. A novelist, playwright, and short story writer, Maugham’s body of work is quite extensive. The Razor’s Edge (1944) was one of his last major works and has a bit of a Gatsby-like quality to it.

It is the story of Larry Darrell, a World War I veteran on a search for self, meaning, and God. While the story is his, it’s not. I felt that so much of the life in this story is found in the women that love and are loved by Larry – Isabel Maturin and Sophie Macdonald. (I saw myself in Sophie in ways that made me uncomfortable.) Perhaps the most memorable character is Elliott Templeton – a snobby art dealer who doesn’t quite understand that he’s a snob. Elliott is the narrator’s tie-in with the rest of the odd bunch that the story revolves around.

The story opens with a bit of an explanation and is billed as a “true account.” Maugham is the narrator and an active participant in the actions. The only time he is referred to by name (at least that I recall) is when Larry refers to him as “Mr. M”. I usually take issue with books about authors and as I read the first chapter, my heart was already turning against this work. But I quickly abandoned any prejudice I had and fell head over heels.

A brief summary will tell you that Isabel, Elliott’s niece, is engaged to Larry. Sophie is one of their friends, as is Gray. Money, prestige, power and privilege soak the pages of the novel and their social circle. But Larry, after watching a man die during the war, is removed. He wants to find salvation. He wants to find God so he can understand God. And he realizes the path to God isn’t paved in money and social standing. Isabel never quite understand that, and when Larry decides to travel on his quest for self, she marries Gray – a man accustomed to the finer things in life and a man who can afford her rich taste. Sophie appears early on as a quiet girl at a dinner table. She doesn’t show up again until Paris at a seedy bar where she’s drunk, doped up, and fucking away her troubles. She’d lost her husband and child and her search for self resulted in burying herself and her memories. Her eyes were only green and alive when doped up, as the dear author noticed. At this point, Gray has lost all his money after the crash and the family is living off of Elliott’s generosity in Paris. Larry is visiting. Larry decides to marry Sophie. To save her. Sophie bails on the arrangement and later tells our narrator: “Darling, when it came to the point, I couldn’t see myself being Mary Magdalen to his Jesus Christ. No, sir.” Of course, things aren’t nearly that simple as Isabel is at the core of her decision to walk, no, run away from Larry. And it’s jealousy that prompts Isabel’s actions. The female jealousy wears a fancier coat than that of jealous of men which bears arms, but it cuts just as sure and quick in the end. The narrator tells her she’ll end up with her throat cut. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” she grinned. “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”

There are parts of the novel I would cut completely. I realize that the parts I’d cut are really what the story is supposed to be about, but there is so much more lurking in the pages for me to focus my energies on Larry and his search for God. What Maugham says about love and money and society far outweigh any faith points for me. I also think the story could have been stronger if presented differently; parts of the story seem misplaced and the narrator apologizes for such placement and tries to explain as he is telling the story. This was jarring and disruptive. That said, it was intentionally jarring and disruptive. There’s not a mark in this book that wasn’t thoughtfully considered and purposely placed. Books like this, structured like this, fleshed out like this, are works of art. Books like this are why I don’t read genre fiction often. Books like this are what make me a booksnob.  I don’t have to like what he did – but I sure as hell respect it.

I could write much more about the story, the settings, the cast of characters, and the use of words, but I could never do it justice. Let me just say that Maugham is a man I have added to my list of writers I want to have a pint with and just listen to the stories they tell.

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