Sunday, April 04, 2010

[Books] Book Look: The Razor's Edge, by Somerset Maugham

Book Look: The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham: I chose to read this for two reasons. First, I know that early in his career, Bill Murray fell in love with this book and agreed to play the lead in Ghostbusters provided the studio would let him (and his cohort John Bynum) make a movie of it. The movie got mixed reviews and I haven't seen it, but since I'm a fan of Murray's work I was curious what he saw in the book that so affected him.

The other reason is that in the course of my web wanderings I ran into a comment to the effect of, "When I was young I thought I wanted to be Larry Darrell, but then I chose to be Dick Diver instead." Now, Larry Darrell is the lynchpin character of The Razor's Edge, I'll get to him in a second. Dick Diver is the protagonist in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night. I would put Tender is the Night up against any novel, and Dick Diver against any character, in literature. So if this Larry Darrell was a comparable sketch, it was worth a shot.

Well, it was bound to fall short of my high expectations, but it hung in there pretty well. First off, let me say the Maugham is an extremely skilled at drawing characters. There are five or six major ones in this work and their images are clear as a bell. In fact, I would say the characters are almost all there are. We follow them across many years, and through hardships, and each subsequent encounter with them cements who they are and how they act, each staying true to form for the situation. But that's also part of the problem. They don't really change all that much; nobody really goes on a journey here. Not even the aforementioned Larry Darrell, although I can see why it might seem like he does.

We first meet Larry as a young man having just returned from a fairly traumatic stretch in WW1. He has none of the usual ambitions of a young man; no interest in a career, though he's had offers. He has a small stipend and is content to while away the hours in intellectual and philosophical pursuits, activities he refers to as "loafing." His diva of a fianc‚, Isabel, keeps hoping he'll snap out of it and join her in the material high-life, but he can't bring himself to do it. Waiting the wings is his friend Gray, goodhearted to his family but hardhearted in business. It is an open secret that Gray is in love with Isabel. Under the influence of her uncle Elliot, an incorrigible old world socialite with aristocratic delusions but a deep love of family, she accepts the practicality of the situation, breaks with Larry, and marries Gray. However, she continues to carrying something of torch for Larry.

Over the course of the narrative, Gray goes bust in the Great Depression, but keeps himself intact, with some help from Larry and his love of his family. By the end of the book he's back in the saddle, about to begin new predations in business. Isabel, sticks by Gray through the hard times and learns to live with less, perhaps making her wonder if she wouldn't have been happy with the life Larry offered. In time, the money begins to return and she slides back into her diva-esque ways, to a harrowing point with respect to her possessiveness of Larry. Elliot continues on, barely touched by the economic collapse around him, bobbing the swirling in the waves of European high society. His petty battles with the blue-blooded contrast with his kindness in providing for Isabel and Gray when they go bust. And Larry...

Well, Larry turns into a friggin' hippie. Of sorts. Larry, it turns out, is on a quest for Meaning or God. Perhaps traumatized over his war experiences, he is overwhelmed with the need to seek knowledge and metaphysical understanding. He does a stint in a coal mine in Bonn. Takes a job on a freighter and eventually ends up in India, where he lodges for a couple of years with a yogi and gains great mystical insights. In time he returns and hooks up with the old gang in Paris. He even, perhaps somewhat arrogantly, acquires a new fianc‚; this one a childhood friend who has turned to drink and opium, and whom he thinks he can heal. It doesn't end well. At the close, Larry is on a steamer bound for the States, planning to work as a mechanic and drive a taxi in New York and do other sorts of manual labor while quietly spreading the word about beauty and knowledge and the enlightenment of the East. Or something like that.

Here's the thing. Apart from being annoying, people who find themselves on grand spiritual quests that dominate their lives are crushingly tedious. And they generally lack irony or lightheartedness (which makes it odd to me that Bill Murray would be attracted to such a character). Maugham goes to great pains to explain the Larry is not the least didactic and that his spiritual comments seem weightless as though he were talking about the weather, but that doesn't work. You can't have a character go on for pages of high-minded rhetoric the turn around a say, "but it didn't come off as high minded." It does.

It's probably true that when Maugham wrote this (early '40s), there were fewer of these types around. It probably took Kerouac or Castenada or Then Came Bronson to generate swarms of people in pursuit of this wandering enlightenment and make them living into clich‚s. Such people were more of a novelty back then. But the real-life value of ultimate spiritual journeys aside, people on them just aren't that interesting. You go down a couple of paths of conversation and then all the steam runs out. The trappings of the sorry material world make up most of the stuff of conversation and human interaction. "OK, well, it was good talking to you. Look me up when you have your next holy revelation." The other characters in The Razor's Edge are much more interesting, striving to succeed in their own shallow milieus, making the best of their lives in the face of their flawed humanity. Saintliness doesn't make for good fiction.

Getting back to my original point, in the end everyone is pretty much the same person when they started. Isabel is snooty and true to Gray, while still loving Larry, just like at the outset. And Larry is the same as when we first met him as a young man; although much more worldly, he is still on a single-minded quest for spiritual enlightenment. Elliot is in pursuit of societal status while readily making monetary sacrifices for those he cared about to the very end. (For this Maugham narrow-mindedly implies he wasted his life on such shallow notions, when in fact, he was the one who kept the world together and grounded in reality. Sounds successful to me. I found Elliot to be the most interesting character of all.) The character arcs are trifling. It is a fistful of portraits through time. This may have been what Maugham was going for. At the end, in his role as narrator, he's seems to indicate that he sees no lessons learned either.

Should you read The Razor's Edge? Probably. I may have come off negative on it but I am not at all. I suppose I am mostly reacting to the contrast between what I have heard and read about it and the experience of reading it. It is a wonderful book. Maugham writes with great clarity. He places himself in it by name as the narrator and doesn't hesitate to break the third wall by directly addressing the reader or offering reminders of what came before. It is not a "hard" read by any stretch. And it is compelling. I blew through it pretty enthusiastically. Although not on much of a journey, the characters are interesting and I cared about them. I should also point out that I am definitely in the minority with respect to my somewhat muted reaction. There are plenty who have this on their reading bucket-list. No harm in putting it on yours.