Monday, July 31, 2023

W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge (#ParisInJuly-just in time!)

"I'm counting the days until I can get back to Paris. It's the only place in the world for a civilized man to live."

It hurts me to report the speaker was in Chicago when he said it.

W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge comes out in 1944, but the events end before the Second World War and start in 1919. 

Elliott Templeton (our Paris booster) is in Chicago to visit his sister. The narrator of the novel (a novelist much like Maugham himself) is passing through Chicago and has lunch with Templeton, an old acquaintance. He also meets most of the other figures of the novel: Louisa Bradley, Templeton's sister; his niece, Isabel Bradley; Larry Darrell, Isabel's fiancé, Gray Maturin, who's in love with Isabel, rich, and whom her mother and uncle discreetly would prefer she marry; and Sophie Macdonald, a friend of the younger generation.

It's Larry Darrell's decisions that drive the action of the novel. He had lied about his age and managed to fight as a pilot for the French during WWI. The horrors he saw there, the fact that his life was saved by a friend who died in the process, have left him wondering about the big questions. He still loves Isabel, he says, but he wants to spend two years at least on a quest to discover the meaning of existence. (That's Bill Murray as Larry in something approaching a Hindu seeker's garment on the cover of my beat-up movie tie-in edition.) Larry wants to marry Isabel, but not to give up his search, and suggests that they live on his small inheritance while he continues. In his search, Larry reads philosophy (William James, Spinoza!), makes a retreat at a Benedictine monastery, and eventually travels to India.

But, after Spinoza, and before the monastery, Isabel says unh-unh to that proposal of impoverished seeking; instead she marries Gray Maturin, who was patiently waiting at her side. They have two children and a life of great social and financial success. Until 1929.

I think the novel is usually viewed as a story of spiritual seeking, and it is, of sorts. The Wikipedia article compares it to Hesse in its early (by Western standards) interest in Eastern spirituality. But Larry is not often on the scene, and the novelist character/narrator only meets Larry occasionally over the fifteen or twenty years of the novel. "I can only guess, you know, and I may be quite wrong. I think he's been seeking for a philosophy, or maybe a religion, and a rule of life that'll satisfy both his head and his heart." 

There's one long discussion about philosophy between Larry and the narrator in an all-night Paris café, which might be a little dull. But:

"I feel it right to warn the reader that he can very well skip this chapter without losing the thread of such story as I have to tell, since for the most part it is nothing more than the account of a conversation I had with Larry. I should add, however, that except for this conversation I should perhaps not have thought it worthwhile to write this book."

Hmm. I might still have felt it worthwhile to read it without that chapter, but it is important that Larry not just be an object of fun, but that his quest be taken seriously. And so it is. Still the diffidence and irony of the narrator means that while he takes Larry's quest seriously enough, it's not taken completely seriously, and there are other possibilities.

And in fact Elliott Templeton is present in much more of the novel. He's quite an amusing character who clearly codes as gay, though he's never explicitly described as such. He made his money as an art dealer, though his trading days are so vanishingly far behind him that he won't acknowledge they ever existed; he spends his time cultivating high-status social acquaintances. He's compared to Proust at one point, and not since Recherche has there been quite so much concentration on breaking into the Boulevard St. Germain. I found him the most entertaining character. His pronouncements are sometimes shocking, and maybe we shouldn't like him:
"I have always moved in the best society in Europe and I have no doubt I shall move in the best society in heaven. Our Lord has said: The House of my Father hath many mansions. It would be highly unsuitable to lodge the hoi polloi in a way to which they're entirely unaccustomed."
But at the same time he, too, is treated with real tenderness by the narrator.

Some bad things do happen, and at one point the narrator ends up in a police office in the matter of a dead girl:
    "'We found a number of detective stories in her room and two or three volumes of poetry. There was a Baudelaire and a Rimbaud and an English volume by someone called Eliot. Is he known?'
Our narrator can be amusingly catty himself:
    "Why d'you suppose they do it?" [get divorced]
    "Don't you know? Because American women expect to find in their husbands a perfection that English women only hope to find in their butlers."
"A novel which she knew from the beginning (otherwise she wouldn't have read it) would end happily."
Is that the sort of novel we're reading? Well...
" my intense surprise it dawned on me that without in the least intending to I had written nothing more or less than a success story. For all the persons with whom I have been concerned got what they wanted: [Spoilers!] And however superciliously the highbrows carp, we the public in our heart of hearts all like a success story; so perhaps my ending is not so unsatisfactory after all."

Anyway, maybe I'm not one of those highbrows after all, but just another member of the public, and so I thought it was a good read. 😉

One from my Classics Club list.

And squeezing one late-breaking entry in for Paris in July!


  1. Oh wow, I had not realized the connection with Paris. I haven't read him yet. I see the author was actually born in Paris, and spoke French before he could speak English!
    Thanks for your input

    1. I hadn't really realized either how much of it was in Paris, and what wasn't in Paris was in the south of France.

      I also don't know Maugham well (some short stories & essays) but now I'm inclined to read more. I don't think this is even supposed to be his best novel.

  2. Intriguing review! I'm not sure I can face a book like this, though. A kind of seriousness I don't indulge in these days.
    best, mae at

    1. Though it centred around a spiritual quest, it was still funny enough to keep me going.

  3. I'm very interested in reading this book, and I have it on my list. Maybe I will save it for next July in Paris?

    I laughed aloud at your first two paragraphs.

    1. Most of the novel is in Paris, and another large chunk in the south of France, so it definitely fits.

    2. Great. Definitely adding it to my list for 2024!

  4. I'm a fan of Maugham...though this book is not one of my favorite. I do like it, though. :D

    1. I've scarcely read Maugham at all, so that's good news! I liked this one, and if the others are even better...

      Which do you particularly recommend?

  5. I liked Edge because I like spiritual quest novels. Good thing Elliott Templeton didn't see Paris in the 1930s. I recently read Elliot Paul's A Narrow Street aka The Last Time I Saw Paris. Expatriate journalist Paul’s description of the fraying of civil society as war’s destruction and chaos loom is heartbreaking because he’s so good at bringing to life the decency of ordinary people; and their consternation that their leaders are letting them down and catastrophe was going to result.

    1. Templeton does make it into the 30s, but he turns against Paris (in his Elliott way) and moves to the South of France. No poor bohos for him.

      I like spiritual quest novels as well, but I wasn't perfectly sure how seriously to take Larry's quest. Maugham the author takes Larry's quest seriously and likes him for it, but how much real spiritual insight does Larry achieve? Maugham's light irony (which I like) makes it a little hard to be sure for me.

      The Elliot Paul sounds interesting. I'll have to keep an eye out for it.

    2. I recommend RE short stories, read the stories set in SE Asia and all of Ashenden esp. "Mr. Harrington’s Washing." Novels worth reading: The Moon and Sixpence, The Painted Veil, Cakes and Ale, and The Narrow Corner. He did his part in the between the wars boom for travel writing: On a Chinese Screen and The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey from Rangoon to Haiphong.
      My review of Edge

    3. The SE Asia stories were the ones I had read, once upon a time before going there on business. (As well as Burgess' great Malaysia trilogy.) I've also read a couple of non-fiction volumes of his on literature. This was fun. I do need to read more of his stories & novels.