I’ve yet to meet a Maugham novel I haven’t liked; I probably enjoyed this one the least of the four I’ve read so far and I still found it overall excellent.
The Razor’s Edge is somewhat similar to The Moon and Sixpence, the previous novel on my Maugham reading list. It also features a first-person narrator – in this case, Maugham rather bizarrely inserts himself into the story – who observes the people drifting in and out of his life over the span of years. At the heart of the story, there’s yet another character who chooses an uncompromising and unorthodox life path.
Larry Darrell is a young American who, at the start of the book, has returned a changed man after serving as an aviator in World War I. People around him, including his fiancée Isabel, are sympathetic, but they still expect him to engage in life and find a steady job that would support Isabel in a comfortable lifestyle she’s accustomed to. Larry however makes it clear that he has no interest in making money; his harrowing war experiences made him want to seek out the spiritual life and answers to the questions of God, life and death.
To be honest I found Larry and his quest for enlightenment the least interesting part of the novel. Saintly, not-for-this-world characters can often be hard to write, and just telling the reader how loveable and magnetic a character is and how scintillating his eyes are over and over doesn’t cut it. Also, if I had a drink for every time Larry smiles in the book, I’d probably pass out thirty pages in. I’m not necessarily numb to the stories of people forsaking material things and searching for meaning and truth, but I just didn’t find Larry’s wanderings particularly engaging. Later in the book it touches on the Eastern philosophy, which I suspect was a lot more revelatory and exotic back in the day the novel was first published, but reading about Hinduism in the context of a novel nowadays is a tad tedious.
Luckily, other characters are a treat; major or minor they’re all keenly observed and feel like real people with real flaws and virtues. While I wasn’t taken with Larry, the consequences his decisions have on the lives of other people are much more interesting. Isabel, who must make a choice between love and fortune, starts off as a fairly simple, charming young girl, but then gradually transforms into a more complicated character. Another book might have simply condemned her for embracing materialism instead of joining Larry in his higher spiritual life, but Maugham portrays her choices as understandable. She’s just an ordinary woman who wants security, likes nice food and clothes and isn’t interested in living in hovels. At one point her life takes a turn which, in a more preachy book, would have probably been a way to illustrate the wrongness of her decision, but again, Maugham is more subtle than that. Another great character is Isabel’s uncle Elliott, an unapologetic high society snob who steals every scene he’s in.
If I didn’t read The Moon and Sixpence I’d probably find the episodic structure of the book harder to take in. Because it’s strictly limited by the narrator’s perspective it can just randomly jump several years ahead before he happens to meet the characters again, and if he loses contact with a person, well tough luck you might never find out their ultimate fate. While I didn’t love everything about it, The Razor’s Edge is masterfully written and Maugham’s crisp clear language is just a pleasure to soak in.
P.S. While searching for the book cover pic, I found out that there exists a 1984 film adaptation with Bill Murray as Larry… which to me feels so weird I actually want to look it up.