Saturday, September 18, 2010

Review of the Day: The Razor's Edge

The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham has always made me skittish because I thought it was a boring book about a WWI veteran's search for inner peace and enlightenment. (Not that a search for inner peace and enlightenment is boring – at least not for the person doing the searching – but it’s not a page turner.)

No need for such worries. Larry's quest is only one part of the book and is woven into a lively story about Chicago millionaires, 1920s Paris society, marriage, art collecting, the stock market crash, and life on the Riviera. There are half a dozen remarkable characters and a lot going on.

Elliott Templeton, an American expatriate living in Paris, is the central character who brings the other characters together. He is an arbiter of style and taste, a social butterfly, a discrete dealer in art and antiques, a Catholic convert, and an unrepentant snob. Altogether, he is one of the most complex and interesting characters in modern literature.

The cast of minor characters is equally impressive, including the tragic Sophie MacDonald who has a taste for liquor and rough trade:
She was outrageously made up, her cheeks rouged to the eyes and her eyelids, upper and lower, heavily blued; her eyebrows and eyelashes were thick with mascara and her mouth scarlet with lipstick. . . . She looked more of a slut than any woman there and I had a suspicion that she was not only drunk but doped.
Her eyebrows were mascaraed. Now, there’s a scene that sticks.

There is also a fascinating metafictional angle to the book because Maugham himself is the narrator. He starts with this: "I have never begun a novel with more misgiving." He writes about his other novels, he gets introduced to the various characters because he is a famous novelist, and they interact with him as an author, although not an author writing about them – his perspective is definitely historical. The technique might be gimmicky if tried by a new author, but Maugham pulls it off.

The narrative sags a little during Larry’s long description of his trip to an ashram in India. His discussion of Eastern mysticism and reincarnation was, no doubt, avant-garde and even provocative back in 1944, but hasn’t aged well. The whole passage has a Buddhism for Beginners feel to it.

But this is a negligible criticism. The Razor’s Edge is a terrific novel, worthy of being read and read again.

The Story Girl

(If you would like your review of this or any other Somerset Maugham book listed here, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it.)


The Razor's Edge is on Anthony Burgess's list of Top 99 novels. That's 29 down, 70 to go.

I have been on a Maugham jag ever since listening to Ten by Maugham, a collection of short stories.  That led me to crack open my two volume set of short stories and get going on some of the novels.  I really need to add him to my list of authors. And I may have to re-read Of Human Bondage.

Oh, my goodness. There really is a book called Buddhism for Beginners.  I had no idea.

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