Monday, August 12, 2013

The Razor's Edge, by W. Somerset Maugham

A few years ago, I read what is probably Maugham's best-known book, Of Human Bondage and was less than thrilled with it. I seem to remember flipping through somewhat impatiently, wishing that the narrator would pull himself together and take charge of his life rather than tormenting us readers with his gloomy and miserable introspection for several hundred pages.

Since then, I've resolved to give each book a fair chance, and if it hasn't convinced me that I should spend more time with it after, say, the first 100 pages, I'm going to set it aside. There are two drawbacks to this plan. First, e-books have no page numbers, so it's a matter of guesswork when I have reached the 100-page mark, and second, setting a book aside unfinished leaves me feeling not resolute but defeated. I just enforced this new policy on Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, and especially after being so enthusiastic about The Heart of the Matter, I felt sure this was my failure, not Mr. Greene's.

The Razor's Edge was on Anthony Burgess' trusty list of 99 best novels, and this list has served me well, so I gave it a go. I loved it. It was a timely reminder that we rarely respond consistently to an author's various works. I've given unbroken thumbs up to Hilary Mantel and David Mitchell, and equally persistent thumbs down to Saul Bellow, but most authors have elicited a wider range of reactions, and Maugham is one of those.

The Razor's Edge opens with an epigraph, a passage from the Katha-Upanishad:  "The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over ; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard."  This immediately captured my attention, because it struck me as incongruous, a bit esoteric for an English novel of this period (pub date 1944). Moreover, the book doesn't have the typical structure of a novel -- it reads more like an extended series of journal entries, a pastiche of character sketches with the narrator, Maugham himself, relaying his conversations with them over a period of decades. Blessedly, Maugham has a brilliant eye for characters, and although his observations might fall into the category of highbrow gossip, they are enough to draw readers in and keep them curious.

First he introduces us to Elliott Templeton, an American who has wheedled his way into the uppermost reaches of European society in the early 1900s. Elliott's place in the best salons and dinner parties is his crowning achievement, the proof of his success after many years of ingratiating himself with the right people.
Believe me, my dear fellow, the average American can get into the kingdom of heaven much more easily that he can get into the Boulevard St. Germain.
When he travels to Chicago to visit family, Elliott invites Maugham to come along. Here he meets Isabel Bradley, Elliott's effervescent niece. She comments upon his "power of observation", the acuity of which will send her into tantrums later in the book.
"Uncle Elliott says he's often been surprised at your power of observation. He says nothing much escapes you, but that your great asset as a writer is your common sense."
"I can think of a quality that would be more valuable," I answered dryly. "Talent, for instance."
It is at this same dinner party that Maugham meets Larry Darrell, Isabel's fiance and the central character around whom the story revolves. Larry returned from WWI seemingly a bit shell-shocked, but now, a year later, he still seems disinclined to align himself with a profession. Adrift is the word, and Elliott insists that Isabel not marry the young man until he has settled down in a suitable line of work. Everyone adores Larry -- he is very congenial -- but they all agree that he's marching to an unconventional drummer. In a conversation with two of Larry's friends, Maugham gets confirmation of his own sense that Larry is on a spiritual quest, and even a life in the arts is unlikely to get him where he wants to go.
"A degree would be of no use to him. I have an inkling that he had a definite idea of what he wanted and felt he couldn't get it at a university. You know, in learning there's the lone wolf as well as the wolf who runs in the pack. I think Larry is one of those persons who can go no other way than their own."
"I remember once asking him if he wanted to write. He laughed and said he had nothing to write about."
"That's the most inconclusive reason for not writing that I've ever heard," I smiled.
Long before the Beats and the Beatles made their eastward pilgrimages, Larry journeys to India and is mesmerised by the holy men that he meets there. He follows one guru for some months and then, after an ecstatic vision during a mountain retreat, he thanks his teacher and returns to Europe. He tells Maugham, who listens politely, about this experience and about the yogi.
"And what had he got that particularly attracted you?" Larry looked at me for a full minute before answering. His eyes in their deep sockets seemed as though they were trying to pierce to the depths of my soul. "Saintliness." I was slightly disconcerted by his reply. In that room, with its fine furniture, with those lovely drawings on the walls, the word fell like a plop of water that has seeped through the ceiling from an overflowing bath.
Meanwhile, since Larry had not responded favourably to her ultimatum, Isabel married a mutual friend of theirs, Gray, a young and wealthy financier who adores her and can afford the lifestyle she craves. As Maugham runs into them here and there, in Europe and the US, when their fortune was intact and in tatters after the Crash, he realises that Isabel has never stopped loving Larry, impractical though it is.
Gray was driving and Larry was sitting beside him; Isabel and I were at the back. We were tired after the long day. Larry sat with his arm stretched out along the top of the front seat. His shirt-cuff was pulled back by his position and displayed his slim, strong wrist and the lower part of his brown arm lightly covered with fine hairs. The sun shone goldenly upon them. Something in Isabel's immobility attracted my attention, and I glanced at her. She was so still you might have thought her hypnotized. Her breath was hurried. Her eyes were fixed on the sinewy wrist with its little golden hairs and on that long, delicate, but powerful hand, and I have never seen on a human countenance such a hungry concupiscence as I saw then on hers. It was a mask of lust. I should never have believed that her beautiful features could assume an expression of such un-bridled sensuality. It was animal rather than human. The beauty was stripped from her face; the look upon it made her hideous and frightening. It horribly suggested the bitch in heat and I felt rather sick. She was unconscious of my presence; she was conscious of nothing but the hand, lying along the rim so negligently, that filled her with frantic desire. Then as it were a spasm twitched across her face, she gave a shudder and shutting her eyes sank into the comer of the car. "Give me a cigarette," she said in a voice I hardly recognized, it was so raucous. I got one out of my case and lit it for her. She smoked it greedily. For the rest of the drive she looked out of the window and never said a word.
Now Maugham's keenly observant eye is something that Isabel resents, and his bluntness in conversation aggravates her further. The writer asks her if she regrets her decision to marry Gray, and indeed, if she ever thinks of divorcing him.
"I've got no reason for divorcing him."
"That doesn't prevent your countrywomen from divorcing their husbands when they have a mind to."
She laughed. "Why d'you suppose they do it?"
"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."
Meanwhile, Elliott is aging and times are changing in Europe. The old aristocracy is slowly giving way to the nouveau riche. As with every other profession, the senior socialite must keep a chary eye on those who would supplant him.
Paul Barton was the young American whom Elliott had introduced into London society and who had aroused his hatred by dropping him when he no longer had any use for him. He had been somewhat in the public eye of late, first because he had adopted British nationality and then because he had married the daughter of a newspaper magnate who had been raised to the peerage. With this influence behind him and with his own adroitness it was evident that he would go far. Elliott was very bitter.
"Whenever I wake up in the night and hear a mouse scratching away in the wainscoat I say, 'That's Paul Barton climbing.'"
In one of the most insightful passages about Elliott's demise, Maugham describes a Princess who declines to invite Elliott to a party at her chateau on the Riviera. Maugham tries to console his friend by reassuring him that the hostess is not worth the heartbreak.
She was not a bad sort, generous and hospitable, and her only grave fault was her malicious tongue. She could not help saying beastly things about even her intimate friends, but she did this because she was a stupid woman and knew no other way to make herself interesting. Since her slanders were repeated she was often not on speaking terms with the objects of her venom, but she gave good parties and most of them found it convenient after a while to forgive her.
Elliott, however, sees this snub as the end of an era, the end of his era.
Elliott, sitting up in bed, rocked to and fro like a woman distraught. "Oh, it's so unkind," he said. "I hate them, I hate them all. They were glad enough to make a fuss of me when I could entertain them, but now I'm old and sick they have no use for me. Not ten people have called to inquire since I've been laid up, and all this week only one miserable bunch of flowers. I've done everything for them. They've eaten my food and drunk my wine. I've run their errands for them. I've made their parties for them. I've turned myself inside out to do them favours. And what have I got out of it? Nothing, nothing, nothing. There's not one of them who cares if I live or die. Oh, it's so cruel." He began to cry. Great heavy tears trickled down his withered cheeks. "I wish to God I'd never left America."
Ever the loyal friend, Maugham contrives to speak with Miss Keith, the Princess' dour Scottish secretary in an attempt to finagle an invitation for Elliott. Miss Keith, however, is no soft touch. She's been working for the wealthy for too long.
"You know what she is. She's got a down on him. She crossed his name out on the list herself."
"He's dying, you know. He'll never leave his bed again. He's awfully hurt at being left out."
"If he wanted to keep in with the Princess he'd have been wiser not to tell everyone that she goes to bed with her chauffeur. And him with a wife and three children."
"And does she?"
Miss Keith looked at me over her pince-nez. "I've been a secretary for twenty-one years, my dear sir, and I've made it a rule to believe all my employers as pure as the driven snow. I'll admit that when one of my ladies found herself three months gone in the family way when his lordship had been shooting lions in Africa for six, my faith was sorely tried, but she took a little trip to Paris, a very expensive little trip it was too, and all was well. Her ladyship and I shared a deep sigh of relief."
When Elliott at last leaves this vale of tears (without having attended the party in question), Maugham imagines what sort of heaven might await him. It would necessarily be exclusive.
I suspected that Elliott saw the celestial habitations in the guise of the chateaux of a Baron de Rothschild with eighteenth-century panelling on the walls, Buhl tables, marquetry cabinets and Louis Quinze suites covered with their original petit-point. "Believe me, my dear fellow," he went on after a pause, "there'll be none of this damned equality in heaven."
Maugham begins the final chapter of the novel on an odd note:
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 that I had with Larry. I should add, however, that except for this conversation I should perhaps not have thought it worth while to write this book.
And in this last chapter, Larry reveals his own journey, which, although peripatetic, feels like the most solidly grounded aspect of the whole story.  At one point, distraught as he tries to comprehend the evils he witnessed during the war, Larry speaks with a priest, Father Ensheim, who offers some advice.
"'Then you've been reading for four years? Where have you got?' " 'Nowhere,' I said. "He looked at me with an air of such radiant benignity that I was confused. I didn't know what I'd done to arouse so much feeling in him. He softly drummed his fingers on the table as though he were turning a notion over in his mind. " 'Our wise old Church,' he said then, 'has discovered that if you will act as if you believed belief will be granted to you; if you pray with doubt, but pray with sincerity, your doubt will be dispelled; if you will surrender yourself to the beauty of that liturgy the power of which over the human spirit has been proved by the experience of the ages, peace will descend upon you.'"
Larry spent his life following the advice of a wide assortment of spiritual guides, both in person and in print, and in the end, by Maugham's estimation, did arrive in a state of relative grace. Wondering how to conclude the story, Maugham finally decided that it was a story of success for everyone involved:  Elliott achieved social success, Isabel also lived a life of comfortable security and social status, and Larry consistently developed his spiritual enlightenment. I couldn't help but feel that Larry's life was ultimately the one of greatest contentment, but I don't know if that's what Maugham intended to suggest, or my own preferences at work.

Not too long ago, I downloaded an ebook, The Lives of the Novelists by John Sutherland.  I find it useful as a reference book rather than a volume to read cover to cover. Sutherland's chapter on Maugham rang especially true after reading The Razor's Edge. It made me realise that the author put much more of himself into the character of Elliott than into the character of Larry. And that wickedly keen sense of observation, impressive though it was, earned him some enemies.
The eye that looked on was cold and, in later life, was everywhere seen as reptilian: "The Lizard of Oz," Noel Coward called him.
Maugham once wrote that he was 1/4 homosexual and 3/4 heterosexual and only later admitted that he'd got the numbers backward. He married a wealthy divorcee, Syrie Wellcome, when she became pregnant, but it was a short and unhappy marriage. Thereafter he stayed with men, including his secretary, Alan Searle (whom Sutherland classifies as rough trade). These relationships may have been more authentic, but they scarcely seem happier, and his end sounds every bit as fraught and tragic as Elliott Templeton's.
He visited England regularly until the publication of a late-life memoir, Looking Back, in 1962. It was judged ungentlemanly in its attack on the recently dead Syrie, and led to his being ostracised by fellow members of the Garrick. It devastated him. Alone with Alan, he wept and wept -- the two of them returned to the Mauresque -- and Maugham never came to England again. Three years later he died, aged ninety, mad, raving and wretched.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like an absolutely charming book, with grim bits thrown in for good measure. Maugham is a genius, even if not very consistent.


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