Habitual Mood

The Razor's Edge (Maugham)

Habitual Mood

Somerset Maugham - The Razor's Edge in particular - was important in my readerly development for introducing the idea that a novel didn't require the presence of detectives, space ships, wizards, or super spies to make for absorbing entertainment. I suppose I read eight or nine of his books in my early 20s, but I haven't picked any up since. Maugham is an interesting figure: an enormously successful author of plays and fiction, he was routinely dismissed by critics and his more highbrow contemporaries, and he remains somewhat marginal. Yet his major books are in print, and as I have discovered in the last few days, his writing retains its appeal, to me at least.

The Razor's Edge is set in the years immediately following the First World War, and later during the Depression. Maugham, who appears in the text as both narrator and character, is on a jaunt to Chicago and via an old friend (art dealer and arch-snob Elliot Templeton, a wonderful character) becomes acquainted with a clique of young Americans. They are a conventional bunch: wealthy, attractive, and certain that a bright future awaits. Maugham is drawn to one of their number, Larry Darrell, an injured war veteran who stands out as quiet, dreamy, and non-materialistic. When the group reconvenes in Paris, Larry has begun a quest for intellectual and ultimately spiritual knowledge. The story goes on to contrast Larry's gradual divestment of materialist trappings with his friends' status seeking amid the boom and bust of the 1920s and 30s.

Maugham is not a flashy writer, but his plain style works well for the most part. His major sin, aside from some predictable odd stuff about women, is an annoying habit of over-describing physical appearance. There's a lot of "deep eye sockets" and "sensual mouths", and sometimes the descriptions run to comical length:

He looked very young. He was about the same height as Elliott, just under six feet, thin and loose-limbed. He was a pleasant-looking boy, neither handsome nor plain, rather shy and in no way remarkable. I was interested in the fact that though, so far as I could remember, he hadn't said half a dozen words since entering the house, he seemed perfectly at ease and in a curious way appeared to take part in the conversation without opening his mouth. I noticed his hands. They were long, but not large for his size, beautifully shaped and at the same time strong. I thought that a painter would be pleased to paint them. He was slightly built but not delicate in appearance; on the contrary I should have said he was wiry and resistant. His face, grave in repose, was tanned, but otherwise there was little colour in it, and his features, though regular enough, were undistinguished. He had rather high cheekbones and his temples were hollow. He had dark brown hair with a slight wave in it. His eyes looked larger than they really were because they were deep set in the orbits and his lashes were thick and long. His eyes were peculiar, not of the rich hazel that Isabel shared with her mother and her uncle, but so dark that the iris made one colour with the pupil, and this gave them a peculiar intensity. (pp. 19-20)

Got all that? It's like the extended description of the eponymous setting in Cold Comfort Farm: "Its stables and out-houses were built in the shape of a rough octangle surrounding the farm-house itself, which was built in the shape of a rough triangle" etc.

There's nothing post-modern about Maugham embedding himself in the novel; if anything, it playfully recalls the appeal to documentary realism sometimes found in early novels. ("If I call it a novel it is only because I don't know what else to call it." p. 1) The device allows Maugham to use a second venerable technique, the nested tale, his own narration co-opted at various points by characters bringing Maugham up to speed.

The word "storyteller" has a hint of tweeness about it these days, but that's the best description of where Maugham's talents lie. I had a vague memory of how the novel played out, but by the time I was fifty pages in I was engrossed. The structure is cleverly done, skipping around in time, and between characters, in such a way that the various elisions of information feel natural, the product of an international lifestyle where people might vanish from one's life for years at a time. Maugham starts off as a kind of disinterested observer, but gradually becomes more active as a character, an amusingly bitchy one at that. Maugham depicts himself as a man who is as comfortable interacting with minor royalty as he is ordering drinks in a Parisian dive, allowing the story to easily shift between social milieux.

Larry could have been a mawkishly earnest figure, but Maugham imbues him with enough individuality and grit that he makes sense as a person, not just as a symbol of spiritual yearning. He is a genuinely likeable young man, a rarity in 20th century fiction! It helps that Maugham is attracted to, but remains skeptical of, Larry's project. Maugham's pervading cynicism has the consequence that he accepts - or depicts himself as accepting - the whole of a person's character, good, bad or indifferent. Even cruel or villainous actions are depicted with empathy. Maugham can be judgmental, but he's not a hanging judge.

For all its cynicism, The Razor's Edge is at heart a romantic yarn: Larry really does forge his own path in life, and in the process achieve something like enlightenment. It's a resonant theme, anticipating the West's post-WW2 preoccupation with Eastern religion and alternative spirituality. Fastidiously non-committal Maugham comments that in the end, "all the persons with whom I had been concerned got what they wanted", whether that be social status, spiritual happiness, or simply death. I suppose that's Maugham's way of saying that it takes all sorts.


The next Commonplace Classic on my slate is Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton.

#books #commonplace classics