The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham has sold millions of copies in many formats- hardback, paperback, classic, even two movies. But recently I was gifted again the edition that I have always regarded as the original, rightly or wrongly, since it lay for years amongst my father’s books, along with Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and Emile Zola’s Nana.
It’s the pocketbook edition with the edges of the pages stained in ruby red and the cover picture of a clean-cut, brilliantined American hero holding up the expectant face of a wavy haired, equally American heroine against an inky blue, star-filled sky. So once again — after more than three decades decades — I was away on the same journey, following through the observant and perceptive eyes of Maugham, the spiritual voyage of an American pilot, Larry Darrell, as he searches for meaning in a post war world and ends up finding it in India.
Not in a hurry
It wasn’t till I was at least 30 pages into the novel (Maugham: “If I call it a novel it is only because I don’t know what else to call it.”) until I realized what was happening to me. I was having to pace down my mind as I read. The book was unlike any other novel I have read in recent years. It was not a novel in a hurry tumbling over its own verbal gymnastics and nor was it going to be a flurry of different voices telling the tale from different viewpoints.
This was going to be a story which the writer would tell in his own time. There would be asides and walks along byways, there would be conjecture and speculation. And if the reader was in a hurry, he would only run into a closed door again and again.
So I took several deep breaths, added another pillow and let myself be taken in hand by the narrator, in this case Maugham himself, as he weaved in and out of the story of the main characters, describing their lives and interactions over several years and ending, as he says, “neither with a death nor a marriage.”
There is the fabulously detailed Elliot Templeton, the society man par excellence till his dying day; the beautiful but limited Isabel and her steady, unromantic husband; the unfortunate and doomed Sophie as she turns from poet to drunken libertine and Larry himself, the restless soul seeking the Knowledge and the meaning of God and life. There are detailed leisurely descriptions of Paris in all its vagrant and seductive moods.
There is observation and perceptiveness in the narration that only Maugham is capable of; there is sympathy and kindliness as well as the inevitable rapier thrust. (“American women expect to find in their husbands a perfection that English women only hope to find in their butlers.”)
The heart of the book is tucked towards its end, in a night long conversations between Larry and Maugham as Larry details his travels in India, his stay at an ashram, his discovery of a Guru and his attainment of self-knowledge at an ecstatic moment.
Reams have been written about who the real Larry was. Did Maugham base his story on an American engineer named Guy Hague, whom he could have met at the ashram of Ramana Maharishi when he visited India in 1938? Did he base the story on a chance conversation in 1919 when a young man at a party told him that he wanted to do something interesting with his life? Was the story written many times in earlier attempts, even before Maugham came to India? Did Maugham actually faint when he entered the Maharishi’s presence or was it simply the heat?
Naipaul, in his Half a Life has parodied (but surely that must go to Maugham’s credit?) the westerner’s adventure with eastern spirituality.
Nevertheless it is worth remembering that the book was prescient in this aspect. It was written in 1944, before the beatniks started playing around with dharma, or the Beatles found the Maharishi in Rishikesh or the flower children swayed to Ravi Shankar’s sitar.
It was before all that Maugham saw that one day the West, traumatized, exhausted, over-indulged, may come seeking the East. So he wrote this exquisite novel and chose for its epigraph a verse 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.