Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

The eastern philosophy, popularized by W. Somerset Maugham in this 1944 novel, had a profound impact on American and British culture in the decade’s following the book’s publication. I am quite obviously the product of the 1960s counter-culture influence which embraced religious diversity, studies in Transcendentalism, Buddhism, Sanskrit, and many others. The Razor’s Edge is the masterpiece that helped influence the 1950s Beat Generation and those wild flower children I grew up with. I saw the 1946 film version starring Tyrone Power on television long before I read the book. I own a first-edition hardcover and this 1955 Cardinal paperback edition. Maugham was a wonderful fiction writer; his prose is measured but lively and infused with his sharp intelligence. Larry Darrell had seen enough horror during World War One, after after being released from the Army he commences on a journey seeking enlightenment. Larry’s influence on others at various parts of his journey provides the novel its framework. Two women, Isabel and Sophie, are key players as is Elliott, his wealthy friend. Larry’s enlightenment includes his discovery of a personal spiritual power by way of the mystics of India. Darrel is attempting and succeeds in finding value in a world that is often meaningless, which is the existential theme Maugham used in several stories. Spirituality versus materialism would quite naturally become a point of discussion for the Beat Generation and Hippie cultures who found merit in Darrel’s odyssey. Maugham never hits readers over the head with these ideas, but allows them to take form in the dialogue and actions of the characters. Several of Darrel’s materialistically focused friends suffer set-backs and misfortunes while giving the impression of suffering from a spiritual void. Darrel, by comparison, finds ways to flourish during difficult circumstances. I think by now the basic plot is known by most avid readers, and the book is a perennial best-seller. Some prefer Maugham’s Of Human Bondage over The Razor’s Edge, and I agree that Of Human Bondage is fantastic. But The Razor’s Edge is one of those special books the literati love. In my home, it fits nicely on a bookshelf with Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, Hunger by Knut Hamsun, Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse, Journey to the End of the Night by John Ferdinand Celine, and On the Road by Jack Kerouac. At some point, all of these will be covered on this blog. 

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