Book review: The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

Although it seems like a cliché, finding oneself is a bigger challenge than it may seem. The protagonist of this novel, Larry, is a young man and veteran of WWI who leaves his comfortable life behind in Chicago and heads to Paris to read and think about life and what’s important. He is of the upper classes and grew up among snobs and wealth but after a traumatic experience in the war, he decides to go in search of something else – the acquisition of knowledge. When we meet him, he spends an entire day in the library of a gentlemen’s club reading The Principles of Psychology by William James.

Larry’s transformation is significant, he travels to India and discovers meditation and spirituality. Maugham’s literary objective was to compare and contrast the practice of the simple inner life of Larry with the materialistic, wealthy life of leisure that Larry’s friends live. The weakness in the premise is that money was still the key to Larry’s transformation. He did not seek money and wealth, he didn’t covet it, but he had some cash. Larry never has money problems, never overspends, and so can afford to do nothing. If he were broke, he would’ve spent his days chasing after cash to survive.

Oddly, the narrator is Maugham as himself and he adds a dash of metafiction to the narrative mix when he acknowledges the reader within the text. M. Somerset Maugham was one of the most popular writers in his day. His most well-regarded novel is Of Human Bondage and The Razor’s Edge was filmed twice: in 1946 with Tyrone Powers and again in 1984 with Bill Murray of all people which may be one of Murray’s only dramatic roles.

The questions asked in this novel are: What is the meaning of life? Why do we do what we do? What is worthy of our time? Our narrator sums it up thus, after the death of a frivolous friend…

“It made me sad to think how silly, useless and trivial his life had been. It mattered very little now that he had gone to so many parties and had hobnobbed with all those princes, dukes and counts. They had forgotten him already.”

That exert reminds me of my mother-in-law. I’ve lived in the same house with her for 10 years. She’s old, almost 88, and as far as I can tell, she has spent the last 30 years sitting on the sofa watching TV with some intermittent breaks to eat. She has no interests beyond catholic mass, her two daughters and granddaughter. She never leaves the house, doesn’t have any friends or hobbies, no social life. She is the most boring, empty person I’ve ever known and I’m grateful to have observed up close a wasted life.

“The greatest ideal man can set before himself is self-perfection.”

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