Somerset Maugham has always been one of my most favorite authors. Growing up in India at a time when the British influence was still very strong, most of the books written in English were by British authors and they seemed very much a part of our culture. We grew up on adventure stories by Enid Blyton, murder mysteries by Agatha Christie, Victorian-era romances by Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, classics by Charles dickens, and turn-of-the-century stories by Somerset Maugham. In fact, I still have my original copies of most of these books, and every once in a while, I go back and re-read them to find out if I still like them as much as I did before. One such book I just finished re-reading is The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham. While this is not his most famous novel, it remains one of my enduring favorites, and re-reading it brought into sharper focus why I had liked it so much in the first place.
The Razor’s Edge is primarily the story of a young man, Larry, and his spiritual quest to find the meaning of life after his friend, a fellow fighter pilot, dies before his eyes during a flight mission they are on that goes awry during World War 1. Unlike his friends, and to the dismay of his socialite fiancée and her family, Larry does not want to settle down and work and lead a normal life after his return from the war. Instead, he wants to “loaf” – which, in his case, really means traveling around the world, working odd jobs, getting varied experiences, and reading extensively, often for over 10 hours at a stretch, all in an effort to understand life and make sense of what had happened to him. What made The Razor’s Edge especially appealing to those of us in India was that Larry’s quest ultimately drew him to India and that he found the answers to what he was looking for in an ashram there under the guidance of a guru. In fact, the name of the book comes from a verse in the Katha Upanishad which says “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.” For those of us who were not just looking at The Razor’s Edge as a work of fiction, the fact that Larry’s spiritual awakening came from the Vedantic philosophy of Hinduism was both an affirmation of it and gratification that it was being recognized and given voice to by one of the foremost novelists of that time.
Of course, the book is not just the story of Larry. Brilliantly woven in are other characters including Isabel, Larry’s childhood friend and fiancée, who ultimately could not give up her society life and join him in the alternate (simple but “rich in spirit”) life he had to offer: Gray, his best friend who ultimately ends up marrying Isabel; Sophie, another childhood friend, who, after a horrific tragedy of her own, becomes an alcoholic and nymphomaniac and finally cannot even be redeemed by Larry, despite his best efforts; Elliot, Isabel’s rich uncle who is a strong influence in her life; and finally, Maugham himself, Elliot’s friend who unwittingly becomes everyone’s confidant and is the narrator of the story.
What I like most about The Razor’s Edge, and all of Maugham’s books – even today – is how simple the telling of the story is and how it is riveting inspite of it. There are no literary gimmicks here, no examples of “stylistic” writing that critics could pick out and hold it up before us to justify what a great writer Maugham was. Instead, the focus is completely on the story, and the language is used entirely at the service of telling it. In short, the story is so brilliant that the writing is almost invisible!
The characters are also artfully captured, with all the foibles that make us human. In fact, I would say that in retrospect, the only trouble with The Razor’s Edge is that Larry seems to be too good to be true – he is portrayed with a little too much saintliness. (Also, some of the miracles he could perform after his return from India seemed to be playing to the stereotype and could have been avoided.)
Maugham died in 1965, and I really miss his books. They don’t write like this anymore.
The Razor’s Edge
Author: W. Somerset Maugham
Publisher: William Heinemann (Parent company: Penguin Random House)
Publication Date: 1944
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.