If W. Somerset Maugham were alive and writing today, he’d be Cheryl Mendelson. If he wrote nonfiction, maybe David Brooks. At least that’s what I think of him based on The Razor’s Edge. (I’ve also read The Painted Veil, and taken an abortive stab at Of Human Bondage; I liked the former and was exhausted by the latter.) It’s a light literary entertainment spanning the Jazz Age, the Lost Generation, and the Great Depression, and it features deeply conventional, well-heeled people doing what they do best.
It’s pretty embarrassing that Larry, like so many white Westerners, finds his long-sought enlightenment in India. But then, to be fair, The Razor’s Edge was published in 1944, when Alanis Morrissette hadn’t even been born yet. So maybe it wasn’t completely risible to encounter an Eastern culture and chant and pray and return to the United States and vow to give away all your money. And Larry, at least, really does give away all his money. His conviction can’t be doubted.
The early scene in which Larry and Isabel break their engagement – he wanting to tramp the world earning wisdom, she wanting him to settle down earning money – germinates the double spine of the plot. Isabel, born into American affluence like Larry, Gray, and Sophie, marries the millionaire-in-training Gray, only to share his ruin on Black Tuesday. Larry does the vagabond thing, working mines, farms, and ships (you know, Hemingway stuff), until he finally makes his pilgrimage and discovers whatever he was looking for.
The book is limited, but also saved, by Maugham’s decision to insert a version of himself as the narrator. This Maugham watches all the action at a remove (save for his presence at Elliott’s death), at most inconvenienced by the Depression, while receiving occasional dispatches from the others. Those dispatches periodically revive the characters in the manner of Facebook updates from that high-school acquaintance who parlayed excellence in physics into an average office job and a passion for Mad Men, and whom you haven’t seen since the summer after your first year at college.
“Maugham”‘s narration-at-a-remove flattens and clinicizes the action, so that I analyzed Isabel, Larry, et al. more than I understood them. If we had seen the Great Depression through Isabel’s eyes – as she and the broken Gray struggled to keep their heads above water – the book would have gained immense depth. But if we had followed Larry to India – if there hadn’t been those quotation marks around his spiritual journey – the book would have been insufferable (here in the manner of that high-school acquaintance who discovered nonmonotheistic religions and wouldn’t stop telling you about it). If I had lived through Larry, I wouldn’t have been able to laugh at him.
The real Maugham’s Wikipedia page includes a section titled “Grand Old Man of Letters.” The Man of Letters is among my least favorite characters on the literary scene. He could be renamed Didactic Crank with no alteration to the underlying type. Nonetheless, it’s “Maugham” and his presence as a Man of Letters that make The Razor’s Edge work. Maybe it’s nice after all to have a renowned, informed arbiter of taste in your circle. At least, as “Maugham” did with Sophie, someone can carry your story forward when you die.