Monday, May 17, 2010

W Somerset Maugham "The Razor's Edge"

I have been dipping back into authors of the past. To this end my choices are sometimes guided by my mother's taste in reading, or at least what I know and remember of what she liked. Mum was a voracious and intelligent reader. Maugham's novels were not amongst my mother's favourites (I don't think) although she did like his short stories. But I know this sort of writing is the sort of thing she enjoyed. I have read some of Maugham's short stories myself: "The Luncheon" instantly springs to mind, and they are, withough question,"fabulous darling."

Maugham's writing is all about the characters. "The Razor's Edge" is no exception. The story is interestingly and masterfully told by Maugham himself. Maugham is a character in the story. He crosses paths with the three other main characters who happen to be American: Isabel a delightful but spoiled young woman; Elliot an American ex pat who resides in France and prides himself on mixing with only the best people; and Larry, a young American whose experiences as a fighter pilot during World War I send him on a quest to find meaning in life.

Maugham is an Englishman who was born and spent much of his life in France. As such he is very clear in this novel that he does not pretend to know what it is like to be an American and usually writes from a English or European perspective. One is given the sense that he greatly admires the American spirit and wants to do his American characters justice. We are led to believe that his characters in the novel are based on people he knew personally. The story unfolds ingeniously through the characters voices themselves as he catches up with them from time to time over the years. And for all of that the themes in this novel have less to do with the American character and more to do with individual character. I think in any western culture the equivalents of his main protagonists can be found. And found as much today as at the time the novel takes place in the early decades of the twentieth century.

I really enjoyed this novel and was very surprised to find it so compelling. The plot is thin, it is more about the characters' life choices and subsequent journeys. The times do play a part as events of the first third of the twentieth century leave their mark on the people in the story. Most notably the first world war and then the Wall Street crach in 1929. There are also themes about good and evil. Maugham succeeds in not preaching or making moral judgements yet still at times really gets to the very heart of his characters. Throughout the novel the characters are consistent and entertaining.

First published in 1944 "The Razor's Edge" has alot to offer the present day reader. There is plenty of tension and the themes resonate as much today as they did in the 1940s. I particularly like that Maugham does not take the moral high ground but lets each reader draw what they need from the narrative. And I think there is much to be drawn from it. I look forward to reading other Maughan novels and comparing them to this one which I believe he wrote relatively late in his career.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds good! I may have to get to this one sooner rather than later. I really liked 'Of Human Bondage' which is why I got some more of his work. Hope I like it too!


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