The Razor's Edge

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Mmmm. Can I just start by saying that I love this book? This is the second Maugham novel I have read (the other was Of Human Bondage). Although this didn't quite top Of Human Bondage, it very nearly tied with it in my book-affections.

The cast of characters -

Isabel - a beautiful, charming, but shrewd and possibly even manipulative woman who knows what she wants and isn't afraid to go after it.

Elliot - Isabel's uncle. A Europhile who lives for society. He pays diligent attention to his clothes and his parties. The greatest tragedy of his life is exclusion from the social event of the season. And even though it's ridiculous, you can't help but cry with him.

Gray Maturin - a handsome guy, not too interesting but impossible not to like. He has his ups and downs. His most endearing trait is his tender love for his family.

Sophie MacDonald - an intelligent, clever girl who jumps into the world of drugs and promiscuity after tragedy strikes her life.

Larry Darrell - A pilot wounded in WWI. After a tragic experience shakes him in the war, Larry launches a great search for truth. His travels lead him to Paris, Germany, India, and back to America as he tries to find God and his own reason for living.

and finally...

W. Somerset Maugham - He actually narrates this novel. His conversations with the various characters provide the content for the novel. He comes off like Nick in The Great Gatsby - certainly present and connected to all events, but never quite getting mixed in them. I loved his little observations and quips about the characters. I especially loved his abrupt honesty (which at one point instigates a butter dish being thrown at his head). I felt like I knew him better, and I definitely could tell this was the man who wrote Of Human Bondage - little comments he would make showed that his opinions were the same, particularly in this quote:
Passion doesn't count the cost. Pascal said that the heart has its reasons that reason takes no account of. If he meant what I think, he meant that when passion seizes the heart it invents reasons that seem not only plausible but conclusive to prove that the world is well lost for love. It convinces you that honour is will sacrificed and that shame is a cheap price to pay. Passion is destructive. It destroyed Antony and Cleopatra, Tristan and Isolde, Parnell and Kitty O'Shea. And if it doesn't destroy it dies. It may be then that one is faced with the desolation of knowing that one has wasted the years of one's life, that one's brought disgrace upon oneself, endured the frightful pang of jealousy, swallowed every bitter mortification, that one's expended all one's tenderness, poured out all the riches of one's soul on a poor drab, a fool, a peg on which one hung one's dreams, who wasn't worth a stick of chewing gum (p. 170).

If that doesn't reek of Of Human Bondage, I don't know what else does.

The other quote that I have to cite occurs when Maugham and Isabel are discussing Larry's purpose. I just had to laugh at this, and I will explain why in a moment. Maugham explains to Isabel, "Some people have a disinterested desire for knowledge. It's not an ignoble desire. [...] Perhaps it will be a sufficient satisfaction merely to know, as it's a sufficient satisfaction to an artist to produce a work of art." (p. 91).

I have a very good friend who is a bit of a "Larry" himself, and I emailed him this quote, telling him I thought it described him pretty well. Here is what he wrote back to me:

It's funny how on the mark you are though, with the quote. Right now I'm in a public library in Reno reading the last few chapters of a physics text book because I want to know about light (remember relativity? haha I still don't get it...) I finished reading ALL the electromagnetism chapters about a month ago, because I couldn't remember them from high school and I never really understood it all that well, but now I think I've got that stuff down pat. Yesterday and the day before I was reading the official c programming language manual, and I'm proud to say that I'm a moderately proficient c programmer. I've been reading a lot about computers, and I'm running a linux operating system, because I think that if I'm ever going to do anything, I'm going to need to use computers to do them. I built a robot about a month and a half ago, it has two wheels and it drives around towards the light. I'm reading two pdfs I found online, one on probability and one on complex analysis, and I'm reading a textbook on multivariable calculus. And I'll tell you, honestly the reason I'm doing all this isn't because I enjoy learning (although I do, most of the time), or because I'm fascinated in any individual subject (although I am, for most of them), it's because I want to KNOW. I want to acquire, I want to possess knowledge. I want to understand. So I guess I am the artist who just wants to produce the work of art, but I'd hardly call that disinterested.
And there you have it. Although those are my friend's words, not Larry's words, I think that sort of sums up Larry's thought on life as well, although he is pursuing truth through Hinduism and philosophy rather than trying to develop a new way to test neurons.

So in sum? (After all that quoting...) This is a character driven book. It is a thinker. Definitely not a lighthearted read. However, Maugham is a great writer, and so all the heaviness still flows pretty smoothly. I found myself caring deeply for the characters, even when they made me angry. This book is a solid 4.5. I think I am going to buy a copy one of these days. Meanwhile, I have a document with all the quotes I loved. :)

Oh, I forgot. As I was reading this, I thought this book was an interesting foil for This Side of Paradise. Both Larry and Amory Blaine are trying to find themselves, searching and trying different things and experimenting with love, but Larry is selfless and reaches out to humanity, while Amory is centered on himself (the line I most remember is "Amory sat and thought about himself"). Anyone read both of these? Any thoughts?


  1. Oh, I loved this book so much. You've made me want to go back and read it!

  2. This is a great book and yours is a great review. I added the link to your review to my post. Thanks for sharing it.

    Rose City Reader.

  3. Thank you! I actually found the book through your review, Rose City Reader. :)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...