Monday, December 30, 2013

Book Review: The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

Picking up this book from a recommendation on the "War on the Rocks" website was an excellent choice. I had head Maugham's name before but never read any of his works. I now will likely read a number more.

The Razor's Edge straddles the periods of the worlds of English literature between say Hemingway and Fitzgerald and that of say Kerouac and Ginsberg. Here, published in 1944, some 13 years prior to the printing of On the Road we have a book covering the search for individual enlightenment involving Eastern philosophies attained via a visit to India by the protagonist. Additionally we have frank discussions of sex, homosexuality, drug and alcohol addictions, religion, social castes, rampant materialism and the choice to "drop out" of societal norms. To say that Maugham was ahead of his time is an understatement.

Leaning back on themes more prevelant in Hemingway and Fitzgerald however, The Razor's Edge concerns a WWI aviator who is traumitized sufficently by his experiences that he comes home to reject all the comforts afforded him as a well to do member of Chicago society. He wants nothing of the cushy investment job offered to him, nor anything of the beautiful but material/society driven woman he had been betrothed to. Instead he wants to "loaf" meaning to search out a greater meaning in life that than offered by modern American society.

Maugham's style is clear, direct and conversational. There are few minced words or sublteties and the book is eminently readable. The structure to the novel is also excellent as Maugham places himself within the story as an observer coming into and out of the lives of the protagonists over the course of many years. The reader observes the rise, fall and self destruction of all involved and no one escapes with their "self" intact.

The weakest part of the work comes when the lead character--Larry Darrell, sits with Maugham and explains just what it is he has found upon his long stay in India. Larry's recounting of his time spent with a guru and learning to find his highest self through meditation and other Hindu practices comes off as a college freshman's dabblings in alternative religions and neither powerful nor explanatory in any satisfying manner. Western culture's coming interest in all things Eastern is forecast quite nicely here.

Outside of this one chapter however the book is quite powerful and riveting. The characters are real in that, to use a cliche, you feel as if you could almost reach out and touch them--likely because we all know people in our lives quite similar to them. If you can get through this work without a twinge of sadness for the tragedies and intellectual searchings befalling those who exist only on the printed page herein, you have a harder heart than I. I always view books that can stir my emotions and my thoughts in the best of regards--and that's what The Razor's Edge has done for me.

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