The Razor’s Edge
© 1944 W. Somerset Maugham
Larry Darrell was an unremarkable young man with a pre-determined future: possessing independent wealth from his family background, he needed only marry his childhood friend and fiancé Isabel, take his place in one of America’s many booming young firms, and create his fortune at the dawn of the American Century. But when Larry returned from the Great War, something had changed; the once carefree youth was haunted by an act of grace which saved his life but rattled his soul. Instead of a wife and fortune, he sought answers. The Razor’s Edge is a story of homo viviator, man on a journey — to find the answers, to find the truth, to find one’s self.
The Razor’s Edge is at, once compelling in its premise, for we have a character for whom the road to success is wide open, free and clear of any obstacles, willfully abandoning that road to take on the wilderness, in search of answers when sometimes the questions themselves are not clear. While Larry’s friends are all ambitious and looking ahead to the bright future they’ll surely have a hand in creating, Larry has a new found horror of the rat race. “I want to do more with my life than sell bonds,” he says, and so to the dismay of his fiancé and bewilderment of his peers and mentors, he turns to copious reading, manual labor, and wandering the globe speaking with learned personalities, often in humble circumstances. For his friends and former love, life-as-intended goes on: they all become increasingly rich and accomplished, while he only descends further into the libraries, coal mines, and ashrams of the world. Eventually Larry’s life reconnects with his friends, at a time when Depression has hit and their newly-made fortunes are all wiped out in hours.
A week ago, a friend introduced me to this story through a movie suggestion, and so captivated by it was I that I watched both adaptations of the story, and then read the novel. I’m glad I took on the source, for Maugham’s writing has enormous appeal in itself, beyond the depths he gave each character, most of whom the movies treat far more casually. Having made the choice to pursue a career which was more meaningful than expedient myself, I could only envy Larry’s ability to devote himself fully to the pursuit of the truth We are all are conscious to some degree of our need for clarity, wisdom and meaning, but for Larry there was none other. The story is especially fascinating when Larry returns from his travels and begins interacting with his friends again, and we see the characters as foils to some degree for one another, each person distinct and admirable in their ways. Each gets what they wish — but the reader may judge which paths are more worthy of human attention and devotion.
The Razor’s Edge is not merely a novel to enjoy the once, but to return to and savor again and again.
If the rose at noon has lost the beauty it had at dawn, the beauty it had then was real. Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it.
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 honor is well 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.”
He took long rides in those solitary, mysterious woods; they’re like the woods in a play of Maeterlinck’s, so gray, so silent, it’s almost uncanny; and there’s a moment in spring—it hardly lasts more than a fortnight—when the dogwood bursts into flower, and the gum trees burst into leaf, and their young fresh green against the gray Spanish moss is like a song of joy; the ground is carpeted with great white lilies and wild azalea. Gray couldn’t say what it meant to him, but it meant the world. He was drunk with the loveliness of it. Oh, I know I don’t put it well, but I can’t tell you how moving it was to see that great hulk of a man uplifted by an emotion so pure and so beautiful that it made me want to cry. If there is a God in heaven Gray was very near Him then.