Any book that one starts to read is about our expectations. For Maugham fans any work of his is a delightful treat for he rarely disappoints and one knows what one has signed up for while curling up in the bed with his book. The Razor’s Edge is no different and I rate it as his best novel but for his masterpiece – ‘Of Human Bondage’. Even before I began to read it, I knew a few things about it viz.
- It is a complete story – it has a beginning, a middle and definitely an end. Thus it showcases Maugham’s canon on narrating a good story and for most parts the writer has tried to provide a happy ending for the central characters in the novel.
- Through Larry’s experiences it touches on Maugham’s visit to India and his brush with the Hindu religion and its mystique.
- It deals well with a post war society that has been pushed into tough times and when there’s massive economic malaise.
Sharply delineated characters who ring so true – Larry – the troubled young man eschewing material pursuits and looking for ‘nirvana’, Isabel – a warm and social girl who is materialistic at the core and cannot ever give up the ‘good life’, Elliott Templeton a perfect ‘snob’ who is a material success and makes no bone about it. Maugham himself flits in and out of the story to keep you hooked. He shows his practiced hand of being a professional writer and bedevils you by creating an appetite for information, of withholding it until the right moment, and then providing it surprisingly.
The basic plot is about Larry who returns shattered after serving as a pilot in the war and observing death from close quarters. To the dismay of his fiancé Isabel he shows no interest in reconciling with his tragic experience and resuming the normal life of a young man on the make. Perceptive as she is in deciding to marry the moneyed ‘Gray’ instead of Larry, it remains her angst that she is not quite able to forget the man she could had. Elliott Templeton represents the man past his prime who still delights in being a perfect ‘man-of-the-world’ preoccupied with materialistic affairs.
The war-ravaged country forms a background to the novel.While Maugham does not deal with this directly, it reflects in the disillusionment shown by the youth with the war and its devastating after-effects. Larry conveys the pain in a very quiet but determined manner and the writer makes a famous quip – ‘The Dead do look so awfully dead’.
Larry traverses many places, people and experiences including a brush with Hinduism in India.While Maugham is certainly no authority and there are better resources available to discover the essence of Hinduism – the idea is appealing precisely in his approach as a lay person and amateur. On the whole, this piece does not work out well though for it ends up looking rather superfluous and the ‘healing touch’ episode makes it look even more sordid. Anyways Larry does discover his ‘Faith’ and decides to lead a rather simple life driving a cab in America.
Maugham, who is so often accused of being cynical and not permitting his characters to express their passions and deep feelings, does a good job of holding up the mirror to one about the choices one needs to make while defining our lifestyle. To avoid the tough decision of making a choice is a default choice in itself. It is like saying that if you want to go nowhere any road will take you there.
So how far are we willing to go down the ‘material’ road and at what ‘cost’ is something that each individual needs to choose. The earlier one does this in life and then sticks to the bargain, the better off one is, rather than being oblivious to the situation and not being able to realize the strong undercurrent that powers even the most ‘ordinary’ lives led by the masses.
One early description of Larry sticks to my mind since it describes the mild-mannered but determined boy so well –
”What are you to do with a boy who never argues with you, but does exactly what he likes and when you get mad at him just says he’s sorry and lets you storm?”