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Book Review: The Razor's Edge Print E-mail

book_razor.jpgBy Somerset Maugham1

Published by Vintage Classics

Reviewed by Stephen Keim

When I was in primary school, my parents were avid readers of novels. The Readers’ Book Club sent a hard copy version of the latest novel by mail, every month. Their favourite authors, by far, were John Steinbeck, AJ Cronin and Somerset Maugham.

When I introduced my next door neighbour, Marko, to the blokes’ book club, I retained a degree of trepidation as what ingenious (a so much nicer word than ‘crazy’) idea he would come up with when it was his idea to nominate a book and, thereby, host the discussion. Marko did not disappoint my sense of trepidation. His idea was that we would try to leave a little early on Friday afternoon, drive to Marko’s duplex at Cabarita on the New South Wales Tweed Coast, discuss the book at an excellent Thai restaurant before retiring to rise at five, the next morning, to unleash our assault, as a group, on Mt Warning.

In addition to all that, Marko decided that his choice of book would be the means by which I would renew my acquaintance with one of my parents’ favourite authors.

I had never read The Razor’s Edge. Maugham had published his first novel in 1897. Of Human Bondage, regarded as his first “masterpiece” was published in 1915 and The Moon and Sixpence, equally well regarded, was published in 1919. When he sat down to write The Razor’s Edge (which was published in 1944) therefore, Maugham did so with the confidence of a writer who had achieved much success. That confidence may be perceived from the very first lines. This is the novel of a writer who knows that the rules will bend to his skill and experience. And so he begins by deprecating the very work he is about to release:

“I have never begun a novel with more misgiving. If I call it a novel it is only because I don’t know what else to call it. I have a little story to tell and I end neither with a death or a marriage. Death ends all things and so is a comprehensive conclusion of a story, but marriage finishes it very properly too and the sophisticated are ill-advised to sneer at what is by convention termed a happy ending.”

The narrator is a novelist. Not just any novelist, for, on the first page, the narrator is identified as Maugham by reference to the fact that the narrator had, many years before, written a novel called The Moon and Sixpence. The Razor’s Edge is a story of Americans in Paris and other places. It is also a story of various inhabitants located in different locations within a moral universe. The narrator, except to defend his own shallowness from time to time, doesn’t take sides. The novel ends with a note of fatalism. Although his “novel” ends without a traditionally satisfactory ending, the narrator is comforted that each of his characters obtained what they wanted.

There are six characters of importance to the narrative which spans several decades. Elliott Templeman is a pretentious, shallow, name dropping American who appears to make his not inconsiderable fortune from providing indoor decorating advice to his rich and famous friends.

Elliott’s Chicago resident niece, Isabel, is a beautiful woman but, in moral terms, not much more. She is in love with and is to marry Larry Darrell, a returned airman, but Larry has been so affected by his war experiences that his interests lie in more in the area of acquiring intellectual and spiritual knowledge than in the material things which are the consuming interests of his friends.

On the other hand, Isabel is loved thoroughly by Gray Maturin, the son of a successful stockbroker, a knockabout, decent bloke of a man who had been Larry’s best friend before the war and who still worships Larry almost as much as he loves Isabel.

The fourth of the group of four young people who knew each other at school is the younger Sophie who is still a high school student when she sits beside the narrator at dinner and provides a running commentary of who is doing what to whom among the people assembled at dinner. Sophie becomes Sophie Macdonald when she marries. She loses her husband (with whom she was still besotted) and her child in a car accident and becomes addicted to alcohol and to sleeping with whatever man bought her her last drink.

Perhaps to complete his moral universe, Maugham includes Suzanne Rouvier in the narrative. Suzanne is a well read and pleasantly spoken whore to the artists of Paris and, it would seem, more than just an entertaining dinner companion to the narrator when he happens to be in town.

Isabel rejects marriage with Larry on his terms which involve accompanying him on his search for wisdom. Larry contemplates marriage with a Sophie who he has single-handedly brought back from the brink. And Gray and Isabel find a satisfactory but pale imitation of happiness with each other. Larry pursues his quest. Elliott, who has converted to Catholicism, finds great favour with the powers that be in the Vatican but never quite manages to rise above being a parody of himself.

Suzanne makes the most of her opportunities and becomes the mistress and then wife of a regional industrialist and a minor painter in her own right.

And the narrator quietly muses his narrative to its not so unsatisfactory, after all, ending, never tiring from speaking to and thereby being able to gaze upon the beautiful Isabel.

The Hot Thai Wok on the main street of Cabarita is now a highly recommended forum for any book club that is serious about combining good dining with serious artistic discussion. The ascent of Mount Warning commences with a series of stair cases cut into the track that would severely test the heart lung performance of the average book club member. At about the point that one’s body says: “I can’t keep this up, much longer”, the track flattens a little and meanders back and forth across the mountain face. After a little over an hour, the ascent becomes nearly vertical and there are chains for the faint hearted. Twenty minutes of this and a short track brings one to a knoll of a summit with lookouts and views in all directions. On a clear day, one can the Gold Coast, at least, and perhaps the Glasshouse Mountains.

It seems, at least, by the time one has made it to the summit, a perfectly appropriate rule might be that every book club meeting must be followed by a stroll up a nearby mountain.

The Razor’s Edge is everything that Maugham intended it to be (and its narrator pretends that it is not). The author’s mastery of his craft shines through every sentence. The apparent jumble of characters is indeed carefully chosen. Each character brings his or own value system to the struggle for survival, understanding and/or happiness. Each provides a context for the other’s actions. The Razor’s Edge is a novel about values. Though no one is finally judged, the narrator cannot hide his admiration for one who, unlike the other characters and the narrator, himself, can eschew material for spiritual values.

I can understand why my parents so loved those novels of an era which, even from the top of Mount Warning, seems to have faded a long way into the distance.

Stephen Keim SC


  1. A review of a recent biography of Somerset Maugham appears in The New Yorker of May 31, 2010. The biography is by Selina Hastings and is called The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham. The review is by Ruth Franklin.

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