Described on the back cover as “Maugham’s greatest and most enduringly popular novel,” that makes the author a feeble writer and the reading public lacking in discernment.
I recently reviewed his A Writer’s Notebook, calling is a one note book, with the author “an insufferable egoist and materialist” based on his own damning journal entries.
Here, not surprisingly, Maugham comes off as a second rate writer of superficial intelligence, concerned more with glitzy surfaces than spiritual depths – here treated most amateurishly.
Questions, doubts begin with the opening sentence:
I have never begun a novel with more misgiving.
Me too. The eliding confusion of author vs. narrator is soon apparent. The narrator is nearly anonymous, called “Maugham” once and “Lanvin” another (never explained). Does the author pretend any space between himself and the narrator? As one character is an art dealer, there are several overly cute inside-jokes by the narrator that his small collection of Picassos and Matisses is nearly worthless. (Hahaha, we smugly know better.)
His stated misgivings include one about the “artifice” of making stuff up where and when he was not present:
I do not pretend that the conversations I have recorded can be regarded as verbatim reports. I never kept notes of what was said on this or the other occasion, but I have a good memory for what concerns me… [p.4]
As the novel is preoccupied with American characters in Europe, the other misgiving is equally obvious:
Another reason that has caused me to embark upon this work with apprehension is that the persons I have chiefly to deal with are American. It is very difficult to know people and I don’t think one can ever really know any but one’s own countrymen. [ibid.]
Fair enough, but then why try? Several pages on, the narrator refers to “the American ladies of title to whom he brought letters.” Since when are there American ladies of “title,” when the concept is purely European and monarchical?
Despite so many tripping points, the read is easy enough. The first lost Yank introduced is Elliot Templeton, the art dealer and exuberant social climber whom Maugham grants “was a colossal snob…a snob without shame.” [p.8] From his same Chicago milieu comes our main protagonist, Larry Darrell, who returns from WWI with survivor’s guilt which launches him on a “spiritual” search that takes him to Elliot’s Parisian circle and beyond. (Larry’s “loafing” and peregrinations are the crux of the novel, why the narrator overcame his misgivings to spill the beans.)
Left behind at first is the beautiful childhood friend, Isabel, whose materialism leads her to reject Larry’s offer of a vagabond marriage predicated on his search for meaning in life.
Early on, Larry confesses his quest to an increasingly disappointed Isabel:
I want to make up my mind whether God is or God is not. I want to find out why evil exists. I want to know if I have an immortal soul or whether when I die it’s the end. [p.69]
Good questions which, unfortunately, Larry never resolves, despite much reading and belly-button wandering.
The narrator grants that Elliot’s “abandoning the faith of his fathers” for Catholicism is motivated by social climbing, when an abbé “made the Church [falsely so called] seem to Elliot very like a select club that a well bred man owed it to himself to belong to.” [p.11]
Yet our “spiritual” hero Larry trundles down a similar, if slightly more ascetic, path. After meeting a German Benedictine monk, he spends time at a monastery in Alsace. Exposed more to hypocrisy than to faith, while recounting his largely fruitless visit, he opines:
It was hard for me to believe that God thought much of a man who tried to wrangle salvation by fulsome flattery. I should have thought the worship most pleasing to him was to do your best according to your lights. [p.255]
This distortion of Christianity, of “works” in exchange for salvation, spills over into the “why evil” question for Larry:
After all, He created men: if He so created them that it was possible for them to sin, it was because He willed it. If I trained a dog to fly at the throat of a stranger who came into my back yard, it wouldn’t be fair to beat him when he did so. [p.256]
This misguided humanism, of muddling along while “doing your best,” is so sophomoric that any child at at good Sunday school could refute it. But then Maugham, a confessed, life-long atheist (per his journals), appears to have little command of what he is writing about.
Later, the narrator creates the usual (and still popular) false dichotomy of Christianity vs. Science by describing Larry’s journey to Isabel thusly:
He’s been seeking for a philosophy, or maybe a religion, and a rule of life that’ll satisfy both his head and his heart. [p.209]
After Larry’s brush with Catholicism, he swerves – where else? – into Eastern mysticism, spending time with yogis in India in search of “saintliness.”
There he learns a few magician’s tricks, including cure-hypnotism and elevating people’s arms without their consent or volition. One can suppose Maugham adds this tomfoolery to show, in a pantheistic way, that there is indeed a god within each of us (waiting to come out), when a simpler explanation is the activation of demonic forces via the dark arts.
Maugham’s understanding of either Eastern mysticism or biblical Christianity is, frankly, so superficial that the reader can’t grasp onto it. (A far superior occidental take on Eastern mysticism is Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha.)
Granted, Eastern mysticism is full of contradictions. As Larry admits – even before rejecting Catholicism – “evil is as direct a manifestation of the divine as good” [p.105] Recall that Eastern mysticism is a natural outgrowth of evolution, e.g. we are all “evolving” into gods, or coddling the little gods that are already in us (and everywhere). This ancient paganism posits that evil and good are in everything, but without a Creator God who then is to say what is good or evil?
Larry also flirts with reincarnation – never having been taught by the monks how Hebrews 9:27’s “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” disqualifies it – without understanding that karma is hopelessly cruel and Hindi salvation not only hard but, in practice, impossible. If every one must pay for every poor action in the next life by being at the receiving end of the very same sin/crime, then evil is perpetuated in a never-ending cycle. Even Larry admits that the goal of yogis is “Liberation from the bondage of rebirth.” [p.268] Good luck with that.
The only earthly liberation I can offer the reader is to avoid reading this book. Maugham was among the 1930’s highest paid authors, spoiled by his first novel’s success. One can’t but help wonder if he wished to write a British version of The Great Gatsby, which was undergoing a revival at the time of his writing. One has to also wonder if Maugham, an admitted eugenicist, dabbled in a kind of facial phrenology as well, as the book is filled with pejorative physical descriptions. At one point the narrator, usually obsessed with Isabel’s beauty, describes her as looking like a “a b–ch in heat.” Not very compassionate.
The narrator ends his shallow tale by imputing a “success story” attained for each of the major characters, including even “death” for one poor, tortured soul. Having never gained my confidence, or creating what Mario Vargas Llosa calls in his Letter to a Young Novelist the narrator’s critical role of “power of persuasion,” I perversely reflected on every one as a failure. Could there be a meta-narrative hidden away that I missed here? That Maugham has given us a preposterous narrator, pretentious, condescending, and superficial, who forces his desired outcomes in the fiction within a fiction of his tale?
From entries in Maugham’s A Writer’s Notebook, it is clear that the young, vagabonding Larry serves as the author’s alter ego. Yet the narrator is ultimately befuddled by Larry’s path – despite it being the raison d’etre for his putting pen to paper. Could Maugham be playing such meta-narrative tricks on us? I doubt it.
The novel’s squishy epigram, from the Krishna Yajurveda tome named Katha Upansishad, provides us the title’s flaccid reasoning – and keys the novel’s pseudo-intellectualism:
The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation in hard.
Unknowingly, Maugham has struck on the similarity of Eastern mysticism and all Christian cults, a misunderstanding also advanced in most modern bible translations: that salvation is hard work. If Maugham knew anything about Christianity, he would know that salvation is a free gift of Jesus Christ, which like all good gifts only needs to be willingly received by the recipient. Once the present of eternal salvation is accepted, it most naturally manifests itself in good fruits, otherwise knows as works.
Ipso facto, not all works, nor writers, bear good fruits.
The Razor’s Edge, 1943, First Vintage International Edition, Sept. 2003, Doubleday, New York
The Wolf Book Club, based in Miami Beach, FL, discusses the book via videoconference: