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The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham
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The Razor's Edge (original 1944; edition 2003)

by W. Somerset Maugham

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4,162661,203 (4.12)209
Member:Marensr
Title:The Razor's Edge
Authors:W. Somerset Maugham
Info:Vintage (2003), Paperback, 320 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:****
Tags:Fiction, British, Read, 2003

Work details

The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham (1944)

  1. 10
    Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham (anabela_aguiar)
    anabela_aguiar: Um dos melhores livros sobre a chegada da idade adulta e todos os factores que influenciam a nossa actuação nesta sociedade.
  2. 10
    On a Chinese Screen by W. Somerset Maugham (John_Vaughan)
  3. 00
    The Fires of Autumn by Irène Némirovsky (librorumamans)
    librorumamans: Both Némirovsky and Maugham look at the effects of World War I on individuals and on social values. Both are fine novels.
  4. 00
    Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse (CGlanovsky)
    CGlanovsky: A young man on a journey, both literally and spiritually. Philosophical.
  5. 00
    Collected Short Stories, volume 2 by W. Somerset Maugham (John_Vaughan)
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English (61)  Italian (2)  French (1)  Hebrew (1)  Swedish (1)  All languages (66)
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[Preface to The Selected Novels, Vol. 3, Heinemann, 1953:]

If I had not been in Paris when Guy Davin was being tried for murder and had not managed to worm my way into court Christmas Holiday would never have been written; and if the editor of a popular magazine had not invited me to lunch and asked me to write a story for her I should doubtless never have written Up at the Villa. The Razor’s Edge on the other hand had been in my mind for many years. But in this case also the idea for it would perhaps never have come to me but for an accident. In the very early ‘twenties I happened to be in Chicago and one evening I met at dinner a young man whose name, if I ever knew, I have long forgotten, who somehow or other attracted my attention. He was fairly tall, slender, not particularly good-looking, but with a pleasant face. He had an ingenuous charm and engaging manners, but what chiefly struck me in him was his air of candour. There was something touching about it. I could not but think that he must have a singular sweetness of disposition. He was obviously a general favourite and I ascribed this, perhaps fancifully, to the goodness that he seemed to exhale as a rose its perfume. I have met plenty of young Americans with good manners, a frank expression and good-nature, and I don’t know why the recollection of this one should have lingered with me. I don’t suppose I exchanged a dozen sentences with him and I never saw him again. It was from what I saw of him and what I divined that in the course of years the character of Larry formed itself in my mind, and, as happens in such cases, incidents, fugitive notions, predicaments clustered round this wraith of my imagination to render him more real to me. From time to time something of a thread of narrative suggested itself to me. In 1936 I spent three or four months in India. I had read a good deal of Indian philosophy and had been peculiarly attracted to Hinduism. When I got to India and the Indians to whom I had letters of introduction found that I neither wanted to shoot a tiger, nor to sell anything, but was desirous to meet philosophers, writers and holy men, they were interested and did everything in the world to meet my wishes. I thus came to know persons who were entirely new to my experience and who by their lives and their conversation made a deep impression upon me. What I learnt then fitted in very well with the ideas for a novel that in the course of years I had been slowly evolving. A number of seemingly haphazard circumstances, a cluster of characters, half-forgotten experiences, reminiscences of my own past emerged from I hardly knew where to give shape, coherence and substance to the novel that by now absorbed my thoughts, and in 1942 I began to write it. That was exactly twenty years after I had had that fleeting encounter with the young man in Chicago who became my hero.

I wrote the novel, as I have written more than one of my books and many of my short stories, in the first person, but in this one I boldly used my own name and made myself one of the characters that take part in the action. I did this mainly for two reasons. One was that I thought it lent verisimilitude to my novel. Because my readers knew that I existed, it was not unnatural to suppose that they would think the other persons in the book existed too. That this was the result in many cases I think is shown by the fact that after The Razor’s Edge was published I received a great number of letters from people asking me where Larry was and how they could get in touch with him. They were convinced that he was a real person whom they might get to know. But the more important reason was that the principle persons in my novel, those whom the novel was about, were American. I have told the reader of this preface why in Christmas Holiday I found it necessary to bring into my story a young Englishman and incidentally his father and mother and his most intimate friend. Though I have lived pretty well half my life in France and have had some close French friends, I knew it was impossible for me write about French people with a Frenchman’s instinctive knowledge. I facilitated my undertaking by telling my story through the impression it made on my English hero. Now of course we English know the Americans far better than we can know the nationals of Latin, Slav or Teutonic countries. We speak very much the same language, we play more or less the same games, we read the same books and many of our standards are the same. But there remain differences great and small. They have proved a stumbling-block to the writers of fiction. I have never read an American novel in which English characters appear that struck me as at all convincing. Even Henry James who lived in England so long and knew the English so well to my mind never created an Englishman who seemed quite English. I have read numbers of English novels in which Americans are portrayed. I cannot remember one of whose truth I was persuaded. Even I, with my limited knowledge, knew that Americans were not like that. There was no reason why I should be any luckier than my fellow novelists in England. So I wrote my novel in the first person, as myself, as definitely as if I were writing an autobiography and I presented my American characters to my readers not from the standpoint of omniscience, but merely as I saw them from my English point of view. And in extenuation I may add that if I put myself in The Razor’s Edge the part I gave myself to play is a very small one.
  WSMaugham | Jun 13, 2015 |
it was the Bill Murray movie that introduced me to Maugham and to many ideas. i was young when i first encountered the movie and it affected me greatly. this is the first book of his i’ve read. now, i want to read more.

the juxtaposing of socialite, aristocratic society with the calm, unassuming focal character Larry (he isn’t truly the “protagonist”) is done with a seemingly light air but curls into a kind of tongue-in-cheek smirk aimed at contrived culture. as Larry acts as a “razor’s edge” cutting through all the pomp and circumstance of Western culture, so does the book with Maugham himself as the eyes through which we watch Larry.

setting Larry as a distance from the reader helps to make the razor that much sharper. because Maugham records him almost as a bit player, walking on and off set but creating a standard by which we can contrast everything else he has chosen to show us, he can choose the manner of our perspective, give it a twist later, and have it transform into a very different creature just like an optical illusion.

his friends think Larry’s life if useless, trivial, and utterly wasteful and yet they continue to want him around, in the end thinking a great deal of him despite their earlier convictions. later in life, they begin to see the wisdom of Larry’s choices though they themselves would never make those same choices. like everything in their lives, he becomes just one more asset to be used and even coveted by them. meanwhile, Larry continues to be Larry and acts as selflessly and ephemerally disconnected as ever, effortlessly letting them dissect themselves against his calm being that is at odds with almost everything they value.

the book does a fantastic job of escorting us through European uppercrust society during the early twentieth century and watching it react to an individual sincerely looking for meaning in life. Isabel asks Maugham (for he is a character in his own book) why Larry is so “queer” and at odds with everything. He responds that Larry has something “so commonplace that one simply doesn’t notice it... goodness.” she struggles with this and never quite succumbs to the truth of it: Larry does not attempt to play Culture’s game and so Culture mistrusts and resents him. a very subtle glimpse into the world of intellectual and spiritual xenophobia. ( )
  keebrook | Mar 10, 2015 |
I enjoy Maugham's style of writing. He paints his characters very vividly and very humanly. None of his characters are absolutely good or absolutely evil, and even though I thought he would set up Larry as some sort of saintly figure, he is also revealed for his faults.

Part of the reason I didn't absolutely fall in love with the book is that I am not fond of the 'rich people travelling at leisure and laughing at the poorer classes in the swinging 20s' setting. If you loved The Great Gatsby, this book has many parallels. I also tend to shy away from books that are told such as this one is: where the narrator is merely flipping between various social occasions, none of which he is a central part of, simply relating others' lives through his point of view. However, I did enjoy Maugham's discussion of up-and-coming America and the comparison to established Europe. This is a coming of age story in a way, but through the point of view of an older character.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. It isn't something I'd reread, but I would take a chance on his other works, as this is the first novel I have read by Maugham. ( )
  CandiedMapleLeaves | Mar 2, 2015 |
Is there a trope in Eastern literature where an unhappy young man journeys to the West and learns things from a priest, or monk, or some such person, how to be at peace with life? And maybe some mystic powers that impress everyone back home in the bargain? Just curious. ( )
1 vote BayardUS | Dec 10, 2014 |
While in his opening Maugham states this book isn’t fiction and that all the direct speech is simply as true a recreation he can make of the conversations that happened, it seems to me that he probably only based his story on people and events he knew about and that he shaped the characters and plot to suit his aim of creating an interesting novel.

I think he’s managed this quite well and of course he was hugely successful in his life-time. I wonder, though, what so many of his contemporary readers got out of this novel about very wealthy people for whom life revolved around social occasions. Obviously Larry is the exception and deliberate contrast here but it does seem to me that Maugham, including himself as a character in this book, was exposing himself as a snob as clearly as Maugham portrays Elliott as one. The clubs, the hotels, the lunches, his sojourns here and there, his tailor – these may all have been comparatively normal for the wealthy between the wars but definitely not common and not the preserve of his readers – so perhaps they just liked reading about the lifestyles of the wealthy. Sentences like ‘American women expect to find in their husbands a perfection that English women only hope to find in their butlers’ no doubt seemed witty to Maugham but strikes a different note to me today just as “I knew a hotel where one ate tolerably’ seems so judgemental as if Maugham couldn’t contemplate anything outside upper class expectations.

I guess Maugham is really as major a character in this book, for the reader today anyway, as any of the others. He comes across as paternalistic, tolerant and having insight when compared to others but what interested me most, looking back on the novel, are the opinions that emerge in the novel, opinions that would seem to be found today. For example, Elliott suggests affairs outside marriage shouldn’t be taken seriously – just ‘flings’ – while the narrator has the opinion that promiscuity and drinking a lot weren’t moral failures but just bad habits. And he also tells Isabel that self-sacrifice is a scheme of the devil’s – and he suggests this while World War 2 is taking place in the country in which he has set his novel. I’d have thought all these ideas, and especially the last, would have upset quite a few of his readers, but it does seem to me that Maugham’s ability to transcend the trends of his time philosophically is what makes this book resonate today, something that is ironic when we see how clearly he is attached to his ideas of society and what’s acceptable here. Towards the end when Larry expounds what he sees as the short-comings of Christianity and promotes the idea of the transmigration of souls, coming to develop this belief in India, it is convincing in part but, from my point of view, rather stretching my credulity, especially Larry’s trick of being able to make people raise their arms without them willing it. ( )
  evening | Nov 3, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
W. Somerset Maughamprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kelk, C.J.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Maddigan, AngelaIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Page, MichaelReadersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tarner, MargaretEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over;
thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.

~ Katha-Upanishad
Dedication
First words
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.
Quotations
A mother only does her children harm if she makes them the only concern of her life.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140185232, Paperback)

The story of the spiritual odyssey of a young American in search of God.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:34 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Leaving wealth and loved ones behind, Larry Darrell journeys to the mountains of India in search of spiritual wisdom.

(summary from another edition)

» see all 7 descriptions

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