The Razor’s Edge
by W. Somerset Maugham
- Date Finished: Dec. 2, 2013
- Genre: Fiction
- Year: 1944
- Project: n/a
- Reading List: Fall 2013, 25 Book to Read Before You’re 25
- Grade: A+
- Thoughts Upon Finishing:
Sometimes, I wonder about the reasons certain books are placed on readings lists described as “pivotal” for various age groups. Don’t get me wrong: I am a fan of them (see my latest list, 65 Books You Need to Read In Your 20’s). But what makes these books special to those of a certain age group? Specifically, what makes these books important for we young adults, just now entering the middle part of our lives and still gaining the knowledge and experience we need to live a happy, balanced and spiritually fulfilled life?
The 25 Books to Read Before You’re 25 is one of those lists I’ve been following for quite some time; some of the books have been pretty “eh” while others have been eye-opening (Music for Chameleons changed the way I saw, and read, Truman Capote and cemented him as one of my favorite authors of all time – minus any Breakfast at Tiffany’s). After reading another book on this list, The Razor’s Edge, I can justifiably say that, hands down, THIS is a book that needs to be any, and all, life-changing book lists for young people. No question about it.
In fact, I’d have to say that W. Somerset Maugham’s story of a group of young Americans in Europe between the World Wars was perhaps the best book I’ve read this year, and one of the best I’ve ever experienced. The story opens with Maugham himself as our faithful narrator, who meets a young engaged couple in Chicago soon after the end of World War I. There’s Isabel, a lively and willful young girl, and the dreamy Larry, who carries a certain allure with him as an ex-fighter pilot. However, there’s something wrong with Larry: something happened during the war that set his worldview on its head, and suddenly a life of privilege, ease and working as a stock broker (um, not the greatest occupation leading up to 1929) seems meaningless. Confused, he puts his engagement on hold and sets off for some soul-searching in Paris.
What follows is several stories: there’s the indomitable and fiercely practical Isabel, who knows what she wants and finds a reasonably happy path to achieving it (though at what cost?); there’s the generous and flamboyant social climber uncle Elliott, who mourns the loss of European society; and there’s Larry, who disappears and reappears unexpectedly in his journey toward self-enlightenment, leaving all the characters to wonder what kind of purpose there is in life.
It’s hard to say why this book touched me like it did, but I couldn’t help but see a little bit of myself in every character and story. It’s easy to dislike Isabel’s open-faced materialism and honesty, but you can’t deny that her practicality is fiercely attractive and reasonable. I mean, who wouldn’t want to dump their starry-eyed boyfriend if he refused to get a job or go to school, and insisted he just wanted to “hang out” for a few years. I mean, she just wants to start a family and have a life, damn it! But at the same time, who doesn’t want to escape to Paris, Bonn and India for 10 years like Larry, throwing yourself into books and experiences that seek to bring you closer to God, truth and clarity? The struggle between Larry and Isabel – and their stubborn love for each other – represent a conflicting desire within us all: we wish for a simple, enlightened life, all the while craving a happy household, a liveable income and some new boots every now and then.
The story of Larry and Isabel, and all their friends, also tell a story of what it means to be an American, though granted it’s told through the lips of an Englishman (our narrator and Maugham himself). Generalized statements made about the American way of life and its ideals (comments about “cowboys and redskins”) are the sure sign of a foreigner, but at least Maugham doesn’t hide it. He acknowledges that his narrator is English and since much of the story takes place either in Chicago and Paris, this story is also about being a foreigner in a strange land, and dissolving your nationality in favor of higher, more humanistic struggles. (Plus, being right before World War II, this is probably the last time Americans and Englishmen could live in France and feel this way before things changed very, very much).
Again, it’s hard to say why, but I really think The Razor’s Edge is a book that should be read by every high school and college student. There’s so much about finding yourself, and finding peace with your place in the world, here. It’s a story where everyone ends up where they want to be, though whether that’s a good thing is left up to you.
On an ending note, though, while searching for book cover images for this post, I saw that there was a movie made of The Razor’s Edge in 1984 starring…Bill Murray as Larry? BILL MURRAY? Oh the humanity, why??