"We are what we believe we are."
C.S. Lewis

Friday, May 30, 2014

Mop Philosophy Book Club: The Razor's Edge

 The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to salvation is hard.
 To me the dreamy look of a blue sky touched with clouds is essential to the feelings brought up by our novel this month.

The imagery of clouds is essential to The Razor's Edge: the novel's protagonist, Larry Durrell, experiences freedom, a longing for the divine and a distance from the shackles of society as he flies the European skies during the first world war.

He returns home a young man forever changed, his life course permanently altered.

As he rests from the war and "loafs around" with an expectant audience of friends and fiancee, (all waiting for him to begin a lucrative career as a stockbroker) he gives the story a clue to the direction he's taking, and the experience that brought upon his own personal fork in the road:
"I've been reading Spinoza...I don't suppose I understand much of it yet, but it fills me with exultation.  It's like landing from your plane on a great plateau in the mountains.  Solitude, and an air so pure that it goes to your head like wine and you feel like a million dollars."  (Page 68)
 "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 whether I have an immortal soul or whether when I die it's the end." (page 69)

This is definitely the story of a spiritual quest, but how is it also such a fantastic good read?

We are able to invest ourselves in the story solely due to my favourite character (and of course it could be debated whether he is a character at all, though I believe he is in fact the main character): the narrator.  The Razor's Edge is unique as a novel in that it is narrated as a story by the writer himself, and his writers voice is so compelling that it is almost as if we are being spoken to by a dear friend who happens to be both intelligent and highly observant:
"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 little story to tell and I end neither with a death nor a marriage.  Death ends all things and so is the 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."
Maugham's distinct voice is clearly one that is socially aware, slightly cynical, sometimes surprised and definitely not sprung from a spiritual journey, yet he mines Larry's story and psyche in order to explore the concept.
 I have a couple of points of discussion and I am hoping that you'll bring more questions and ideas to our book club.

One character I've been mulling over: Isabel.  Are we to sympathize with her or is she in fact tainted by a bit of evil in her character?  Would Sophie have survived, would Larry have loved her, without Isabel's intervention?  Or was Sophie a doomed character who would only be happy in death?  Was Isabel merely bringing on the inevitable?
Are Larry's choices, his work in the mines and on ships, a commentary on the materialism of the 1920's?  Can spiritualism only be discovered through the work that connects us to the physical world?   Are the types of social conventions that kept Elliot Templeton occupied merely silly distractions from our life's true purpose?  Did you find it interesting that though Elliot was portrayed as a "silly man" he was also shown to have a good and generous heart?
Is Elliot's connection to his church and God any less valid than Larry's?
What did you think of Larry's description of his mystical experience? (Page 273)
How about the explanation he has come to for the existence of evil in the world? (page 279)

I hope you enjoyed the book as much as I did.  I don't recommend watching the 1984 film version, I found it truly terrible to the point that it has almost ruined some of the wonderful feelings I have taken from the novel, my awe at the complexities of the characters and the narrator's exquisite voice.  The liberties it took with the plot ended up making the story nearly meaningless in parts.  If you haven't watched it please don't!

Please come in and comment as many times as you like.  I am posting this a day earlier than usual so that those of us with weekend plans can get in and comment ahead of time... I myself will be gone until tomorrow morning but I look forward to checking in on comments and responding at that time.
Thanks to all of you for participating in the Mop Philosophy Book Club.  You guys are the best.


  1. Razor's Edge instantly became one of my all time favorites. I only wish I had more time to think everything through as I'm on a tight schedule with much I'd like to say...and would love to participate in tomorrow's discussion but can only hope I may have occasional smartphone connection from Michigan's North Woods. The novel's introduction was unlike any other I've ever read as SM presents the story more as memoir. I knew someone in real life who mirrors every major character except Larry. It was clear to me that Larry was also SM (only not ringing as true) as his descriptions of people was in exactly the same voice as the narrator and he described them in a tone of a sensualist only Larry was not and the narrator (SM) clearly is only he keeps his cards close to the vest. How was he so well acquainted with the demimonde? In 1944 the narrator couldn't really share his proclivities.
    Several scenes such as those in Chicago and the narrator's mission to finangle an invitation for the dying Elliot were exquisitely rendered set pieces where I felt I was in the room.
    Dani, your intro clearly shows your Philosophy academic background with the macro questions. I don't ever want to step outside the story or away from the characters in books I love. It takes away all the intimacy which is why I'm there. I dipped my toe back into academia a few years ago and hated what English Departments have become. They chase away all the beauty in the name of some ideological agenda. I couldn't get out of there fast enough.

    Thank you from the bottom of my heart for prompting this wonderful journey! Hopefully I'll be able to have phone access tomorrow.

    1. Wishing and HopingMay 31, 2014 at 5:26 AM

      Looking forward to reading more of your perspective on this novel. There must be so much content that is relevant to some of your experiences.

    2. GSL I'm so thrilled you loved the book. It is one that is never forgotten and I'm so happy that I read it again, it's amazing how much we can forget in 10 years.
      I also felt I was in the room at times... the characters so well drawn and the scenes so perfectly described, reading this book is pure pleasure, we just get caught up in the story.
      SM manages to make a spiritual quest interesting and grounded to the world, when I first read this book I was also reading Spinoza and thinking I'd never have a grasp on the big questions, I found myself more invested in the characters this go-round and really awed at the masterful writing, SM was a genius!
      I bet it's beautiful in Michigan's North Woods today, have fun!

    3. I meant to say that I forgot so many of the details but not the feeling of the book... it's funny the whole situation with Isabel and Sophie, I didn't remember any of it from my last reading, one of the thoughts I had this time was that Isabel was so blessed, had so much, but she couldn't see to aid Larry in redemption for Sophie, it was a comment on her mind closed due to her own passions...

    4. The beginning of the novel sets up a certain expectation; of course, it ends with both a marriage and a death!

  2. Wishing and HopingMay 31, 2014 at 5:15 AM

    Dear Dani.
    What a brilliant write up for this book!
    You must submit it to a book distributor/retailer/website/ anything. But please get the word out and inspire everyone to read The Razor's Edge.

    I believe there's is relevance in this book that can be applied to any reader. There is so much content to draw from.

    Unfortunately, I did not get the chance to read it this time round. It was a long time ago, that I did.
    What struck me though was my meager excuse for not setting the time to read a little each day.

    The pettiness of the day to day regime got in the way. It was not LIVING that interfered - just routine.
    That struck me as quite feeble, especially in a society where all is rushed and hurried and the meaning of the word "Life" just vanishes.
    I find this reflection relevant to some of what the book has to offer.
    Finding the strength to let go of society's materialistic expectations, finding the time to discover one's true identity, and living.

    I can't draw on any examples from this wonderful book, as I didn't manage a re-read.
    However, I'll be blowing the dust off it in no time with the additional benefit of your and all your follower's thoughts and reviews. Helen : )

    1. Helen, you have so much to look forward to!
      Thanks for your lovely comment. So true that self-reflection is difficult and most especially in a life filled with routine and worries... truly living and thinking and appreciating the beauty of the world, in a small way it is a mystical experience. I've been bothered by our fast pace and nostalgic for the days before the internet etc, The Razor's Edge teaches us to look up and connect with ourselves and with what can be...!

  3. Loved the book and will never see the movie...promise. I shall start with Isabel and the questions you posed. I did not find her evil just human. I actually really liked her character. I did not sympathize with her, she made her choices, but just accepted her. As far as Larry and Sophie, he talked of loving her back when she was a child. I do not believe Sophie would have been happy in the marriage, Larry either. Sophie wanted death and in the end she received it. I finished the book on Thursday. Immediately after, I got on the computer and the lead story was about this millionaire Hindu spiritual leader that they are trying to determine if he is dead or just meditating...I had to laugh.

    1. BB that is pretty funny. I'm so happy you loved the book and thanks for the promise to NOT watch the movie. So many aspects of Isabel I admired, I thought she was a very strong character and given passionate qualities that female characters are so often not given, I loved the scene where she explains her marriage to the narrator, "Gray is wonderful in bed"!

    2. And it was intimated that Larry was not; there is a description of his lovemaking, competent but passionless. I think Larry was gay.

    3. Lane, I thought that also.

    4. I wondered about that. That occurred to me with the recounting of the widowed daughter in the barn (which was pretty funny), Larry seemed repulsed and then he took off. Isabel seemed to be feminine but with an aggressive passion, she had the sex drive while Larry had none!

    5. I thought of Larry being gay, but dismissed it. Larry isn't really of the world and I think he is almost asexual after his war experience and child-like view of the world, whereas Elliot and the narrator are sexual and obviously gay.

    6. Wendy my thought on Larry is that he is a child of the clouds: of imagining, dreaming, just another reality.

  4. I read this book first in the fall of 1981 and loved it then, but this time was profoundly moved by it (and as an aside - the Tyrone Power movie from the 1940s is a much better movie).

    Of course, I am coloured now by my age and my personal circumstances. The construct of having Maugham as narrator is a brilliant one and we experience the journey much as he does, and it is clear that he himself changes along the way as much as all of the characters. In fact, the only characters who don't change are Gray and Isabel. I found her character the real repulsive one' Elliot is silly, and more of a dreamer - he has bought into the idea that the pillar of success is society and money and that the only real society is European. And yet, there is a profoundly moving aspect of him with his legacy being the church in the end. I found that quite touching.

    When I quit my job to pursue a happier life, I experienced similar judgement from some quarters. I also did not realize that I was embarking on a spiritual quest, which while not as extreme as Larry's has changed me just as profoundly. There are many circuitous roads on the path and sometimes we take wrong turns, but I think that Larry's great lesson to us is taking the world as it is and doing our best to share our gifts and our peace and thus, ideally, share that peace with others. It is interesting that in the end, after being with so many spiritual leaders, what eventually leads to his illumination is nature. I am sure much if not all of this was Maugham railing against the material world of the 20s, of which he himself was a part of and yet set apart from because of his homosexuality, so it is interesting. Maugham is also an earthy writer compared to his contemporaries like Forster, which is all allusion unsaid. Thank you so much for getting me to reread this book Dani. It has profoundly touched me and only strengthened my resolved to keep going on my new path.

    1. Wendy so many good points! I'm grateful that we've had this experience together, this book has had a profound effect on me this time around as well, my own spiritualism has taken a leap towards clear positivity in the last year and I really read this book differently.
      Maugham is an earthy writer, so interesting and with passion to his characters. The reverence for nature is such a modern lesson as we all stare at our screens instead of the cloud-filled sky...this is something I've been thinking about so much.
      Very happy your resolve has strengthened Wendy, that is high praise indeed!

  5. Not sure if Larry's choices of work were commentary but I do know he chose hard work, labor. Personally, I find when I do physical labor, don't gasp too loud, it actually gives me a lot of peace. It slows my mind and quiets my thoughts. For example, I love to mow the lawn. It is loud and monotonous. I do not think of my everyday worries, troubles of the world, etc. I just am and it is very similar to meditation.
    Elliot reminded me of Custom of the Country with the social climbing, see and be seen. He was however much more endearing. Not sure if I want to start the conversation about life's true purpose. At first I found Elliot silly but in the end I found him endearing.

    1. BB I think Elliot's character was about illustrating the fragility of all of us, our desire to be loved... for acceptance. He was silly but only trying to operate within the social constructs of what he believed was important, in the end he was generous and good-hearted. I loved the way SM wrote about him, Elliot is one of my favourite characters in literature now.

    2. It was, the response to the faux-invite "a previous engagement with his Blessed Lord", and his last words for a comical touch "The old bitch"!

    3. I thought of Jim, the character from "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil", whose society climbing, taste for the good life but ultimate reserve from others Elliott brought to mind. All the characters seemed to be emblems of different kinds of seeking, but each one also made human and real.

    4. BB, I have this experience as well while weeding-- great, vast thoughty thoughts occur, then I have no actual memory of them after a shower!

    5. I think this is why MrBP likes the weeding!
      You know what Lane I've never read "Midnight in.." and now I want to, thanks for the reference!

    6. Wishing and HopingMay 31, 2014 at 9:12 PM

      That is truly funny!
      I encounter similar experiences when you suddenly have the answer to your woes moments before slumber arrives. You convince yourself, you'll remember in the morning. I never do! :)

  6. Maugham is a gifted storyteller and I've enjoyed many of his work (Cakes and Ale is my favorite). He is a master of the first person narrative of the writer as a character in his novels. Dani you mentioned that his characters are well drawn because a lot of his novels were based from his personal experiences (Of Human Bondage the most autobiographical) and a couple of characters were based on real people which got him into trouble at some point. Isabel was probably based on his wife whom he accused of marrying him for money while carrying another man's child. Although an agnostic, the quest for the meaning of life is a common thread in his novels. I think this is related to his unhappy childhood and his struggles with homosexuality. He's had a a couple of homosexual relationships which also make me think Larry is gay (the descriptions of musculature is too detailed for novels of that time).

    Razor's Edge is a book which makes us reflect and think. Like a similar book Siddhartha, it will take on a different context when re-read at different points of our lives. One of the major themes is about pursuing saintliness as we go about our everyday lives. Is this possible? What are the consequences? What happens when one chooses money over love?

    I thought the flashback technique was effective in uncovering the story and many layers of Larry. Likewise powerful was the use of contrasts: the materialistic world of Paris, London and Chicago juxtaposed with Larry's travels and his growing asceticism. And who can forget Elliott's Velasquez death scene? In the end, I felt that the characters all ended up with what they wanted.

    1. Marie, yes and in that way it was a satisfying ending, I love the last paragraph of the novel:
      "For all the persons with whom I have been concerned got what they wanted: Elliot social eminence; Isabel an assured position backed by a substantial fortune in an active and cultured community; Gray a steady and lucrative job, with an office to go to from nine till six every day; Suzanne Rouvier security; Sophie death; and Larry happiness."
      Maugham is an incredible writer and I'm planning to re-read Cakes and Ale this summer!

    2. Thanks for that book advice, Marie, will try Cakes and Ale.

      Larry's spiritual quest may have seemed rather exotic for the '40's? I think the Hindu ideas would have been much more foreign than they seem now; Larry's rapturous description of enlightenment, the hypnosis cure. If he had stayed in the Benedictine monastery, perhaps the novel would have been called "The Eye of the Needle" instead.

    3. Lane maybe it would have!
      Very exotic for the 40's I think you're right. Larry's enlightenment was very similar to that of a mystic, I think he mentions Plotinus at one point? The early Christian mystics were very "eastern" in their thinking.

  7. I'm still reading nothing but Emily Giffin et al but I'm enjoying all of the smart commentary!

    1. Jen this novel will have a place in your life again one day for sure in the meantime yes to Emily Giffin et al! :)

  8. I will once again be the dunce in the corner bc I didn't finish due to time issues and I had to laugh because I thought - oh well just watch the movie and then last night when i read your post you said not to watch the movie!!! I thought I would comment at a later date but doubt I will have anything original to add to everyone's interesting comments...But great points Dani

    1. Naomi don't watch the 1984 movie it is so unlike the book in many key areas, like for example the story begins with Larry and Gray going to war together as ambulance drivers which was not what happened at all (and in fact Larry's flying experience was an instigator of his spiritual quest). I could go on and on but it would be ranting... however Wendy does say that the earlier movie version is much closer to the book, I'm going to find that one and watch it as well.
      Please come back and comment later, your point of view is always so interesting!!

  9. Ok, now Im heading home for ten days, Im going to try and find this novel again.

    "Isabel. Are we to sympathize with her or is she in fact tainted by a bit of evil in her character? Would Sophie have survived, would Larry have loved her, without Isabel's intervention? Or was Sophie a doomed character who would only be happy in death? Was Isabel merely bringing on the inevitable?"

    makes me realise the stuff I'm writing is too lacking in tension and desperate characters. Old Somerset could really crank out the desperation and misery and I loved him for that.