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Fall 2004

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Isabel Colegate

The Razor's Edge
by Somerset Maugham.
Vintage International, 2003,
$13.00 paper.

Somerset Maugham said of his own work that it was "in the very top rank of the second rate." Not all contemporary critics concurred, though Lytton Strachey had already categorized him as "Class Two, Division One." Theodore Dreiser declared him a genius, Desmond McCarthy (among others) admired the skill and naturalism of the stories, Cyril Connolly was impressed by his professionalism and puzzled by his lack of more general critical acclaim. But he was never taken as seriously as he would have liked by what he called "the intelligentsia," and despite his implied sneer he resented the fact. Cool self-deprecation was part of his authorial persona, urbane, cynical, worldly-wise, detached—above all detached. He is the impartial observer, the clubman in his armchair entertaining a friend with his tales of such oddities of human behavior as he has come across in a lifetime comfortably divided between travel and the delights of high society. It was not of course quite the man himself.

Liza of Lambeth, Maugham's first novel, was published in 1897, when Maugham was a twenty-three-year-old medical student. The novel is hard to read now because of the stage Cockney of the dialogue and the lurid melodrama of the plot, but it dealt courageously with the dire conditions of the very poor in the East End of London. It was not the first novel to deal with working-class life in the capital—George Gissing had published Workers in the Dawn in the 1880s and Arthur Morrison's Tales of Mean Streets, which originally appeared in the Strand Magazine in the 1890s, was a model which Maugham acknowledged —but Liza was considered a shockingly outspoken heroine. The book attracted a good deal of attention, not all favorable, and did not sell particularly well.

It was not until 1908, after ten years of rejections from theatrical managements, that Maugham found himself unexpectedly with four successful plays running in London's West End. He was a success. The realism, the acute observation of externals, the determination to look life square in the eye, was directed to a higher level of society—brittle cocktail women succeeded the earthy Liza, though the whore with the heart of gold makes regular reappearances.

There followed a career of dazzling social and financial success, a score of novels, a couple of dozen plays, thirteen collections of short stories, and several volumes of travel and other essays. All this was achieved by exceptionally hard work and discipline. Somerset Maugham was an extremely professional writer. He prided himself on the fact, and on the thoroughness of his research, the dedication with which he stuck to a specified number of hours a day at his desk, his efforts to improve the quality of his prose and the range of his subject matter. Many writers as successful as he became—that is to say, enormously successful—might have been content to rest on their laurels. He enjoyed his success and the money it brought him, relished his beautiful villa in the South of France and his frequent travels, allowed himself to be extensively entertained and flattered by the haute monde. He was not often happy.

As a lonely little boy with a severe stammer, he had been consigned after the deaths of both his distant father and his adored mother to the care of an uncle, the Anglican Vicar of Whitstable in Kent, and his German wife. He had brilliant elder brothers and no money. His years at King's School Canterbury were miserable. Intensely lonely, he was bullied on account of his stammer. His years as a medical student in London were poor and hard. His ambition to be not just a writer but a very successful writer was achieved at a relatively early age as a result of extremely hard work and dedication. His marriage, though for some years it made him a fashionable figure—his wife Syrie, the daughter of the philanthropist Dr. Barnardo, was an influential interior designer who filled the drawing rooms of the smart set with white sofas and pickled-oak bookcases—ended in divorce and left him deeply embittered. He told his nephew, the writer Robin Maugham, that his mistake had been to think himself a quarter homosexual and three-quarters heterosexual whereas in fact it was the other way round. His long relationship with the American Gerald Haxton was a source of anxiety as well as happiness. Haxton was an excessive character whose problems with the law meant that he could not live in England, so that he was indirectly the cause of Maugham's buying his beautiful villa in Cap d'Antibes. Eventually Haxton died of boredom and alcohol when, during the Second World War, Maugham, who was doing some propaganda work for the British government, was lent a quiet retreat in South Carolina by his publisher Doubleday; it was not Haxton's idea of fun. Only in Maugham's declining years—by which time he had become a very difficult character—did he find loyalty in the companionship of Alan Searle.

Maugham both relished and despised the fashionable world into which his wife and his success led him. In many of his stories he touched upon the character who turns his back on it, deciding to live for something else. It was in pursuit of such a character that he decided to write about the French painter Paul Gauguin, who had given up the world for art. In his thorough way Maugham went to the South Seas to research the background. Travel became his resource. He created a recognizable world of his own, never a small achievement for any writer. It was the world of the expatriate British colonial servants and rubber planters in the Malay States, never the most prestigious of Empire postings. Men who had failed entry to the Indian Civil Service struggling with an impossible climate and an often incomprehensible populace, planters taking to drink in remote jungles, rogues and renegades seeking fortunes as traders, bored wives confined to the social life of the club were all grist to the Maugham mill. Over them all hung the dread of scandal, the lure of alcohol and adultery, the chance of a fatal attachment to a native woman and the consequent half-caste children (who, it was taken for granted, were condemned forever to a life of shame). Maugham may not have had the moral imagination of Conrad or the sometimes surprising compassion of Kipling—or, for that matter, the pure love of adventure of Stevenson in his stories of the South Seas—but his pen was sharp and his observation keen. His famous story "Rain," in which the self-righteous missionary finally fails to overcome his lust for the hopelessly debased prostitute, is typically merciless.

When he felt he had exhausted the Malaysian seam, he turned to the south of France and fashionable society, and the English world of gentlemen's clubs and ladies' bridge luncheons, with the same unblinking gaze and the same relish for the neat story with the sting in the tail. The old buffer of a colonel who is made a fool of by his meek wife's unexpected success as a writer realizes that her poetry must be based on a secret love affair and decides to say nothing because it would really be awfully inconvenient to have to do without her—"But I'll tell you what, there's one thing I shall never understand till my dying day: what in the name of heaven did the fellow ever see in her?" Maugham's strength was always in his narrative power. Much influenced by Maupassant, the best of his stories stand comparison with the master; the worst are undone not only by a fatal proclivity for cliché but by a tendency to falsify human behavior in order to give the tale the neat ending his readers had come to expect.

When a critic complained that one of his collections of stories amounted to no more than "the mixture as before," Maugham defiantly took the phrase as the title of his next collection. In fact he never stopped trying to extend his range. He always had a feeling that there was one human emotion he had failed to nail, the religious one. He tried to suggest the character of an innocently good man in The Narrow Corner (1932), felt that a failure, and returned to it in his last novel, The Razor's Edge. By that time he was at the height of his fame, and his authorial persona was so well known that he could safely introduce himself in person as the narrator, a ploy which enables him to keep his distance from the action, using his familiar storyteller's tone: amused, amusing, worldly, disenchanted. This time he wants to tell the story of a saint—a saint, what's more, who he believes will eventually be famous. This is Larry, at first sight a quiet, well-mannered American boy whom Maugham meets in Chicago under the aegis of Elliott Templeton, a friend more usually resident in Paris ("the only place in the world for a civilized man to live") but for the time being on a visit to his sister, a Chicago socialite.

Elliott Templeton is one of Maugham's most brilliant creations. Perhaps it is ironic that in a novel purporting to portray the development of a saint, the two wholly successful characters are worldliness personified. Elliott Templeton is a snob and social climber on a scale that only an American who has fallen for the European aristocracy can get away with—and get away with it, at least in his prime, he does, being an excellent host, a connoisseur of the arts, and a fundamentally kindly, even oddly innocent man. Isabel, his niece, is a rich girl full of hope and health and happiness—if at first a trifle fat—who loves the gentle Larry but has no doubt at all that she needs to marry someone who can keep her in the manner to which she is accustomed. Larry has been an airman during the late war—we are in the 1920s—and the experience has had the effect of making him uninterested in the various offers of excellent jobs which accrue to him on the grounds of his good connections and matching looks. He wants, he says, to "loaf." Rich Chicago citizens of the first rank do not "loaf." Larry puzzles but still enchants his friends and relations.

Isabel marries the son of a rich businessman. Larry wanders off to Europe. Maugham encounters him from time to time in Paris and learns that he has worked in a German coal mine, where he encountered a Pole who introduced him to the works of the medieval European mystics; that he has lived for a time almost anonymously in Paris, with an interlude in a Benedictine monastery; and finally that he has spent five years in India. Meanwhile, Isabel's husband has lost everything in the economic crash of the early Thirties and has brought her to Paris, where Elliott Templeton sees that they meet everyone who matters despite their financial embarrassment. Isabel loves Larry still, but supports her devoted husband, whose migraines Larry cures by applying some of the wisdom of the East. Larry also cures the despair and alcoholism of Sophie, another girl from the old Chicago days, but this is too much for Isabel, who engineers Sophie's relapse in time to prevent Larry from actually marrying her. In a long conversation after Sophie's suicide, Larry explains to Maugham the philosophy he has learned from Hinduism and declares his intention finally to renounce worldly things.

Isabel's husband has meanwhile been given a chance to recoup his fortunes and, though mourning Larry, she goes cheerfully enough to Texas to become a perfect business wife and mother and to show Texas how to dress, entertain, amuse, and make intelligent conversation, all of which she has learned in Paris (even her legs have got thinner). Her self-knowledge makes her the most nearly likeable of Maugham's women— which may not be saying a great deal, since it is rare for him to cast a kindly eye on any of the female sex. Elliott Templeton meanwhile dies and, having converted to Roman Catholicism, for purely social reasons, has himself buried in his robes as a papal knight.

Larry remains something of a void. He does not so much achieve detachment as appear detached from the beginning. Larry is a dropout before his time, and a seeker after the wisdom of the East long before the opening of the hippie trail to Kathmandu. In the 1940s, he needed explaining. Maugham had visited Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley in Hollywood at the time of their spiritual explorations. He knew of Christopher Isherwood's involvement in the Vedanta Society. He specifically denied having fallen under a similar spell. He had, however, in 1938 been to see an Indian holy man, and he recounts the experience at length in "The Saint," an essay included in Points of View, published in 1958. He describes the saint's appearance meticulously and tells the story of his life. Much of this he used in The Razor's Edge: Larry spends two-and-a-half years with an Indian swami and eventually achieves a moment of illumination at dawn on a mountain top. The particular swami whom Maugham had visited, Sri Ramana Maharishi, spent many years in a cave on a mountain named Arunachala, not far from Madras. Some time later he was the guru of a French Christian monk who called himself Abhishtikanander, and who lived on the mountain in a succession of different caves and hermitages believing that he could reconcile the Christian religion with the Hindu. The mountain was of enormous spiritual significance to him and eventually he felt it had revealed itself to him in flame, just as the burning bush had appeared to Moses.

If Larry's experience was similar, Maugham does not risk describing it. He gives us instead a detailed and accurate account of Hindu religious belief. He sees Larry from the outside, as he sees the swami. By bringing himself into the story he puts a distance between the reader and the characters he describes. WSM the suave storyteller is the intermediary, always there to see that things do not get out of hand. But at a moment of spiritual enlightenment, perhaps things should get out of hand. Otherwise, Larry simply progresses from detachment to further detachment, or perhaps more properly non-attachment; it seems an easy passage. Maybe it is just that you need to be Russian to write a great religious novel.

The ever-present narrator—sometimes it is not Maugham himself but some other detached figure, a doctor, a man in an armchair in his club —is always the master of ceremonies, the prestidigitator, the one who does not need to lower his mask. The only novel in which Maugham does lower the mask is Of Human Bondage, which he wrote in 1915, turning his back on his success as a dramatist of the school of Oscar Wilde, and determining to be a serious novelist. For all its faults— occasionally trite, occasionally sentimental, not without a few clichés— Of Human Bondage is a serious novel, as well as being closer to autobiography than any other of his fiction. It is the story of Philip Carey, whose parents die, and leave him to be brought up by a clergyman. He has a clubfoot rather than a stutter, and the clergyman uncle lives in Blackstable rather than Whitstable, but otherwise it is the story of Maugham's own unhappy youth. Accordingly there is some self-pity mixed in with the pain, and a hint here and there of the bitter resentment which underlay Maugham's scorn of the intellectuals who he felt despised him. But it is, of all his novels, the one which most reveals the damaged heart behind the basilisk glare of the Graham Sutherland portrait.

Isabel Colegate has written thirteen novels, including The Shooting Party and Winter Journey. Her most recent book is Pelican in the Wilderness: Hermits, Solitaires and Recluses.

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