Tuesday, December 7, 2010
The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham
This is the end of my story. I have heard nothing of Larry, nor indeed did I expect to. Since he generally did what he proposed, I think it is likely that on his return to America he got a job in a garage and then drove a truck till he had acquired the knowledge he wanted of the country from which he had for so many years absented himself. When he had done that he may very well have carried out his fantastic suggestion of becoming a taxi driver: true, it was only a random idea thrown across a cafe table in jest, but I shouldn't be altogether surprised if he had put it into effect; and I have never since taken a taxi in New York without glancing at the driver on the chance that I might meet Larry's gravely smiling, deep-set eyes. I never have.
War broke out. He would have been too old to fly, but he may be once more driving a truck, at home or abroad; or he may be working in a factory. I should like to think that in his leisure hours he is writing a book in which he is trying to set forth whatever life has taught him and the message he has to deliver to his fellow men; but if he is, it may be long before it is finished. He has plenty of time, for the years have left no mark on him and to all intents and purposes he is still a young man.
He is without ambition and he has no desire for fame; to become anything of a public figure would be deeply distasteful to him; and so it may be that he is satisfied to lead his chosen life and be no more than himself. He is too modest to set himself up as an example to others; but it may be he thinks that a few uncertain souls, drawn to him like moths to a candle, will be brought in time to share his own glowing belief that ultimate satisfaction can only be found in the life of the spirit, and that by himself following with selflessness and renunciation the path to perfection he will serve as well as if he wrote books or addressed the multitudes.
But this is conjecture. I am of the earth, earthy; I can only admire the radiance of such a creature, I cannot step into his shoes and enter into his innermost heart as I sometimes think I can do with persons more nearly allied to the common run of men.
Larry has been absorbed, as he wished, into that tumultuous conglomeration of humanity, distracted by so many conflicting interests, so lost in the world's confusion, so wishful of the good, so cocksure on the outside, so diffident within, so kind, so hard, so trustful, so cagey, so mean, and so generous, which is the people of the United States. That is all I can tell of him: I know it is unsatisfactory; I can't help it.
But as I was finishing this book, uneasily conscious that I must leave my reader in the air and seeing no way to avoid it, I looked back with my mind's eye on my long narrative to see if there was a way in which I could devise and more satisfactory ending; and to my intense surprise it dawned upon me that without the least intending to I had written nothing more or less than a success story. 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 everyday; Suzanne Rouvier security; Sophie death; and Larry happiness. And however superciliously the highbrows carp, we the public in our hearts of hearts all like a success story; so perhaps my ending is not so unsatisfactory after all.
[ Originally, I thought the movie, starring Bill Murray as Larry, could have done a far better job by following Maugham's script more carefully but upon re-reading the book it seems that the paradoxical impositions of the narrator are indispensable, and almost impossible to represent effectively in film. In the book Larry is a kind of cipher ( empty, zero point) from which all the other characters draw their substance- The story of Suzanne Rouvier is one of the most interesting- and effectively satirical- in the book but owing to her almost incidental relationship to Larry, very difficult weave into the ABC of a typical Hollywood plot-line, and therefore, of apparent necessity, left entirely out of the movie. Many characters and scenes in the book have no place in the movie, or are misrepresentations of the author's intent. Characters and scenes in the movie are not found in the book etc. I think it is important to point this out, at least from an historical point of view, since when the book was first published in 1943, it instantly became a best seller, a surprise even to the author himself, who considered the narrative a much too personal and critical nature to achieve commercial success. Perhaps an explanation lies in a certain war weariness that overtook the American people in 1943-44 and made them exceptionally receptive to a kind of introspection and self-doubt upon which they have engaged only in very rare instances in the rest of their especally self-satisfying history. Zizek's formula: “First as Tragedy (the book), then as Farce ( the movie, though not intended as such)” applies very well in this case.]