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.]


  1. [Circa 1925]

    “You said that if you hadn't got what you wanted after two years you'd give it up as a bad job.”

    “I couldn't go back now. I'm on the threshold. I see vasts lands of the spirit stretching out before me, beckoning, and I'm eager to travel them.

    “What do you expect to find in them?”

    “The answers to my questions.” He gave her a glance that was almost playful, so that except that she knew him so well, she might have though he was speaking in jest. “ 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 its the end.”

    Isabel gave a little gasp. It made her uncomfortable to hear Larry say such things...

    'But Larry', she smiled. “People have been asking those questions for thousands of years. If they could be answered, surely they'd have been answered by now.”

    Larry chuckled.

    “Don't laugh at me as if I'd said something idiotic,” she said sharply...

    “It all sounds so adolescent to me. Those are the sorts of things sophomores get excited about and then when they leave college they forget about them. They have to earn a living.”

    “I don't blame them. You see, I'm in the happy position that I have enough to live on. If I hadn't I'd have had to do like everybody else and make money”.

    “But doesn't money mean anything to you?'

    “Not a thing”, he grinned.

  2. “How long d'you think all this is going to take you?'

    'I wouldn't know. Five years. Ten years.”

    'And after that? What are you going to do with all this wisdom?'

    'If I ever acquire wisdom I suppose I will be wise enough to know what to do with it.'

    Isabel clasped her hands passionately and leant forwards in her chair.

    “You're so wrong, Larry. You're an America. Your place isn't here. Your place is in America.”

    “I shall come back when I'm ready.'

    “But you're missing so much. How can you bear to sit here in a backwater just when we're living through the most wonderful adventure the world has ever known? Europe is finished. We're the greatest, the most powerful people in the world. We're going forward by leaps and bounds. We've got everything. It's your duty to take part in the development of your country. You've forgotten, you don't know how thrilling life is in America today. Are you sure you're not doing this because you haven't the courage to stand up to the work that's before every American now? Oh, I know you are working in a way, but isn't it just an escape from your responsibilities? Is it more than just a sort of laborious idleness? What would happen to America if everyone shirked as you're shirking?'.. and what about me? Am I of no importance to you at all?

  3. “You're of very great importance. I want you to marry me... as soon as possible.”

    'But Larry I don't want to live on three thousand a year.. There's no reason I should. You're so impractical. You don't know what you are asking me to do. I'm young, I want to have fun. I want to do all the things that people do. I want to go to parties, I want to go to dances, I want to play golf and ride horseback. I want to wear nice clothes. Can't you imagine what it means to a girl not to be as well dressed as the rest of her crowd? I couldn't even afford to go to a decent hairdresser to have my hair properly done. I don't want to go about in street-cars and omnibuses; I want to have my own car.. And what d'you suppose I'd find to do with myself all day long while you were reading at the Library? Walk about the streets window shopping or sit in the Luxembourg Garden seeing that my children didn't get into mischief? We wouldn't have an friends.

    'Oh, Isabel', he interrupted.

    'Not the sort of friends I'm used to. Oh yes, Uncle Elliott's friends would ask us now and then for his sake, but we wouldn't go because I wouldn't have the clothes to go in, and we wouldn't go because we couldn't afford to return their hospitality. I don't want to know a lot of scrubby, unwashed people; I've got nothing to say to them and they've got nothing to say to me. I want to live, Larry...'

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