The Razor’s Edge by W Somerset Maugham

This book was published in 1944, but set just after the first World War. The story centres around Larry, who comes back to his home of Chicago from seeing some terrible things during the War with a desire to learn and grow as a person, instead of get married and earn money as society tells him he should. There is a love triangle, or possible two triangles, and a bit about the Depression, but not a great lot happens. Maugham tells the story as if it were all real and the characters were his acquaintances, and he gives the reader a commentary on how he chooses to tell the story as he tells it, which I find rather charming.

I do not usually especially like this sort of story, I only want all the characters to just get on with doing whatever it is they want to do that society has a problem with, and stop going on about it. I am reading it for a brand new book group, though. I’m surprised to say that I really like Maugham’s style, and I will certainly be searching for some of his other work, as long as it is not of this “oh, isn’t society so jolly restrictive” genre.

Maugham was a Brit who lived for a long time in America. I very much agree with his comment that “I don’t think one can ever really know any but one’s own countrymen. For men and women are not only themselves; they are also the region they were born.. the old wives’ tales they overheard… the food they ate… the schools they attended… It is all these things that have made them what they are, and these are the things that you can’t come to know by hearsay, you can only know them if you have lived them.” There is no such thing as the typical American, or Brit, or any other nationality, but we are all bound by our background, and when you are only mixing with those from a different background to yours, it gets tiring, you are always either explaining yourself and your cultural references someone who can never truly ‘get you’, or instead you keep your views to yourself, because you cannot spare the energy to make the explanation.

So, back to the story. Larry is a man of means, and he decides rather than to go to work as a man should, he will “loaf” instead. Ah, another sentiment I am in agreement with. All his young friends and acquaintances are off getting jobs and getting married and reproducing but Larry chooses to travel, to read, learn, and go with the flow. He wants to be enriched by interesting people and new experiences and live life to the fullest. He doesn’t want the big screen TV, fast car, expensive jewellery, branded clothes. Oh hang on, I got distracted there. It’s just that I have had this conversation with so many people. If you are fortunate enough to have enough money to not work for bit, why ever would you work? To get more money for more crap that you don’t need? Anyway, Larry is much wiser than I am, and he just refuses to have this conversation with anyone and just goes off quietly and does his thing.

Larry tells his fiancee of his voracious reading habits and she asks “and what is it going to lead to?” he answers, “the acquisition of knowledge,” but she is not impressed, “that doesn’t sound very practical.” That is a tragedy we still experience, to be educated simply to be useful to the workforce. I did it myself, I chose my degree because it would lead to a good job. Oh, how differently my life would be if I had studied Greek just for the thrill of reading the Odyssey in the original. Actually, I would probably have to still go to work in that case, so that is probably not the best argument for living one’s life in the pursuit of knowledge, truth and beauty.

A contrast to Larry is the Gatsby-style character, Elliott. He does right by society, goes to all the balls, helps his relatives choose the right gowns and the right husbands, and is simply wonderfully entertaining to sit next next to at dinner. But when it comes down to it and he needs someone, nobody truly cares for him. So, what’s the point of society, then, eh, people?

This is by no means a unique subject, but I agree with a lot of his views, and I marked many passages that were beautifully put. Not the most exciting story, but I liked the way it was told.

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