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11th March
2010
written by Steph

Guilty confession time: this was my very first Maugham!  And not only that, I walked in pretty blind.  Not just in terms of what the book was about (though it’s true I didn’t read the back cover blurb and instead just dove right in), but also in terms of Maugham himself.  For some reason I thought he was a less contemporary author, one who had deeper roots in the Victorian tradition.  Imagine my surprise then when the book starts off in the roaring ‘20s!  I don’t know what all this confusion on my part was about, but I guess maybe in my mind, having never read either of them, I was conflating Maugham with de Maupassant?  Really, your guess is as good as mine. So, as I said, I went into The Razor’s Edge not having the slightest idea what it might be about.  Having read it, I would say in some ways it’s a very difficult book to characterize in terms of plot, in part because the narrative spans so many years, but also because the motivation for the novel seemed to me to be rather intellectual an existential in its scope.  It’s fiction, but Maugham recounts the tale as though it really happened.  He goes so far as to make himself a character, something that I found very surprising because it’s a technique I consider to be rather modern.  As for the themes, again I found them unexpectedly enlightened; this is a novel about a man’s search for life’s meaning, for knowledge, for God. The central idea throughout that seems to motivate the story is: what is man’s purpose on this earth?  What is the value of life?  Is there any value other than what we ascribe to it?  Throughout the novel, Lawrence (Larry) Darrell, constantly rejects social conventions and expectations in order to follow his own path.  He turns his back on wealth, social networking and hobnobbing, and to a large extent work, just in order to – in his own words – “loaf”.  He rejects conventional riches in order to seek out the things he personally finds value in.  I think his journey is made all the richer (no pun intended) by having it play out against the backdrop of the Great Depression, because I think it helps highlight the disparity between himself and society at large. I admit that it did take me a little bit of time to recalibrate my own expectations with what The Razor’s Edge really was, both in terms of style and setting, but despite this minor and temporary setback, I came to embrace the book wholeheartedly.  There was something about Maugham’s writing that I found mesmerizing, but I was also surprised that it was also extremely accessible despite the time spent discussing religion and man’s search for purpose.  Often times I find that fiction with overly philosophical roots makes my eyes cross or that there is a sacrifice of the narrative in order to ponder “deep thoughts”, but none of that was an issue here. The prose was really quite easy to read, though I wouldn’t say it was overly facile or uninspired.  It was just really pleasant, and I found I could happily read this book for hours at a time without getting tired.  Apparently Maugham was not necessarily highly regarded by his contemporaries when he was writing, because people were more excited by authors like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner who were forging the modernist movement in literature.  For me, however, this book was a joy to read, and I also found it inspiring and insightful.  It also felt like an interesting bridge between the more conventional/traditional storytelling of the 1800s and a more modern/experimental style, and that was something I appreciated. I was immediately engaged by Maugham’s voice, and even though I know the book is fiction, at times I did find myself wondering whether maybe it wasn’t… was this Maugham the author in the book, or was it a fictional version of himself?  I honestly don’t know, but I thought it was an interesting web to weave and break the boundaries between fiction and reality. I’m sure there’s more to say, but for a first pass, I think this will do.  This is certainly a book that I think I will re-read in the future.  I’m happy that I’ve finally read some Maugham, though I’m chagrined it took me so long to do so.  He’s an author that I definitely intend to read more of in the future, and I only hope the rest of his writing is similarly strong.  I have heard that The Razor’s Edge is quite a departure for him, so I may have picked the unrepresentative novel of his oeuvre to start off with, but it was a wonderful read and I’m so glad that I read it.  Any Maugham fans out there?  Which of his works are your favorite (or are you most interested in reading)? Rating: 4 out of 5

19 Comments

  1. 03/11/2010

    I’m enjoying The Painted Veil. I started The Razor’s Edge about a year ago, but I didn’t get into it at the time. Your post has inspired me to give it another try. I like the idea of Maugham writing himself in as a character in his own novel.

  2. I haven’t read any Maugham yet either. I have heard great things about The Painted Veil so plan to read that later in the year. I hadn’t heard of Razor’s Edge before, but I’ll keep it in mind if I enjoy Painted Veil.

  3. 03/11/2010

    Yes, this is fiction, but it’s fiction the way The Bell Jar is fiction. The entire book is based on Maugham’s own experiences. It’s almost a memoir. The book IS very different from his others, plot-wise, but has several of the same sorts of elements. Stylistically, though, Maugham is pretty standard in the way he writes. You’re right, he definitely wasn’t much appreciated in his time because it was a big age for experimental writing, but I really enjoy him. He taught me that classics could be fun and easy to read.

    The Painted Veil, Theatre, and Mrs. Craddock are my three favorites. In fact, the only ones I haven’t liked are The Magician and The Moon and the Sixpence. I have two on my shelf I haven’t read and there are many I’d like to go back and reread because I read so many of them in such a short time that they’ve blurred together in my head. Maugham is one of my favorite authors, though.

  4. 03/11/2010

    BIG Maugham fan raising her hand up! I’ve only read two (and very obscure ones at that): THe Narrow Corner and THe Trembling of a Leaf, but enough to make him one of my most beloved authors. On my tbr for this year: Of Human Bondage, The Razor’s Edge, The Painted Veil, and Of Moon and Sixpence. Glad to hear you approve of The Razor’s Edge! 😀

  5. 03/11/2010

    You’re not alone: I’ve yet to read ANY Maugham! Though now *I am alone, because you’ve finally read him 😛 Amanda at the Zen Leaf is a huge fan (as her comment above shows, hehe), and that has made me want to try him. I’m glad to hear you say he’s so accessible despite dealing with complex themes, because I was a little bit worried he wouldn’t be.

  6. 03/11/2010

    The only book that I have read by this author is Of Human Bondage, and I really only got halfway with it. I did try again, only to get bogged down in the same place, but it might just be a reflection of the fact that I wasn’t reading seriously at that time. I still have the book on my shelf and have often thought of trying again. This book does sound quite interesting to me, and the fact that it was such a success with you pushes me to want to investigate further. It sounds like a very interesting read and one I think I’d like to try. Very nice review!

  7. 03/11/2010

    I just discovered Maugham a few years ago, and I’ve read and loved Of Human Bondage and Cakes and Ale. I’ve thought my next would be either this one or The Painted Veil.

  8. 03/11/2010

    @ charley: I’m so curious to try more Maugham now! I feel like The Painted Veil is probably the one I want to try next…
     
    @ Jackie: In a way I wonder if this book might have been a bit too contemplative for you as there is a lot of time spent talking about religion and truth. That said, I really loved the writing, so you might enjoy it too!
     
    @ Amanda: Yes, this book really did feel like a memoir, and was an interesting fictional experience. I’m glad to hear that you found the style of this one to be consistent with his other works, however! It seems like you’re something of a Maugham expert! 😀 Thanks for the suggestions!
     
    @ claire: I’ve never even heard of the two Maughams you’ve read! I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on The Razor’s Edge – I think you’ll really adore it!
     
    @ Nymeth: Yes, no need to worry about the accessibility of Maugham. His writing is very smooth and easy to read – As Amanda said, he’s actually a lot of fun! And don’t worry, Tony hasn’t read any Maugham yet either, so you are not alone!
     
    @ zibilee: Of course I have always wondered about Of Human Bondage since it’s probably his best known work. But for some reason I feel like it must be such a dramatic departure from this work, perhaps more Victorian in scope? I don’t know, obviously, and clearly it’s a book I now have greater interest in reading!
     
    @ Teresa: I may have found Maugham relatively late, but I’m so glad I did. And all of the titles you mention are ones that I’m now eager to check out! Clearly I’ll be looking for Maugham the next time we’re at the bookstore (hopefully not for months… 😉 ).

  9. Great review, Steph.

    I’ve just had my first Maugham experience, reading along with Eva, and it wasn’t as successful as yours. I also thought he was an earlier novelist and find it interesting that he still followed the Victorian mode of writing (despite some modern techniques) whilst his contemporaries are in the throes of the Modernist movement.

  10. i have a few hazy recollections of maugham from the college years but don’t teach him in any of my lit classes. during the winter, i tend to read more literary books but my attention span isn’t 100%. maybe i’ll revisit him in the spring–your reviews always inspire me to read books i might otherwise pass on.

  11. _lethe_
    03/12/2010

    Nobody mentioned his short stories, I believe. I love Maugham’s short stories. Haven’t read any of his novels yet though.

  12. 03/13/2010

    @ Claire: What did you read by Maugham? I’ll be really curious to hear your thoughts on the novel you did read!
     
    @ nat: I’m so glad my reviews inspire you to check out books you might otherwise overlook! I wonder how much I might have liked Maugham if I had discovered him in college…
     
    @ _lethe_: Thanks for reminding me about Maugham’s short fiction! I’ve actually read that he was a wonderful short story writer, and I’m glad to hear that you concur!

  13. I read Cakes and Ale and I liked it well enough but didn’t love it. I hope that we manage to post a co-review about it.

  14. 03/14/2010

    Great review. The Painted Veil is my favorite so far, but several others are in the tbr pile. I’m on the way to becoming a huge fan!

  15. Eva
    03/14/2010

    I just read Cakes and Ale (w/ Claire-I’m e-mailing you today!), and I felt utterly neutral about the whole thing. I have like no emotions whatsoever to the book, I felt too detached. So I’m thinking Maugham isn’t for me. 😉

  16. 03/15/2010

    @ Claire: Haven’t heard much about C&A, so I’ll look forward to your review! Have no idea if it’s one of Maugham’s better or lesser works, but it probably won’t be the next one I read!
     
    @ JoAnn: I’m really intrigued by the premise of The Painted Veil and I’d really like to read it (provided I can ever find a copy!)!
     
    @ Eva: You know, I would think Maugham would be an author you would like, so maybe C&A just wasn’t one of his better books. Have you read Of Human Bondage? To me that sounds more like the kind of book you’d enjoy, but who knows! It’s entirely possible he’s not your cup of tea (or mug of ale!)!

  17. Eva
    03/15/2010

    No, I haven’t read Of Human Bondage. I know I’ll give him another chance eventually, but yeah I was surprised at how underwhelmed I was by C&A!

  18. 03/20/2010

    I read Of Human Bondage and really enjoyed it, but for some reason, I never tried anything else by this author. This sounds interesting, so I’ll have to give it a try!

  19. 03/21/2010

    @ Chavonne: Maugham definitely seems to me like an author you would like – especially since you just said that you enjoyed Of Human Bondage! I had never been compelled to read it before, but now I probably will!

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