Well, as much as I enjoyed the last two Somerset Maugham novels I read — Of Human Bondage and The Painted Veil — my latest one, The Razor’s Edge, just didn’t work for me. I started out surprised and intrigued by it, ready to like whatever it was Maugham was trying to do, but as the book went on, I enjoyed it less and less. It suffered from two major flaws that I couldn’t get past — the pieces of it never came together into a coherent whole, and I came to like the narrator less and less. Unfortunately, the narrator claimed to be Maugham himself, which means that I’m left with some unpleasant feelings directed at Maugham, which should rightly be directed at the narrator. I’m trying to keep the two separate in my head, but it’s difficult.
There are a lot of interesting elements to the book (and in the comments on a previous post, a number of readers said they really liked it, so perhaps you might take their word for it!). There’s Maugham as the narrator; I haven’t looked up information on Maugham’s life to see if it matches the narrator’s life, but the narrator refers to novels he’s written, which are Maugham’s, and he generally seems to be writer-like and Maugham-like. I liked his method of drawing attention to himself in ways you’re more likely to see in eighteenth-century novels, for example, saying that he’s going to give the reader a break by starting a new chapter in the middle of a long scene. He also frequently refers to the decisions he’s making as a story-teller, such as when to embellish a bit and when to stick to his memories closely. I like this kind of self-reflexivity and openness about narrative and found the whole idea of the author writing himself into the story intriguing.
There are also various characters and narrative threads I enjoyed. The story takes place during the 1920s and 30s and has a lot to say about America’s place in the world, specifically about the American national character (full of seemingly endless energy and possibility) and its relationship to Europe. One of the main characters, Larry, is an American who fought in World War I and saw some brutal things that left him psychologically damaged. Or, perhaps it’s possible to say that the violence he saw opened his eyes to what really matters in life and left him completely uninterested in material values and social snobbery. He starts off the novel rather mysteriously refusing to take a plum job that’s been handed to him and slowly, as the novel goes on, starts on a spiritual quest that takes him to unexpected places.
There is also Isabel, the woman Larry plans to marry, although soon enough this relationship fails, as the values Isabel and Larry hold are incompatible. Isabel and her family come to stand for conventional values, as Isabel had the chance for a different life with Larry, but rejected it for a much more socially-acceptable marriage. It’s Isabel’s uncle Elliot, though, who is Maugham’s masterpiece in the novel. Elliot is pure, 100% snob, so calculating and ruthless that the narrator has to keep reminding us that he’s really a very nice man — just a nice man who is determined to climb the social ladder at whatever cost. Elliot has never met a titled person he didn’t like or a person of questionable origin he couldn’t snub in the most effective manner possible.
Between Isabel and Elliot on the one hand, and Larry on the other, Maugham gets to critique the social system in two ways — by satirizing Elliot’s snobbishness and Isabel’s conventionality and by admiringly narrating Larry’s rejection of their values.
All this should be a lot of fun, or, when it comes to Larry’s story, it should be moving and inspiring, but I didn’t think it was. One problem is that the pace of the narrative drags too much. Maugham really takes his time, and even I, generally a very patient reader, got antsy. The various stories seem too loosely linked as well; what holds all the characters together is the fact that they all know the narrator, who wanders in and out of their lives now and then. Maugham’s theme of materialism vs. spirituality also links the various stories, but this doesn’t feel like enough either.
Another problem is that I found the narrator less and less likeable as the novel went on. To clarify, I don’t actually expect to like every narrator I encounter and am fully prepared to enjoy an irritating, unreliable narrator, but I don’t think that’s what Maugham was offering. My dislike stems partly from the fact that I never found out much about him and yet had to spend a lot of time with him and his consciousness, and so eventually got bored. I also thought his attitude toward women was questionable. He has an irritating habit of drawing what I thought was undue attention to their physical flaws, would occasionally come out with a judgment based on stereotypes, and was dismissive of women generally. If I thought this unpleasantness added up to something, I wouldn’t mind it, but I didn’t think it did.
I’m certain I’ll read more Maugham at some point; The Razor’s Edge didn’t work for me, but I liked his other books enough to go back again.