The Razor's Edge

It is perhaps only Somerset Maugham who would manage to write a novel with sharp satire on the ultimately sad life of a classic expatriate snob and a young man's search for enlightenment, telling both with remarkable empathy. Like the doctor, he trained to be, he enters the lives of others with detached caring and an observant eye.

Yet the novel was a departure because of its underlying theme of spiritual quest and discovery and ultimately it is Larry, the young American seeker, who holds your attention. Twenty years before a 'journey to the East' became popular in the Anglo-American world, here is Maugham charting its course with great delicacy and real insight.

Not least because Larry is not a dewy eyed hippy, enamoured of a rebellious counter-culture, who, the revolt over, settles down, for good or ill, into baby boomer suburban normality, but an agnostic seeker, testing every encountered view against the reality of his experience, not least that of an airman in the First World War, where his life has been saved resulting in the death of his friend.

Every viewpoint is scrutinised against the reality of that evil experienced and held only ever as a provisional truth, requiring deeper exploration in both thought and in the everyday realities of life.

The novel ends with him renouncing his modest fortune and finding the life of a taxi driver in the United States. A car offering the freedom of earning just enough to live on in a way that sustains his quest.

The original success of the novel was predicated on its being published in 1944 when, once again, the apparent sustaining values of the world had collapsed into disorder and conflict and people were seeking a different narrative. I was reminded of the success of Thomas Merton's 'The Seven Storey Mountain' published shortly after the Second World War when a 'healthy' young American male did the equally apparently unthinkable act of becoming a monk, rather than a taxi driver, and sold a million copies and sparked a minor flood of entrants into monastic life!

But such conflicts are, in fact, only an exaggerated reminder that, in truth, we continuously fail to embody the values of the real; and, that only a concerted quest, conducted individually, for the true ground of our being will ever make the difference that makes a difference. It is only when you step into the most beautiful world that the heart knows is possible that you actually stand a hope of bringing that world into being. That is the life of the prospective saint that is Larry's, and each and every one of us, should we choose.


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