The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

The Razor's EdgeThe Razor’s Edge (1944) is one of those classic books I never read. All I knew was that Bill Murray was roasted for his role as young Larry in the 1984 film. (Turns out there was a 1946 version , too, with Tyrone Power, Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, Anne Baxter, and Elsa Lanchester.) The title alone, from the book’s epigraph, is more perplexing than beguiling.

The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over
Thus the wise say the past to Salvation is hard.

W. Somerset Maugham was one of the most popular writers of the day. He had commercial success with his novels, short stories, plays and films, and his masterpiece Of Human Bondage had been published in 1915. He had served in World War I as one of the British “Literary Ambulance Drivers”, and then as a spy. This experience supplied some background for his character Larry, a young man who had been a WWI aviator. When Larry returns to Chicago from the Great War, he is congenial enough, yet somewhat aimless. “I don’t know my purpose yet,” he replies to inquiries about his prospects. When offered a job as a broker in Chicago, however, he declines. His fiancé Isabel tells him “A man must work, Larry. It’s a matter of self-respect.” But Larry decides to go to Paris: “I think there I may be able to see my way before me.”

The Razor’s Edge was one of the first popular American novels to explore Eastern cultures, following the Transcendalists, and followed by the Beats in the 1950s. Maugham had visited an ashram in India, and talked with a well-known Hindu guru there. Larry tramps around Europe and India and absorbs much from fellow travelers and gurus, from the meaning of success, to the question of evil, to reincarnation, to the infinite.

If you have been asked, “What’s the use of knowledge if you’re not going to do anything with it?”, or can identify with the response, “Can anything in the world be more practical than to learn how to live to best advantage?”, read The Razor’s Edge.

If you like this book, you may also enjoy Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, or Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

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