Author: W Somerset Maugham
Details: (c) 1944 (Note to self: Somerset Maugham is not a Victorian writer!); Pub Pan 1079; ISBN 0-330-24461-2
Verdict: The razor's edge is an interesting character piece.
Reasons for reading it: We were discussing Somerset Maugham on my recommendations post, and I happened to have this lying around.
How it came into my hands: I think one of the Cambridge charity shops, but I'm not sure now.
I generally enjoyed The razor's edge, and cared about the characters, but it's a bit lacking in structure, it's just some episodes from various people's lives. Somerset Maugham's writing and trenchant observation make the book rewarding, but I can see why it is relatively obscure compared to some of his works. It does feel more modern than something like Of human bondage, but not a lot more modern considering it was written 30 years later. Its setting covers the interwar period, mostly the earlier half of it, but despite a reasonable amount of sex it seems rather old-fashioned. In fact, it feels like a French novel from about the turn of the last century, rather than an English novel from 1944. (Obviously, this comment is ignoring the fact that it mentions the Depression and World Wars!)
It is clear that the characters are meant to be "types" but Somerset Maugham is too skilled at characterization to keep up the allegorical tone, they are very much people. One thing I found annoying was the framing trick which presents Somerset Maugham himself as a fictional narrator. For one thing, it's rather artificial, and for another thing, the fact that he is actually a character in the story makes it very irritating when he passes judgement on the characters. If the voice were omni rather than this faux-chatty first person, I wouldn't be so bothered by his disparaging various female characters' appearance and morals, but as it is, I keep thinking, what right have you to pass comment on how a woman half your age is too fat or whatever.
The exploration of "eastern" spirituality doesn't really work, and I don't think it's actually the point of the story either. It's more an illustration of how Larry becomes a highly spiritual and even holy person. On that level, it's a skillful piece of writing. And the other characters are interesting and sympathetic enough that they are not just there to show how various forms of materialism and apathy are inferior. The description of Elliott's death is rather moving. And generally I enjoyed the (often sardonic) depictions of upper class American society of the period.