Monday, November 13, 2006

Easy Enlightenment

The Razor’s Edge, by W. Somerset Maugham, Read by Michael Page, Brilliance Audio, 1994

There are books you read the moment you hear about them and books you put on your to-read list meaning to get to them someday. The same can be said about authors. Ever since purchasing for a friend two lovely hardbound volumes of the short stories of W. Somerset Maugham (a gift I couldn’t refrain from dipping into a little), he’s been on my to-get-to list. One of the advantages of listening to so many audiobooks is that such authors get fast-tracked the moment I see anything of theirs on CD. Such was the case when one of Maugham’s best-known novels, The Razor’s Edge, came into view.

Maugham starts off the novel with a preface about the nature of writing about characters not of your own nation. He makes the lovely point I’ve had before while listening or reading novels that dialogue often gives away a writer as not being of the nation of the characters, and no portion of dialogue demonstrates this quite so much as that of slang. He notes Henry James’ use of slang gives English readers a disquieting jolt. It is akin to hearing a member of an older generation use outdated slang like when Jay Leno tells us he’s “getting jiggy with it.” Wrong on all counts.

It is always gratifying when an author confirms one’s own beliefs, sometimes dangerous, but invariably gratifying. That tingle of pleasure should probably then be accompanied by a wariness. The garden path is led down easiest through flattery.

The novel tells two specific opposed stories, the search for enlightenment by Larry Darrell and the quest for social relevance and esteem by unrepentant snob Elliott Templeton. The two are connected by Larry’s fiancée and Templeton’s niece Isabel (who eventually tires of Larry’s lack of worldly ambition and marries his friend Gray Maturin), as well as by the narrator, Maugham, who inserts himself as a character in the novel.

What’s rather pleasant here as a novel is how little it’s about the narrator, the “Maugham” who tells the story. There are quite too many novels about the person telling it (and often as not writing it) and too few first person novels where the focus isn’t on the self. The first person minor character is an underutilized style of writing that has its own pleasant charms.

In that way too, the novel’s focus is rather like a metaphor for the search for enlightenment by Larry; as much as it is about the self, about whether or not one has an eternal soul and whether one’s life has a meaning and so forth, the seeking of enlightenment is a very individualized search to escape one’s individualism, a kind of paradox. It is nearly an equivalent paradox that nirvana is attained after one has relinquished even the desire to achieve nirvana. Thus Maugham’s novel quietly mirrors this aspect of enlightenment.

With this in mind, one is put to wonder about the two tracks of the story, the happy enlightenment fellow and the worldly materialists. While Larry may be admirable in his rejection of the crass striving of the jazz years preceding the stock market crash and the Great Depression, the diametric opposition of Larry to Templeton has a bit of obviousness about it. The author bridges this by having “Maugham” be our person upon the cusp, one who lives among the socialite set though without making it his life’s passion, while being aware of the kind of mysticism and philosophies that Larry seeks out. He is equally at ease discussing parties with Templeton as he is ashrams with Larry.

Likewise, Maugham tells several stories, as though this were a collection of them and we learn each of the characters’ lives, and their lives are slightly intertwined with others, and running through every one of those strands comes a little bit of Larry or a little bit of “Maugham” or Templeton.

While the novel’s structured events tend toward the didactic, Larry in seeking enlightenment finds not only happiness and contentment but is also visited by material success while the strivers meet with one tragedy after another, Maugham is also enough of a sentimentalist to allow each character to find success, after their fashion. Which is not to say all come to happy ends, but that every character achieves what they set out for.

Maugham’s pacing and prose nicely papers over any overly pat arrangement of the plotting, and the telling is done so expertly that one can overlook the rather simplistic moralism. While there are few moments of overt lyricism, Maugham’s style has a rare clarity that lends itself extraordinarily well to audiobooks.

This lucid quality extends as well to the narrator “Maugham,” who is so genial and straightforward that he allows each character to dominate the scene while he himself appears merely as recorder, only really stepping forward to active participation in the plot in one neatly told bit of detective work.

The characters too bask in “Maugham’s” warmth. Larry’s good fortune to have enough money to strive for nothing but to merely loaf and seek spiritual advancement is appealing to just about any young person. Yet in Maugham’s voice, Larry never comes off as less than humble, good-natured, pleasant, altogether enjoyable, aware even of his luck in being so blessed. He also allows us to see Templeton’s fears and vulnerabilities in such touching fashion that even his snobbery has its uppity charms, going so far as to believe that heaven itself will be ranked along class distinctions. “My father’s house has many mansions” indeed.

The only place Maugham’s good natured glow doesn’t quite extend fully, doesn’t entirely surround the characters in a hazy radiance is in his depictions of the two predominant female characters. Larry’s first fiancée Isabel is an out and out shallow materialist who is never chastened by the experience of the Depression, who marries more out of class considerations than true affection (though I believe she does come to love her husband), and who doesn’t seem to ever consider deeply at any level more than her own wants and desires.

This type of selfishness is taken to an extreme with the character of Sophie, a childhood friend of Larry and Isabel’s who loses her husband and child in an accident. Following this tragedy, she immediately sinks to the bottom, becoming an opium addict in Paris. She demonstrates little will of her own for anything after this save self-destruction. Larry’s attempt to rescue her is probably doomed from the start, though it is greatly helped along by the base deceit and perfidy of Isabel.

Neither character is treated with much affection by the author and it is singularly notable that Maugham should not extend his bonhomie to the opposite sex. Male authors, especially of this time, routinely create weak portrayals of female characters, much as female authors inevitably fall short of well rounded male characters (though often coming closer to the mark). It is rare, though, to see such stark contrasts.

It is easy to see how reading The Razor’s Edge in my youth may have had a more profound effect than in these later, more cynical years. It was quite a wrench to leave the vagrant life of European wandering I indulged myself in the summer of my twenty-third year, and had I been possessed of a moderate fortune I doubt I should have done so. Had someone handed me this novel at that time, I think I would have moved heaven and earth to make it so, fortune or no.

In any event, Maugham’s novel and his style are engaging even if not dramatically moving, pleasurable even when discussing unpleasant people and events, and imminently readable. Having peeked once more into a volume of short stories, I find them rather like a Whitman’s sampler box of chocolates. Not as rich as a Godiva, nevertheless over and gone all too quickly, the simple pleasure in “just one more” carrying you through to the all too soon arriving end.

Michael Page is a toe-to-toe match for the author, his voice crisp, clean, without affectation or melodrama. He performed the rather noteworthy feat of almost disappearing into the story, reading with what seemed an effortless transparency that never once came between listener and author. Maugham couldn’t have asked for better.

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