“For men and women are not only themselves; they are also the region in which they are born, the city apartment or farm in which they learnt to walk, the games they played as children, the old wives tales they overheard, the food they ate, the schools they attended, the sports they followed, the poets they read, and the God they believed in. It is all these things that have made them what they are, and these are the things that you can’t come to know by hearsay…”
This was my second time reading Maugham’s grand opus on existentialism. What is the purpose of life? Why are we here? What makes for a meaningful life? And what can we do to find the answers to these vexing questions?
Nonetheless, I came away somewhat disappointed when compared to the first time I read this novel some 30 + years ago. Upon my first read, I was thoroughly absorbed by Maugham’s writing style and insight into human affairs. I was satisfied with the ending and it served as a great preliminary introduction to Eastern and/or Indian mysticism.
Reading it a second time, I was slightly less impressed. I believe this has to do with the fact that I didn’t like the style of Maugham’s writing. He wrote long-winded sentences that in today’s fiction just don’t read well. I found myself forced to reread certain phrases because I felt he was trying to stuff too much description when it wasn’t needed. He also wrote too many empty phrases describing a character’s physique or reaction to a particular situation. Descriptions of Larry’s smile, for example, just fell flat for me. This novel is essentially one long conversation between the author and the principal characters. There’s no action in it at all.
What I always loved about Maugham was his observations about humanity. And this novel includes some prescient ones. His observations about marriage, morality, God, were just as validating to me as the first time I read them. I believe Maughm was gay. I think it’s because of Mr. Maugham’s sexual orientation that he’s able to express such discernment into heterosexual relations.
I love this story not just because it focuses on one person’s search for the meaning and purpose of existence but how Maugham uses as a backdrop the contrast between the “gay” 20’s with the Depression 30s as a way of reminding the wealthy that they too are not immune to the unpredictability of life’s economics. Of course, noblesse oblige saves the day for Isabel and Grey, thanks to charming but snobby, Uncle Elliott.
I also like how much Larry actually learned about himself from his sojourn to India. He gained tremendous acuity about human consciousness and spirit, something Isabel was never interested in. And in the end, each character finds what they are looking for. It’s a very satisfactory conclusion. I also did not recall that the second to last chapter is really where Mr. Maugham shines as he delves into Larry’s pursuit of Indian mysticism. You could really skip everything that precedes this chapter and just read it as a stand alone. From this chapter you would learn everything you need to know about Larry’s quest for meaning. It was this chapter that introduced me to Brahmanism.
My only quibble, again, has to do with Somerset’s writing style. I don’t think it has aged well. I love the 1946 movie version of Razor’s Edge. It sorely lacked specifics about Larry’s sojourn into India and that remains the weakest part of the film. Otherwise, the acting is uniformly excellent.