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For one thing, as any writer will tell you, people do tell a writer things that they don’t tell others. I don’t know why, unless it is that having read one or two of his books they feel on peculiarly intimate terms with him; or it may be that they dramatize themselves and, seeing themselves as it were as characters in a novel, are ready to be as open with him as they imagine the characters of his invention are.
Most people have had the good fortune to have at least one teacher during their time at school able to inspire and guide them. Mine was a geography teacher. He was a strong influence on my growing wanderlust, interest in movies (Easy Rider for one) and the books I read. One afternoon in class he mentioned W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, although he was quick to add, ‘it’s not that kind of book’. I chased down a copy and found it to be a book about failed ambition and our need to find a purpose in life. It was inspiring to read when I was a teenager and caused me to question many certainties I had.
Of Human Bondage was a semi-autobiographical work, but Maugham goes even further in The Razor’s Edge, inserting himself into the text as a character. The opening chapter has the author speak directly to us, insisting that the story he wishes to tell is based on actual events. He refuses to introduce fiction into the proceedings besides changing the names of his ‘characters’, to protect their reputation. Instead he only relates events in their lives as he witnessed them, or as they were told to him by those directly involved. The three principals are Elliott Templeton, a kind-hearted insufferable snob whom Maugham befriends in Paris; Templeton’s niece Isabel, who confides in the author; and the strangely aloof Larry Darrell.
For all intents and purposes this is Larry’s story. A childhood sweetheart of Isabel’s he returned from the First World War strangely apathetic, not wishing to find work, or enter business as his peers have done. Growing up a member of the American upper class, his decision to devote his life instead to study is bewildering to those who know him. Elliott is personally offended that Larry has rejected the kind of life he lives for, networking at parties and ensuring that one is always a friend to the right people. Isabel, while hopelessly in love with Larry, is troubled that he would prefer to lead a penniless life than settle down with her and enter business.
Eventually she breaks off her engagement to him and he vanishes from their lives. Maugham manages to reconstruct what happened next to Larry and tells his story to us in chronological order, although for the majority of his acquaintance with the intense young American his actions remain a mystery. Having abandoned America just as it takes its first strides to becoming a superpower, Larry travels the world, looking for enlightenment at the bottom of a mine, in a monk’s cell and under the guidance of a yogi. The events of the book take place during the roaring twenties, with the 1929 Stock Market Crash a rude awakening for Isabel’s dreams of a life of ease. When next she meets Larry she finds they are both very different people now, a discovery that is hard for her to accept.
Maugham writes with sincerity and conviction, as well as an obsessive degree of detail. Larry’s quest for happiness and a purpose in life with meaning is eked out in such a way that we are not overburdened with long philosophical rants. By balancing the story between Isabel, Elliott and Larry, he gives equal perspective to three very different accounts of what is important in life.
He also writes in a self-conscious manner, almost apologizing at both the beginning and end of the book for the way in which he has written his tale. He tartly criticizes Henry James for failing to capture the English voice, hence the pretence of being a witness to actual events. This book continues to enthrall readers, with its audacious insertion of philosophy into an entertaining narrative. Most surprisingly Bill Murray was obsessed with making a film of it early in his career.
I can see why.
Now we, having had the advantage of that bird’s-eye view to which allusion was made earlier, know all about this gendarme. We are aware that he was not a remorseless bloodhound on the trail, but merely a likeable young man of the name of Octave who was waiting for pie. We, therefore, are able to behold him calmly. Our eyes, like stars, do not start from their spheres, nor do our knotty and combined locks part and each particular hair stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine.
Mr Gedge’s did. He was a mere jelly of palpitating ganglions.
Before reading the biographical note on this book’s dust-jacket, I had no idea Wodehouse spent the majority of his life in the United States. His writing seems so quintessentially English, that the idea of him typing away somewhere in Long Island just seems odd. This book adjusts the balance in my mind, as most of the characters are American, chasing up opportunities for advancement, or even a criminal scheme or two, in Old World Europe.
The book opens with the henpecked Mr Gedge, who lost his riches in the Crash of 1929 and is dependent on his upwardly mobile wife for funds. She intends for him to be made Ambassador to France, a fate he is desperate to avoid. Particularly having to wear a silly hat on ceremonial occasions. He is dreading the hat. His wife has invited a Senator Opal and his daughter to visit them in their leased chateau in Saint Roque, Brittany. She seems very confident that the Senator will agree to sponsor her husband for the role, despite the two men loathing one another. While the Senator and Jane Opal are staying in London en route to France, they encounter Packy Franklyn, a Yaleman and the fortunate beneficiary of a generous inheritance. He has promised his principled fiancé the Lady Beatrice that he will remain in London and avoid all possible shenanigans, capers, fooling around and other activities common to the flibbertigibbet. He of course falls at the first hurdle, deciding to follow the Opals to Saint Roque. Jane intends to marry an intense young novelist named Blair Eggleston, who unfortunately is penniless. To aid the course of true love, Packy sets about trying to help the young couple convince the quick to anger American Senator. His powers of invention soon land everyone staying at the chateau in a confusion of plots, blackmail, theft and confidence tricks that quickly go awry.
This is a delightful book with many surprises. I am trying to be careful to not give too much away, as there are more twists in this Gallic farce than your average There’s a hilarious scene with two characters impersonating French men trying to communicate under the watchful eye of a third party in pidgin French. As with many Wodehouse novels, this is a story about class and class consciousness. Mrs Gedge wants to advance up the rungs of the social ladder. Packy intends to marry a British aristocrat. Jane’s father values nothing more in life than wealth, which is why Blair makes for such an unlikely match. The servants at the chateau are also more than extras in the background, each with their own intrigues and secrets. Packy finds himself musing as to why he is going out of his way to help Blair and Jane. Is it due to the essential nobility that belongs to a gentleman? Or is he simply bored with his life and up for some fun.
Fun is what this book is, a brightly packaged little bundle of joy.