The Razor's Edge

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The Razor’s Edge is a book by W. Somerset Maugham published in 1944. Its epigraph reads, "The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard." taken from verse in the Katha-Upanishad [1][2].

The Razor’s Edge tells the story of an American fighter pilot (Larry Darrell) traumatized by his experiences in World War I, who sets off in search of some transcendent meaning in his life. The novel is supposed to be based on the life of Guy Hague, an American mining engineer.

The story begins through the eyes of Larry’s friends and acquaintances as they witness his personality change after the War. His rejection of conventional life and search for meaningful experience allows him to thrive while the more materialistic characters suffer reversals of fortune. The book was twice adapted into film, first in 1946 starring Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney, and Herbert Marshall as Maugham, and then a 1984 adaptation starring Bill Murray, with Tibet replacing India as the place of Larry’s enlightenment (the monastery to which Larry travels in the 1984 movie adaptation is in Ladakh, an Indian-ruled region sometimes called "Little Tibet").[3]



Maugham begins by characterizing his story as not really a novel but a thinly veiled true account. He includes himself as a minor character, a writer who drifts in and out of the lives of the major players. Larry Darrell’s lifestyle is contrasted throughout the book with that of his fiancée’s uncle, Elliott Templeton, an American expatriate living in Paris and a shallow and unrepentant yet generous snob. For example, while Templeton's Catholicism embraces the hierarchical trappings of the Church, Larry's proclivities tend towards the 13th century Flemish mystic and saint John of Ruysbroeck.

Wounded and traumatized by the death of a comrade in the War, Larry returns to Chicago, Illinois and his fiancée, Isabel Bradley, only to announce that he does not plan to work and instead will "loaf" on his small inheritance. He wants to delay their marriage and refuses to take up a job as a stockbroker offered to him by the father of his friend Gray, Henry Maturin. Meanwhile, Larry’s childhood friend, Sophie, settles into a happy marriage, only later tragically losing her husband and baby in a car accident.

Larry moves to Paris and immerses himself in study and bohemian life. After two years of this "loafing," Isabel visits and Larry asks her to join his life of wandering and searching, living in Paris and traveling with little money. She cannot accept his vision of life and breaks their engagement to go back to Chicago. There she marries the millionaire Gray, who provides her a rich family life. Meanwhile, Larry begins a sojourn through Europe, taking a job at a coal mine in Lens, France, where he befriends a former Polish army officer named Kosti. Kosti's influence encourages Larry to look toward things spiritual for his answers rather than in books. Larry and Kosti leave the coal mine and travel together for a time before parting ways. Larry then meets a Benedictine monk named Father Ensheim in Bonn, Germany while Father Ensheim is on leave from his monastery doing academic research. After spending several months with the Benedictines and being unable to reconcile their conception of God with his own reason, Larry takes a job on an ocean liner and finds himself in Bombay.

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