Friday, March 11, 2011

The Razor's Edge Closes On 70 Years

The Razor's Edge"Rise, awaken, seek the wise and realize. The path is difficult to cross like the sharpened edge of the razor (knife), so say the wise." — Katha Upanishads

The epigraph inside the book The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham bears a slight variation from the text, but the meaning is no less an intriguing thread that weaves throughout the story of a World War I American fighter pilot. Instead of conforming to prevailing social norms of affluent social circles, Larry Darrell sets out to find the meaning of life.

It's mostly told through the starkly contrasting view of his friends and associates as they interact with the author, who not only recounts the story but is also an active participant and detective of sorts. He prompts questions to better understand everyone.

Among the principal characters he interacts with are Elliott Templeton, a good natured elitist snob; Isabel Bradley, a vivacious and charming young woman at the start; Gray Maturin, a hardworking businessman and childhood friend; and Sophie MacDonald, a quiet and plain girl who eventually becomes self-destructive. There are several others. But besides Darrell, these four have the most impact on the story.

The Razor's Edge is a triumph in redefining courage.

While it is all too easy to cast the story as a rejection of materialism, a more appropriate accounting of the book is the rejection of conformity for a higher purpose. It also warns against placing too many expectations on people or even your own life. Most of the central characters struggle in their pursuit of the status quo, while Darrell discovers a simpler, less stressful but more strident path.

Darrell makes his choice after being changed by an incident in World War I and returning to America. Waiting for him are expectations. Maturin expects him to join his family's business. Bradley expects that they will marry. And Templeton sets the social standard for which they (and everyone) ought to ascend.

But Darrell has other plans. After pushing off job opportunities and his pending engagement for two years — masking studies as mere loafing — he decides to travel abroad, living on a meager pension and searching for purpose in his life. He initially asks Bradley to join him, but she rejects the idea in favor of having nice things, wearing fancy clothes, and having fun. (The truth is that she is too scared to give up her sense of security to follow him.)

Darrell sets out without her, first living plainly in Paris as a scholar of sorts but then taking jobs as a coal miner, farmer, and spiritual student. The others pursue their expected paths with Templeton climbing the social ladder; Maturin and Bradley marrying; and MacDonald settling down.

Life is rarely so simple. Each of the characters face life-changing challenges that make them question their sense of self-worth as they have defined it. As Templeton ages, he struggles to retain his standing while society aims to cast him aside. The stock market crash destroys the security and status that Maturin and Bradley pursued. A car accident kills MacDonald's husband and child. And only the author and Darrell manage to remain constant, with Darrell's path taking him to India.

However, the theme of the story is not to bludgeon materialism. Despite their varied paths, most of the characters' destinations are not disastrous (although some arguably deserve worse fates and others happier endings). Maugham expertly drafts a tale that isn't judgmental. Everyone gets what they want, but it is debatable whether everyone wants what they get.

A brief about the author and film adaptations.

W. Somerset MaughamW. Somerset Maugham was an English author, playwright, and screenplay writer; one of the highest paid and most notable of his generation in the 1930s. He had written several significant works. In fact, The Razor's Edge was considered a departure for him, especially because he told the story as told to him through American eyes. In doing so, the story paints a compelling picture of multiculturalism as well.

The book was adapted twice: first in 1946 starring Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney and then in 1984 starring Bill Murray. The latter, perhaps unjustly, suffered critical ridicule as Murray's first dramatic role.

Murray had incredible passion for the project: writing the screenplay with director John Byrum, including a farewell speech to friend John Belushi in the script; and taking a hiatus from acting after the film's disappointing reception and financial disaster. However, everyone here thinks it is worth its own review another time.

The Razor's Edge By W. Somerset Maugham Crosses 9.9 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

The book bears little resemblance to the movie, which is told exclusively from Larry Darrell's point of view and with abundant adaptation license. The book is shared mostly from Maugham's point of view and he mostly attempts to remain objective. His connection is mostly to Templeton, to whom the other players are tied. The book itself is very likely based on the life of American mining engineer Guy Hague.

The Razor's Edge is available from Amazon and the book is available from Barnes & Noble. iTunes carries an audio version of The Razor's Edge, read by Michael Page with brilliant authenticity as if Maugham himself were telling the tale. The Razor's Edge 1984 is available to rent on iTunes, but Columbia Pictures has yet to offer the digital for sale. (You can, however, find the DVD on those sites offering the book.)
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