Friday, May 8, 2009

Chapter 1 (The Razor's Edge)

"His soul?  It may be that he's a little frightened of himself.  It may be that he has no confidence in the authenticity of the vision that he dimly perceives in his mind."

Did anyone else feel like reading chapter 1 was a study in appearances and presentations?  I sometimes forget how different the movie and book versions are, and that really comes out for me whenever I read this first chapter.  Larry Darrell (ascetic, loaf-y) is one of five main characters in the book that we first encounter in this chapter in striking, full detail, that nonetheless draws out particular characteristics to watch for: Elliot Templeton (elegant, mannered), Gray Maturin (hale, big), Isabel Bradley (fat, bright), and the young woman at the Bradley dinner party who sits with the narrator, who we later know to be Suzanne Rouvier (awkward, frail).  I get the feeling that Maugham wants us to understand something about each person's character in these elaborate explanations of their physical appearance, which he weaves throughout the chapter.  Especially, the attention to Isabel's being slightly overweight in her youth, an indication of her being both beautiful and indulged ("She was comely though on the fat side," then "Isabel was looking very pretty; she was dressed in white silk, with a long, hobbled skirt that concealed her fat legs") seems important to me.  

I was also struck by how piecemeal the narrative is.  Maugham himself is supposedly telling the story, although in doing so he admits to taking considerable poetic license to imagine and fill-in the gaps.  Similarly, rarely is an event in the novel recalled directly.  For example, we hear from Maugham Isabel's retelling of Larry's desire to loaf, and Maugham's translation of Suzanne's recollection of Larry's story of Patsy's death.  This telling of things from at least one remove sets up nicely, for me, Maugham's later interweaving of spiritual texts from around the world, all of which are presented in translation to English, often cited from recollection, by another character, as told by Larry.  While taking religious texts out of their cultural and historical contexts can be problematic (e.g., Noah did have a boat!), here it allows the reader to practice, from the beginning, interacting with Larry's cumulative and spongey mind, which spends a great deal of the novel absorbing, processing, and sharing with others essential ideas about meaning and life from the places he travels, especially South Asia.  I feel like this is the first time, reading the novel, that I really notice just how subtly retold stories factor into the novel.

Did anyone else feel like there is kind of an early "grouping" of characters being set out here?  Not just the romantic stuff, but that Elliot and Larry seem to live according to well-articulated values, while the rest of the characters in the chapter seem pretty reactive and fashionable in their attitudes and behaviors?  Of course, Elliot is a "man of the world," but he observes and is made subservient to the rigorous details of social life, manners, and custom.  So, he finds himself uncomfortable in the world away from his French home, a lack of comfort that actually sets in motion the events of this novel, in his invitation to the narrator to visit the Bradleys.  Similarly, Larry seems drawn to a strict, as-yet unarticulated (or not-yet understood) sense of values and thinking about the world, which reigns him in and causes him to get up early after a night of late partying and go the library to read.  On the other hand, the Bradleys, the older women that Elliot fleeces in France, Gray, Suzanne, and Isabel seem content to mark out their own places in society, accepting this fashion (Larry needs a job!), rejecting that fashion (Mr. Bradley's painting is awful!).  So, the novel seems to be setting a kind of preference/admiration for people who create and then live by strict ethical and social codes. 

I know what's going to "happen next," so I won't venture any predictions at this point.  I have been watching the television show, Deadwood, and I am amazed when I read works from or about the era before antibiotics, how unremarkable and acceptable sudden death seemed to the generations of people who learned to live with it.  Patsy's death at the end of chapter 1 hits you like a trainwreck, and yet Patsy gives a laugh and declares that he's "jiggered."  Remarkable to me also is how senseless and "normal" his death seems, here.  A kind of anti-Platoon-era-Oliver-Stone restraint informs strong feelings in this book against war, which are observed primarily in how the war changes the men who experience it.  Larry's odd and admirable desire to "loaf" is born of a reckoning with human fragility and mortality.   So, Maugham establishes in this chapter a pretty easy-to-accept motive for Larry's later, eventual globetrotting and self-education, which the narrator makes a nice nod to by ending the chapter by leaving Chicago for San Francisco, then the "Far East."


Linda S. Socha said...

Ok Good Deal. If you accept late starters....I can still pull this together. Great post

Marcus said...

Wow--great post John. I need to step up my game for my comments about Chapter 2 (which I read a long time ago :)).

Will get something up Friday or Saturday.