Friday, May 22, 2009

Chapter 3 (The Razor's Edge)

"But that was only one side of him and it was the other side that made him so interesting to me.  I couldn't reconcile the two."--Larry, on Kosti, in ch.3 of The Razor's Edge.

Chapter 3 is full of splits, dichotomies, parallels, or whichever literary term means it happens here, then there, kind of different, but basically the same.  Refreshingly, these splits don't neatly reconcile themselves, nor are they set into stark, moralistic opposition.  Maugham uses Chapter 3 to further tease out the groundwork for ideas that, we suspect, will make for good cultivation down the road.  For me, this chapter is a lot like a really good mid-season episode of "Lost"--lots of questions, things that don't make much sense along, and that sense that, eventually, things will get tied together meaningfully, unexpectedly, if I just keep with it.  Anyway, on to those splits--

First, we get a bunch of interesting perspectives on the origin and nature of titles.  Count Elliot's donations to the Church inspires the Pope to restore to Elliot a noble blood line that did not, before, exist.  Kosti, well-read, passionate, and bright, claims that he has been usurped of his nobility (as a cavalry officer) after a failed assassination attempt on the Soviet-supported dictator in Poland, Jozef Pilsudski, though in reality, Kosti ran the tables at the officers' club in Warsaw and was forced to flee under cover of night.  The widow Ellie's condescension toward Frau Becker, and her persistent exploitation of her husband's memory as war veteran, suggests either a kind of unsettled resignation to circumstances or a happily large-fished attitude toward a very small pond.  That Ellie and Larry have taken such divergent paths post-war and post-trauma nicely gives us reason to admire Larry as he leaves Kosti and sets out for Bonn (a story line we'll pick up later in the book).  Having suffered a breakdown, professionally discredited after the crash, Gray is taken care of by Isabel; together, they accept Elliot's polite and subtle offer to live in Paris at his expense, installed at the generosity of a now-noble patron.   Mrs. Bradley death, bittersweet and ironic, comes after her witnessing the loss of her daughter's social position and fortune.

Like Kosti, Elliot takes on a mentee who, in a few weeks achieves what it takes the mentor a lifetime to build and sustain.  Dissatisfaction enters as a prominent quality of life; Elliot, ever the dandy, nonetheless tires of Paris and finds his place there safe but unspectacular.  Like Larry, he commences a withdrawal to new climes, where, also like Larry, he begins "the most splendid period of [his] life," living well and holding court as never before while "effecting a very satisfactory working arrangement between God and Mammon."  Ironically, it is Elliot's generosity that saves the Maturins; his social position requires that he act generously, but still the narrator offers unqualified praise for this save.  Gradually, we get a sense of Larry less as dilettante, more as eager, uncertain apprentice.  He's looking for something, but what, and where?  Better keep moving East.  Likewise, Larry's being seduced by Ellie, thinking it Frau Becker, gives a kind of public/private perspective on grief and human need, as we are reminded, again of Larry's own post-traumatic situation.  For all ten years of Chapter 3, Larry is set out on a course of discovery that far exceeds its initial curiosity about the world, the world's classic literature, and his desire to loaf.

Chapter 3 unsettles a bit my idea of reading this book as central to no one character, and at least somewhat allegorical in its characters more or less getting, in the end, what they say they want.  We'll have to see if this reading holds out.  Our younger generation of characters seem to be settling into their adult paths easily; 80-odd years later, Larry seems like a find stand-in for a graduate student, while Gray and Isabel, pre-Depression, seem ready for the suburbs.  Elliot turns 65 and decorates his life with the finery of later-age accomplishment, while initiating a seemingly extra-societal turn toward religious faith.  Larry's work in the mines seems nicely to capture some of the ambivalence of early 20th-century manual labor; if Larry goes to the mine with romantic ideas of the virtues of labor,  he nonetheless leaves the shaft for the car almost as soon as he arrives (and the mine for the farm, then the city, not too long after).  I wish that Maugham would, in this chapter, set out some more detail about the Maturin marriage, that it wasn't set out in such broad strokes (wedding-babies-breakdown-Paris).  I miss Isabel, and would like some commentary on more than the size of her body.

1 comment:

Marcus said...

John, you have a more thoughtful reading of Ellie's seduction of Larry via pretending to be Frau Becker ("public/private perspective on grief and human need"). I just thought it was hilariously ribald; I tried to contain my laughter as I read this scene on the CalTrain two weeks ago.

Larry's desire to do manual labor (which comes up again some chapters later) seems a bit of a cliche for young men of a high class who have sensitivity. But in this case Larry's desire is very sincere even if it is a cliche, and is the effective jumpstart on a long period of wandering that eventually takes him to India.

Elliott's complex mixture of snobbishness and great kindness comes into more full view at the end of this chapter--another example of dichotomies that aren't easily resolved.