Sunday, May 31, 2009

Chapter 4 (The Razor's Edge)

"I asked myself if she thought she'd answered my question.  I changed the conversation."

"On the contrary I think you're an excellent mother.  You see that they're well and happy.  You watch over their diet and take care that their bowels act regularly."

"It may be then that one is faced with the desolation of knowing that one has wasted the years of one's life, that one's brought disgrace upon oneself, endured the frightful pang of jealousy, swallowed every bitter mortification, that one's expended all one's tenderness, poured out all the riches of one's soul on a poor drab, a fool, a peg on which one hung one's dreams, who wasn't worth a stick of chewing gum."

"'My poor friend,' I said to him.  'Whether you love me or not isn't of the smallest consequence.  What is of consequence is that you have no talent.'"

"'Well, Larry is, I think, the only person I've ever met who's completely disinterested.  It makes his actions seem peculiar.  We're not used to persons who do things simply for the love of God whom they don't believe in.'"

--Ch.4, The Razor's Edge

So, Suzanne Rouvier is not who I was thinking of when I listed my five "main characters" in my first entry about this book.  In fact, I was thinking of Sophie MacDonald.  But first, Bosley Crowther.

In his 1946 NYTimes review of the original movie adaptation of The Razor's Edge, Crowther notes that, while the movie falls well short of capturing a "spiritual quality [that] exceeds its reach," he suspects the eventual Oscar-winning feature (Best Actress, Anne Baxter as said Sophie) will no doubt "appeal to a great many people who are sentimentally inclined to its vague philosophy."  I have not yet seen that movie adaptation, but I have no doubt that Larry's migraine-erasing Alexander-the-Great coin trick must figure prominently in said quasi-theology.  So, too, Larry's physical transformation, from slenderly studio to tanned, bearded, threadbare ascetic smacks, at least a little, of that weird, great Dos Equis adman, "The Most Interesting Man in the World."  Excepting that, here, Larry drinks neither beer nor champagne (he drinks tea), his learning five languages, swimming regularly, graduating from an ashram, and returning to Paris having invested wisely in government bonds--and so, rich, to boot--all speaks of a man not quite of his time but nonetheless impressive.  I wish, just a little, that Maugham had invested Larry with at least one quality that he might not readily share with the 1970s-era Alan Alda.  Larry is an embodiment of one masculine ideal, which is more than we can say for paunchy, effeminate, emotive, feckless, poor, doting, unemployed Gray Maturin, whose crippling headaches--can't we just be done with it and call them "spells"?!--render him thoroughly eunuched.  Allusions to a former temper abound, but it is only through Larry's intervention that Gray commences (after some crying) along the road to recovery.

I'm being hard on Larry.  He's a captivating presence in this chapter: thoroughly decent, unassuming, and charitable.  If Elliot's generosity is more and more permanent, catholic, and Catholic, Larry's is fleeting and localized.  He's a sort of on-call revivalist, who expels demons 100% at a moment's notice.  Larry's response to his fellow airmen's death is to find ways to be generous without requiring compensation; practicing a unique intelligence, in chapter 4, Larry is all effect.  How he got to this place, we'll learn later, but the outcome is impressive to both readers and his friends.  I particularly like his exchange here with Isabel regarding why he has not come directly to the Maturin apartment ("I thought if I was going to do it at all, I'd better do the thing in style"), where he arrives finally cleanly-shaved, dressed to the nines, dapper, handsome and wanting nothing.  Larry is like that science fiction character who spelunks into the alien moon, seemingly lost for dead, then shows up several years later on the next planet with all the answers.  Who is this guy and how did he figure it all out?

Isabel is beautiful, slender, established, and resigned to being Gray's husband.  Seemingly gone is any reluctance about Larry, who she clearly still loves.  I admire here Isabel's sense of persevering and trying to put a good face on things.  As quoted above, if she can't be a doting, affectionate mother (a role she acknowledges Gray plays to a "t"), she can train them well, attend to their palates and bowels, and expect good manners.  The moment in the opening scene of chapter 4, where Isabel eats no sweets herself but instead saves her portion for her children, speaks volumes for me about the sacrifices she has made in the intervening years from chapter 3 (as does her general slimming down).  Her attention to fashion and custom seems lonely, to me, and her compromises and sacrifices, no doubt deeply felt, remain private.  While she retains a good $3,000 annually to live in, she chooses to remain with her husband and family.  If her decision seems conventional and framed within the situation of many women of her era, the choices she makes to be there feel human and honest.  Unlike Larry, she's completely engaged in her moment (if dramatically).

How nice to close with Suzanne Rouvier who, besides our narrator, is the only person in the novel to witness Larry's war story.  While Isabel wonders about Larry's potential virginity (if he didn't lose it to her, he must not have lost it to anyone), Suzanne wanders into Larry's bedroom.  Unconstrained by her own expectations about polite and proper behavior, Suzanne takes even typhoid in stride.  Unlike Isabel, there is no sense of self-pity or sacrifice in her muse-ish wanderings.  Isabel is grateful for Larry, which sort of has me wondering, how come we get still so little of Larry's life?  Doesn't the guy buy bread?  Get a haircut?  Even his daily life feels choreographed for effect.  No one knows where he lives.  Walking on the street, he dashes away.  He swims so that Suzanne can admire his swimming.  He makes love so that Suzanne can admire his detached passion.  Some part of this, if not all of it, is due to how Maugham tells his story.  Yet, the more admirable Larry gets, the less human he seems, not tending toward the transcendent but rather the archetypal.  The troubling thing about archetypes is, the more encompassing and representative they become, the less specific and individualized.  Again, I know "what's next," so I won't say too much, except that if we don't soon see even just the hint of rough angle in Larry, and/or articulation of the ideas contained in all his wanderings, translations, and dramatic monlogues, he'll be stuck doing magic coin tricks in our imaginations long after our sentimental inclination wanders to the next installment of Chicken Soup For The Mystic Soul. 

1 comment:

Marcus said...

Ha ha--Chicken Soup for the Mystic Soul!

I have a different sense of the relative masculinity and femininity of Gray and Larry. To me Gray is a "big ol' lug," or a "good ol' boy" as they'd say down South. He's not that impressive, but he's very nice to his children, and so how can we judge him? Most of his struggles now are because he lost everything in the great crash of 1929, not from his "natural" personality.

Larry's coin hypnosis--I don't know. I think I saw something similar on a cruise ship when I was 11 years old. But it does the "trick" for Gray, and it's his life and not mine.

Yes--Suzanne! What a character. For a book of its time, The Razor's Edge is amazingly frank about sexuality...while never veering close to being distasteful. It's hilarious that her sugar daddies progress from artists to a businessman--everyone sells out, I guess. Larry's brief fling with Suzanne is quite surprising given his ascetic ways today, but it makes him easier to relate to.