Friday, June 5, 2009

Chapter 5, i-vi (The Razor's Edge)

NOTE: The following blog post references, tastefully, sexual situations that happen in the chapter.  Reader, be warned!  :)

Sophie arrives to Paris, engages our attention, and then disappears, all within the first six sub-sections of Chapter 5.  What we later learn of her, I'll leave aside for now, but simply put, our gang of four find her in a ratty Parisian nightclub, doped up, drunk, and in the company of unsavory, swarthy men, and a few pages later she is struggling to stay clean while engaged to Larry, whom she eventually leaves a few pages after that when she falls off the wagon.  So much plot unfolds throughout Chapter 5.  That plot is difficult to discuss in too much detail, because so much later information in the book changes our perception of these events.  For now, I'll stick to some broader observation:

1. I have read The Razor's Edge, I think, four times before this undertaking, and this is the first time I feel like I've really noticed how sexually-charged the first half of Chapter 5 is, from Sophie's exotic Paris underworld scene, where

"Men danced with podgy boys with made-up eyes; gaunt, hard-featured women danced with fat women with dyed hair; men danced with women...with a solemn intensity in which there was something horrible."

to Isabel's backseat orgasm, driving back to Paris from Chartres, while staring at Larry's tanned arm hair:

"Something in Isabel's immobility attracted my attention, and I glanced at her.  She was so still that you might have thought her hypnotized.  Her breath was hurried.  Her eyes were fixed on the sinewy wrist with its little golden hairs and on that long, delicate, but powerful hand, and I have never seen on a human countenance such a hungry concupiscence as I saw then on hers.  It was a mask of lust.  I would never have believed that her beautiful features could assume an expression of such unbridled sensuality.  It was animal rather than human.  The beauty was stripped from her face; the look upon it made he hideous and frightening.  it horribly suggested the bitch in heat and I felt rather sick.  She was unconscious of my presence; she was conscious of nothing but the hand, lying along the rim so negligently, that filled her with frantic desire.  Then as it were a spasm twitched across her face, she gave a shudder and shutting her eyes sank back into the corner of the car.

'Give me a cigarette,' she said in a voice I hardly recognized, it was so raucous.

I got one out of my case and lit it for her.  She smoked it greedily."

a scene which ends with Isabel cornering Gray such that Maugham says, "I guessed that he would have a passionate bedfellow that night, but would never know to what prickings of conscience he owed her ardor."  What a funny, deliberate and showy noun: prickings!

2.  Sophie MacDonald emerges as a walking trainwreck of a woman, ruined emotionally at about the same time that Gray's father changes his investing strategies (enabling future ruin), Larry sets off for "the East," Isabel's mother gets diabetes, and Elliot moves to the coast.  All four characters' fates are intertwined at about the same starting point.

3.  Unlike Isabel and Gray's retreat to Europe, where they maintain appearances, Sophie's reaction to catastrophe is not to closedown shop and perpetuate her former life, but rather to undertake the self-cure through drug and alcohol abuse, and lots of sleeping around.  So, Sophie immediately seems sympathetic and honest in a way that Isabel and Gray seem caught up in appearances, though, of course, frantically-desireful Isabel is really the one at fault beside  feckless, impotent Gray--whose whole body achieves less wife-ly carnal effect than Larry's shiny wrist--who happily and fatly dawdles along for the ride.

4.  Isabel resents Sophie for her violation of social mores, and finds in her an easy straw-man to bat down again and again.  And yet, Isabel insists that Maugham take all of them on a "tour of the tough joints" that he knows.  So, if are we to think that Isabel knows she'll find some easy humor at these bars, then does it follow that she expects Sophie to turn up?

5.  The collapse of Sophie's hermetic world of husband and child, at the very least, makes us sympathetic to any and all horrible following behavior.  And yet, Sophie asks for no sympathy.  She's resigned to wander from coast to coast, living off her small inheritance.  She doesn't turn to an Uncle Elliot to fix things.  In this way, she's clearly aligned with Larry, who's also content to wander from place to place, and accept circumstances more or less as they present themselves--a distinction that, romantic rivalries aside, must drive Isabel up the wall.

6.  I like this quote from Maugham, "There was a time when the black sheep of the family was sent from my country to America; now apparently he's sent from your country to Europe."

7.  Interesting also that Maugham frames Sophie's husband's death in terms of heaven and hell.  This makes a Christ-like reading of Larry all the more readable in their interaction.  Unfortunately, his desire to rehabilitate her away from the sins of alcohol feels beside the point: the drinking isn't the problem so much as the thing that leads to the drinking which, if left unaddressed, only, perhaps fatally, exacerbates the latter.  I wonder if this reflects 1940s-era thinking about alcohol abuse, or if it's a deliberate plot choice for Maugham.

8.  Of course, it turns out, Sophie is a poet!

9.  Pride emerges as a kind of marker for the novel in this chapter: Larry's healing powers with regards to Sophie; Isabel's certainty of her claim on Larry's virginity; Elliot's belief that his existence is vital and necessary to the world; Isabel's certainty that women who go "to pieces...can never get back."  Again, Maugham uses a throwaway scene--his conversation with Isabel following Larry's engagement to Sophie--to reinforce his thinking here, and to make more explicit her Mary Magdalen-Christ dynamic with Larry:

"The devil was sly and he came to Jesus once more and said: If thou wilt accept shame and disgrace, scourging, a crown of thorns and death on the cross thou shalt save the human race, for greater love hath no man that this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.  jesus fell.  The devil laughed til his sides ached, for he knew the evil men would commit in the name of their redeemer."

10.  Maugham has the final world on Isabel ("Come off it, Isabel.  You gave [Larry] up for a square-cut diamond and a sable coat."), but, as we know, Isabel is not a woman to lose at much of anything, at least not on her own terms.

1 comment:

Marcus said...

As John will recall and few other people even know by this point, my first serious relationship, while in college, was with a woman named Sopheap. Her family had immigrated from Cambodia, and Sopheap already had a baby.

I really thought it was love, but it was infatuation. My family was horrified, rightfully so. The relationship ended months after it began.

All of this came back when I read of Larry's engagement to Sophie. This is another deep mismatch, but I do believe that Larry loved her...or at least thought he did, and these things are hard to know.

In this section we are forced to face Elliott's sad social decline--what's sad is just how much he needs to be loved, and generally by people who aren't all that impressive. Elliott's a kind snob; the others are mean or indifferent snobs.

Maugham secures a bogus invitation for Elliott to attend the most splendid party of the summer. On one hand, this is an act of kindness--it means a lot to Elliott, at a stage in his life when he is unlikely to change. But on the other goodness, how sad.