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. 

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.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Chapter 2 (The Razor's Edge)

"The measure of your holiness is proportionate to the goodness of your will."--Jan van Ruysbroek.

To say that a character in a novel is only a stand-in for the reader, especially a narrator, is to start, a little tired, along that dangerous, razor's-edge-style interweaving of construction and content, yet what to make of our narrator in this chapter, as he constructs most everything from memory, save his last exchange with Isabel?  And the strange intersections in the narrator, of insider and outsider.  He has enough social cachet to warrant attention from Elliot, but is aloof enough to earn Larry's confidences regarding his lunches (he does, in fact, eat them) home (Montparnasse), and reading schedules.  He is a globetrotter to China, and also a careful observer of the Luxembourg, where he finds everything unchanged since his youth.  Plot-wise, he also foregrounds the permanent impermanence of things--the transient nature of existence, if you will--which sort of folds in neatly alongside his general absence from the specific events of the first half of the chapter ("and again I have to eke out my knowledge of what passed during the few weeks they spent there").  

Larry and, for that matter, fascination-with-Larry (those eyes!  that drawn and skinny face!), continues to attract the attention of everyone, yet I can't help but admire and want to argue that there is no "main" character/protagonist in this book, that while our admiring eyes may focus on Larry as he does and does not appear, that this is actually a book about Isabel, Elliot, Larry, Gray, and, eventually, Suzanne, and how the choices they make reflect the way they want to live.  This is way reductive, but, in this chapter, we learn of Isabel's diabetes, no doubt the result of many years of habitual over-eating and drinking.  Elliot loses a step keeping up with the Chicago crowd, but glosses over these absences with his still-formidable graces; how long can a grand man stay at the top?  Larry loses weight, learns French and Greek and Latin, reads a bunch (Spinoza, The Odyssey, the Flemish mystic Ruysbroek [just a guy Larry knew in college], Des Cartes), and loses Isabel for the pursuit of low-budget self-realization.  Isabel loses Larry for want of a proper wedding, social position, proper baby budgets, family pressure, and stubbornness.   Or is it Larry's stubborn expectation that's ridiculous--that Isabel fall in line in a way that he never would, as he continues to refuse Elliot's generosity, frustrate Louisa's ambitions to marry Isabel, loaf, read, decline to return to the United States, loaf and read more, and then more?

Yet--and this is one of the reasons I like this book so much-everyone seems to be getting what they believe they want.  Larry plows through several semesters' worth of close reading the Big Thinkers.  Mrs. Bradley feasts and converses with the best (albeit on Elliot's dime) all summer.  Elliot remains a nucleus of social exchange and interaction.  Isabel, no longer engaged, is charmed by a Rumanian [sic] prince...and yet, she is also completely unmoored as to whether she should follow her heart or Larry's, a moment nicely rendered in this exchange between Isabel and the narrator from a dog-eared page of my copy of the book:

"And yet at the bottom of my heart I've got an uneasy feeling that if I were better, if I were more disinterested, more unselfish, nobler, I'd marry Larry and lead his life.  If I only loved him enough I'd think the world well lost."

"You might put it the other way about.  If he loved you enough he wouldn't have hesitated to do what you want."

Isabel's uncertainty and self-doubt humanize her in a way that Larry, for me, remains too far removed from the world.  Yes, Isabel is precocious, exacting, demanding--but she also doubts herself, which humanizes her while Larry, dancing and loafing his way through nights away from the library, continues to seem just enough of a clueless, well, schmuck.  Okay, I'm being a tad combative.  Looking at this thing differently, we can say that Isabel and Larry are both rigid and certain in their pursuit of outcomes (Larry's life of loafing, Isabel's industrious insouciance) that seem to have no clear processes.  How to get Larry to love Isabel and come home?  How to convince Isabel that they can travel the world on $3,000 a year?  If the other would just take orders a little more easily, wouldn't it all be so grand?

And yet, our narrator gets it right at the end of the chapter.  Love isn't a good sailor and it does indeed languish on sea voyages.  Seemingly freed from initial constraints, we're well-positioned to watch, by virtue of our narrator's coming gap in years, the seeds and fruits of self-intensive scrapping and self-actualizing.

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."