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November 13, 2014

Somerset Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge”

by Brendan

I’ve been reading and very much enjoying Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, recommended to me by Jesse Kornbluth, who provides a service called Head Butler (headbutler.com), where he makes weekly recommendations of books, movies, music, and occasionally products ranging from hair dryers to stereos.

Maugham’s book is about the 1920’s, mostly in Europe, a period that’s been interesting me more and more in the last year, which puts me in range of the cultural zeitgeist (another movie version of The Great Gatsby was out recently).  It started when Head Butler sent me  Harold J. Arlen’s Exiles and Amanda Vaill’s Everybody Was So Young.  The latter is a brilliant book, about American expatriates in Europe in the 1920’s, especially Gerald and Sara Murphy, the prototypes for Dick and Nichole Diver  in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book Tender Is the Night (which I read for the first time actually in Paris in 1972 and reread last summer).

The Razor's Edge book cover

The Razor’s Edge book cover

When I mentioned The Razor’s Edge to my friend Doug at lunch yesterday, he noted that it was the film that almost sunk Bill Murray’s career — he was in a weak and not-so-popular remake of it in the 90’s (it was made in 1946 starring Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney).  I can’t remember if I ever saw it — hardly a recommendation if I did.

The novel is about equally divided among Elliott Templeton, his cousin Isabel, and her temporary fiance Larry Darrell.  Elliott is a socialite, a guy who gives great parties, flies from Paris to London when he needs new suits, and would rather die than miss a party where “important” people in society will show up.  I don’t find him very likable, but he’s amazingly generous to his friends.  Isabel is a Mid-Western girl trying to find herself in life, and when Larry and she break up, marries stockbroker Gray Maturin (who manages to lost just about everything in the Crash of 1929.

Larry Darrell is a seeker, something of a mystic, a 1920’s prototype of the hippies we’re more familiar with from the 1960’s.  He has a small income and no inclination to work, instead reading books, studying languages, traveling to India, etc.

Pretty sure I read The Razor’s Edge when I was in college, don’t  much remember doing it, but glad to re-discover it and enjoy how well-written and entertaining it is, even though there have been times I wanted to reach into the pages and slap Larry, or slap Elliott.

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