Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard." -Katha-Upanishad

On the first day of November, I woke myself up an hour earlier than normal, when the light coming through the windowshades was still blue and cold, and came out to sit in front of the fireplace to read. The first novel I picked for consumption was The Razor's Edge, because I had read Maugham before and loved him, and wanted to start out with a novel I could count on to carry me over to the next day's reading. Yesterday, I checked out an armful of books from the library, and was a bit shocked to see them piled so high on the chest we've been using as a makeshift dining table. I wondered whether I would actually be able to read this much in a week. I wondered whether I was crazy.
Despite my doubt (echoed by many), I turned the first page today optimistically, and giggled through the all-too-English introduction of a book about Americans. Maugham apologizes because, as he says, it is impossible to really know anyone besides one's own countrymen. He defers to his American friend, who asserts that "We Americans like change. It is at once our weakness and our strength." This sentiment is not new to me - my mother, a French immigrant, once told me that she loved Americans in part because they weren't scared to pick up and move across the country at the drop of a hat. Before I marked the end of the first chapter, I had lost track of time and fallen in love with at least one of his Americans.
Larry, a sometimes protagonist, puts off offers of work when he returns from the war and spends his time "loafing" in pursuit of something, he doesn't know what: "I don't think I shall ever find peace until I make up my mind about things." He determines to study independently in Paris, and spends hours doing nothing all day but reading books. Can you see why I like this guy? His soon-to-be ex-fiancée, Isabel, however, is less than impressed.
"And what is that going to lead to?"
"The acquisition of knowledge," he smiled.
"It doesn't sound very practical."
"Perhaps it isn't and on the other hand perhaps it is. But it's enormous fun."
As little as Maugham thinks of his ability to write Americans, he does a bang-up job at describing the warring passions that drive us to change - to change our jobs, to change our minds, to change ourselves. And one obsession that drives all his characters, and indeed all Americans, is money. The Razor's Edge spans the Roaring Twenties, the Crash, and the years after, and the changing economy is reflected back in each of the characters' lives. Larry thinks of money as bondage, something to escape from into asceticism and a plainer way of life. Isabel simply thinks of it as a necessity, accepting it as naturally as she accepts all of the other "principles that had been instilled in her." Elliott loves money as a means to eminence. And Isabel's husband, a broker until the market takes a dive, becomes helpless in the face of economic adversity.
"...even if I hadn't known the facts I think I might have guessed that something had occurred to destroy his confidence in himself and in the ordered course of events. I felt kind of a diffidence in him, as though he had done wrong, though unwittingly, and were ashamed."
Though this novel was written in 1944, it writes Americans as they are in today's recession, and I saw in the characters the same faces as I see in my friends, some of whom are embittered or ashamed by their lot, but many of whom are beginning to reject the notion of material success as a path to happiness. Young people today are searching, as Larry searches, for that 'rule of live that'll satisfy both his head and his heart." Ultimately, Larry finds peace in India, where he learns to accept and embrace the rapidly shifting sands of fortune. In the end, he learns to let go of permanence, that "change is the essence of existence."
Americans like change. It is at once a symbol of our intrepid nature - a courage to face what is unknown - and an idea that supports a particularly democratic reality, where those on top will fall and those on the bottom will rise. If we lose our hope sometime, we can regain it. Larry vanishes into an unassuming existence, "absorbed" into America to live his life modestly , happily, and without regard for wealth or fame, and Maugham marks this a success story. So do I.
Four hours and two cups of tea later, I count this day won, not least because I enjoyed my time reading thoroughly. This is an experiment still, but one that I have more confidence in attempting. In one of the last pages of Maugham's novel, he talks about the book that Larry had just finished writing. Isabel, receiving the book as a present, wonders aloud when she shall have a moment to get to reading it.
"I thought with melancholy how an author spends months writing a book, and may be puts his heart's blood into it, and then it lies about unread till the reader has nothing else in the world to do."
What a sentence, then, to spur me on to tomorrow!