I hadn’t realized that one of my favorite novels, Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, turned 70 this year. It’s not a very hip book to love these days, but it charms me in so many different ways – Maugham’s sketches of life in Paris, the knowing observations and incorrigible social climbing of Elliott Templeton, and, above all, the spiritual pilgrimage of protagonist Larry Darrell. In the novel, Larry is a military pilot whose jarring and scarring experiences during the Great War set him on a search for meaning – he comes back from Europe refusing to hold a conventional job or settle down and marry, instead pursuing a peripatetic, bohemian life of voracious reading and wide traveling, including to India, where, not to give too much away, he finds enlightenment. It’s a convincing account of how someone becomes a saint, how a “conversion” can happen. Mick Brown, noting the novel’s anniversary, offers some background on its writing:
Maugham may have been successful, but he was far from happy. The jaundiced tone that infects his work reflected his view of the human condition. His time as a young doctor in the slums of London had disabused him of a belief in God. But behind the carapace of cynicism, the search for faith, or meaning without faith, would be a recurring theme in his life and work. “It may be that my heart, having found rest nowhere, had some deep ancestral craving for God and immortality which my reason would have no truck with,” he wrote in his memoir Summing Up.
When in December 1937 Maugham set off for India, on the journey that would plant the seed of The Razor’s Edge, he was furnished with introductions to wealthy maharajas from his Riviera neighbour the Aga Khan, but his steamer trunk was also laden with books on Hindu philosophy and L D Barnett’s translation of the Upanishads. He was in search of more than just material.
Readers and critics have long speculated about whom Larry was based on, with Christopher Isherwood – another novelist who turned to the East for wisdom – usually being mentioned. I’m fairly certain that’s not right; Isherwood denies it, and Maugham, to my knowledge, never indicated that was the case, though the two did know each other. Instead, Brown makes a convincing argument that, in part, Larry was based on an experience Maugham had on his trip to India described above, where he met Alan Chadwick, a British disciple of the guru Ramana Maharshi:
Chadwick told Maugham that he considered Ramana to be the greatest spiritual figure since Christ, and described how he passed his days in the ashram. He spent many hours sitting in the hall with the Maharshi, though he seldom spoke more than a few words to him in a week. The rest of his time was spent reading, riding his bicycle and in meditation. He told Maugham he was trying “to realise the self in him in communion with the universal self, to separate the I that thinks from the self, for that, he said, is the infinite”. Maugham was bemused. “I had thought to discover something of the truth about him from what he looked like and from what he said,” he wrote, “but I came away completely puzzled.”
Maugham and Chadwick had been talking for some time when something curious happened: Maugham fainted.
He was carried into Chadwick’s hut and laid on a pallet bed. At length he recovered consciousness, but felt too unwell to move. Ramana had been told what happened and that Maugham was not well enough to see him. Instead, Ramana came to the writer. “His mien was cheerful, smiling, polite,” Maugham remembered. “He did not give the impression of a scholar, but rather of a sweet-natured old peasant.” For a few minutes, Ramana gazed with a “gentle benignity” at Maugham, then shifted his gaze, and sat in motionless silence for perhaps a quarter of an hour, before asking whether Maugham wished to ask any questions. Maugham replied that he felt too unwell to say anything, whereupon Ramana smiled and said “silence is also conversation”.
You should read Brown’s wonderful short essay, and then turn to The Razor’s Edge itself. And if you still want more, read Isherwood’s terrific article that describes why Maugham’s book is so successful as an account of the religious search, “The Problem of the Religious Novel,” which can be found in his collection The Wishing Tree: Christopher Isherwood on Mystical Religion. I recommend them especially because, like many Americans today, Maugham and Isherwood had reacted against institutional Christianity, yet still hungered for meaning, still searched for God. And they managed to find in variants of Hinduism an alternate spirituality – non-dualistic, less moralizing, and more concerned with practices like meditation – that gave them what they needed. The spiritual life of both men, especially Isherwood, totally fascinates me, because they side-step the tropes and dead ends of so many American religious debates. They offer an account of the religious life that seems new and fresh, reminding those of us who have well-worn arguments about Christianity ingrained in our psyches to see, as if for the first time, why the path to sainthood is one worth treading and what it might look like.