“The war came to an end and I went home. I’d always been keen on mechanics, and if there was nothing done in aviation, I’d intended to get into an automobile factory. I’d been wounded and had to take it easy for a while. Then they wanted me to go to work. I couldn’t do the sort of work they wanted me to do. It seemed futile. I’d had a lot of time to think. I kept asking myself what life was for. After all, it was only by luck that I was alive; I wanted to make something of my life, but I didn’t know what. I’d never thought much about God, I began to think about Him now. I couldn’t understand why there was evil in the world. I knew I was very ignorant; I didn’t know anyone I couldn’t turn to and I wanted to learn, so I began to read haphazard.”
In college, I was deeply drawn to beat writers; Kerouac, Burroughs, Henry Miller, Anais Nin, (and more modern beat writers like Henry Rollins), writers who are, without a question, some of the greats of their time. They lived by their own rules in both writing and expression, and created adventurous characters. What I love the most about their characters is that they are fucking fearless. They walk forward into the darkness, hungry adventurers crashing into every corner and avenue they can without any care for money or safety or common sense. They were always restless, always searching, never settling. I’ve always been drawn to characters like these. Perhaps it’s why I read so much, why I’m always restless and anxious to dig into the next new book!
But while reading The Razor’s Edge, I couldn’t help but to think about false happiness, mostly one’s own restlessness with life. As I read, I immediately connected to Maugham’s restless world traveler, Larry Darrell, the troubled war veteran and main character of the book. Because Larry is so worn by his experiences in the war and is so weary of the world around him, he is no longer his old self. He begins to disconnect with his old life, and wants to find meaning in it all. He travels to Europe and India, finding enlightenment in toil, meditation, and solitude. I think he speaks for the restless bohemian in most of us. Larry is a character who is always searching, both spiritually and intellectually. He is unsatisfied with the life that is before him. He is a man who does not want to settle, who wants to always learn more about it. In reality, most of us think and feel this way but do nothing about it, or in many ways, we can’t do anything. But we are trying to change things, little by little.
I think that is life’s tragedy, really. People walk around, brimming with ideas, desires and longing, they dream of being heroic adventurers but often live tragic lives. We know what happens to many of those people. Maugham knew, and in the book he doesn’t paint a rosy picture.
But what Maugham shows the reader, and what I took from his book, is that the worst way to suffer is to look upon your life with a bleak view. You see examples of this in Larry’s friends, ambitious millionaire Gray, Sophie the poet, Larry’s wealthy love interest Isabel, and Isabel’s ambitious social-climbing uncle Elliot. As Larry returns to his old life as a new person, he is on the fringe, watching from outside the circle of friends and lovers who no longer seem recognizable to him, or he to them. He returns to Paris and sees many tragedies; Sophie spiraling out of control into prostitution, drug and alcohol addiction after the death of her husband and child, Isabel has settled for Gray but still pines for Larry, Grey suffers from migraines, and because of a stock market crash, the couple is no longer as wealthy as they once were. Elliot is rich but alone, depressed, and angry. I won’t ruin the plot for you, but Larry’s old friends are miserable folks who in some cases aren’t worth a damn! In the book, as it is very much in life, good people suffer and the bad ones suffer comfortably, even if they feel trapped by their circumstances.
Are you a good or bad person? How should you live your life? What is a good/bad life? Maugham leaves it all out for you to decide for yourself.
From Maugham’s book, I was reminded that life is forever changing, and that people are always drifting. You’ll be cynical and sad on the one hand and then accepting and sympathetic on the other. The best way to embrace life is to look at it very much the way Larry Darrell does, as if you’re on a continuous quest, enlightened and experienced in the ways of life and its ills, you have to keep moving. We can explore life and its possibilities while we lament its faults. It’s how, I think, we can grow into happier people. So, even though, at this point in my life, I can’t afford to sip a glass of wine in front of the Champs-Elysse or live surrounded in a more comfortable setting, it’s the illusion along with the reality of false happiness that is the real danger. I’m starting to see that, even as you try to grasp as much knowledge as you can, to know everything you need to know that’ll move you forward, you may not grasp everything that comes your way, but the knowledge that you do possess can lead you towards happiness. I think letting go of your obsession with perfection or with what is definite is key. The way towards a satisfactory life is through contemplation and appreciation, things that can be lost when one has had bad feelings and experiences. If you can’t gain wisdom as you age, I think it can ultimately make you feel like a displaced person within the world, so you have to find a way to be excited about life.
Remain curious, pursue knowledge, get out often.
To live life with few inhibitions and restraints is the key to happiness. It seems impossible, but it starts with the little things, the smallest steps.