The Razor's Edge (1944)

by W. Somerset Maugham

With The Razor's Edge, W. Somerset Maugham was two decades ahead of the counterculture's interest in Eastern philosophy. The main character, Larry Durrell, rejects American materialism and a conventional life and looks to the East for spiritual meaning.

Larry returns from World War I deeply affected that a fellow fighter pilot died to save him. He announces that instead of pursuing a lucrative business career, he will "loaf" on his small inheritance and seek the meaning of life — a decision that confounds and dismays the privileged Isabel Bradley, who wants to marry him. Larry seeks enlightenment in study and the bohemian life in Paris, in a coal mining job, and in stay at a Benedictine monastery. Finally, he goes to India, where he finds answers in Buddhist philosophy.

Somerset Maugham, appearing in the narrator role as himself, gets drawn into the lives of the major characters through his acquaintance with Isabel's uncle, Elliott Templeton, a social-climbing but likable snob who lives in Paris. Templeton's values, as well as those of Isabel and the rich stockbroker she marries, Gray Maturin, are contrasted with Larry's as the characters meet over more than two decades.

The Razor's Edge is a challenging book — not as in hard to read, but as in challenging the reader to examine how one should live: for for money or for inner fulfillment. The title of the book comes from the Katha-Upanishad: "The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard." 

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