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The Razor's Edge
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247 of 254 people found the following review helpful
on January 31, 2005
The Razor's Edge is an unusual amalgam -- three-quarters witty social commentary about American and European society, one-quarter Eastern philosophy -- bound together by Maugham's impeccable prose -- almost as though Henry James and Hermann Hesse had collaborated. The book contrasts the adventures of Larry, a seeker who travels widely in search of life's meaning, with that of his former fiancee, Isabelle, who sacrifices her love for Larry in favor of wealth and social standing. While the book is an odd literary chimera, the result is supremely satisfying. One gets to luxuriate in Maugham's biting descriptions of the social milieu in Paris, the Riviera, and London, while simultaneously being exposed to some much bigger issues presented in the context of Larry's intriguing quest for enlightenment. Along the way there is beauty, degradation, betrayal, forgiveness, art, fashion, turgid fascination with France's demimonde, and lots of other juicy material. A great read -- fun yet substantive -- like eating a fluffy eclair that actually has nutritional value!
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245 of 259 people found the following review helpful
HALL OF FAMEon August 18, 2001
William Somerset Maugham is considered one of the best authors of the 20th century. After reading this book, I can understand why. His grasp of the human condition is simply phenomenal. He is one of those rare authors that can make his characters leap off the page and become living, breathing creatures. The introduction to this Penguin edition spends much time trying to place the fictional characters into the context of Maugham’s life. I’m sure the characters in this story are somewhat based on real people, as any author worth his salt always draws on real experience to create a story. Personally, I couldn’t care less if these characters were based on real people, as it wouldn’t make them any less interesting to me.
“The Razor’s Edge” really has a simple message. It asks us to reflect on how we lead our lives. Do we follow the masses or seek inner fulfillment? Is it right or wrong to drop out of society and follow our inner selves? Maugham makes us ponder these questions as he introduces us to his characters ... When I think of the overall plot of the book, even after reading it, it doesn’t really seem that interesting. But when I think all of the little things within the book, I realize how excellent the novel is. Read this book, even if it is the only Maugham book you ever read (which is a pretty pretentious statement on my part, as this is the only one I’ve read). The prose is excellent, and the psychological insights are really amazing. Recommended.
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99 of 103 people found the following review helpful
The Razor's Edge is often described as the story of Larry, a war veteran who forsakes a comfortable life in Chicago "society" for a vague spiritual quest. It is better appreciated as a portrait of his acquaintences, whose conventional lifestyles are starkly contrasted to the path walked by the seeker. Some readers have wished to know more of Larry and criticize the space and attention Maugham lavished upon the "ancillary" characters. The Razor's Edge instead reveals much about the spiritual path by focusing on people more like the typical reader, people who do not give up materialistic Western striving. The best way to see Larry is to look at what he is not.
This narrative technique succeeds wonderfully in the masterful hands of author W. Somerset Maugham, best known for Of Human Bondage. Rather than simply lay out the details of Larry's explorations and development, which, being spiritual and internal, would be rather dull to watch, Maugham illuminates Larry by dissecting the contrasting behavior of his associates.
Maugham lavishes narrative care and attention less on the figure of Larry the seeker, but on his ground, those who embraced the life of conventional society without a thought for spirituality. Maugham shows us several possible outcomes of such an unexamined life, from the indulgent businessman to the fragile social climber to the dissolute substance abuser. The contrasts are presented realistically and without sermon yet are no less stark for their subtlety. These characters are a rare delight: fictional creations with genuine life, who make choices, have unpredictable effects on one another, and grow as the novel develops. Maugham shows how each suffers in their particular ways, for hell is not a physical place but a denial one's relationship with God.
The power and flexibility of relating to oneself as a network of relationships instead of as an object with fixed characteristics and a predictable future is why one of the three key principle of our executive training is "Be Transitive." Larry beautifully expresses all three principles.
He is genuine, always learning, and clear that he is not a fixed quantity but a network of evolving relationships with people, possessions, and God. In short, he is fully alive.
If Maugham had told us the story of Larry without the contrast of his conventional friends, the novel's entire message would have been lost. Ancient mystics, quantum physicists, and existentialist philosophers are all giving us that same message. Neither figure nor ground is the thing itself, nor even both together. There is no "thing" at all, except as we create it in our minds. It is the relationship between figure and ground that gives rise to an experience, and neither can exist without the other. Take away the ground and there is no boundary for the figure, take away the figure and the ground is meaningless. Each is relative to the other and neither stands alone. What are the details of any figure, except another relationship between a figure and its ground? The edge is where the relationships emerge, where experiences occur, where reality manifests. The Razor's Edge.
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43 of 44 people found the following review helpful
on October 29, 2005
This is my favorite book of all time. I've read it several times and seen both movie versions. In fact, it was the unusual, but excellent 1984 Bill Murray portrayal of Larry which made this book known to me in the first place. Here is the story of several characters, some likable and some not, in the post World War I era. Larry, a happy, go-lucky twenty-something pilot (in the movie he's an ambulance driver) returns from the war distraught and disturbed. Before the war he was engaged to Isabel and was going to return and work in his soon to be father in-law's office as stock-broker with his war volunteer buddy Gray. His friends and connections back home would provide him with a secure and comfortable future and he had it made. But unlike some modern day college graduate who's spent their education earning a pre-fab, slam-dunk business degree so as to quickly land a high-paying job, launching themselves into the American dream of yuppy-land, Larry takes a left turn. To Isabel, his friends and family it seems like a wrong turn. To others he will come to meet, Larry has avoided a certain car wreck.

What makes "The Razor's Edge" a classic is that you as a reader get to decide for yourself the wisdom of each character's decisions. Somerset Maugham definitely focuses a lot on wealthy, class-oriented Eliot, who seems to be closest in personality to the author himself; but it's obvious too, that a character like Larry was both scarry and intriguing to him. At times it seems like Maugham is mocking Larry, but in others there is a begrudging respect and admiration for him. This ambiguity creates a unique reading experience, especially for those who've read a biography of Maugham (I recommend Ted Morgan's biography).

From Eliot the likable snob, to Larry, Gray, Sophie, and Isabel each character is mostly "rounded" (see E.M. Forster's "Aspects of the Novel" for round & flat characters): they are interesting, realistic, and true to form - all the way to the end. As a writer that's not easy to pull off in convincing fashion. One character not represented in either movie version is Suzanne, an artist who Larry spends some time with in Marseille; while she is drawn more flatly than the other main characters, I enjoyed this obscure aspect of Larry's life in much the same way that great movies are sometimes reincarnted as "director's cuts" with intriguing facets of a film previously edited out; it's like you're seeing a new dimension of something you previously thought complete. In any event, there are also plenty of interesting minor charcters like Kosti (Larry's mining partner in Germany) and his Indian guide (who's name escapes me) who both get Larry to think in new ways about people and life.

The transistions from pre-war Chicago and its suburbs, to Paris, Germany, the Indian Himalayas, and back to Paris are fascinating. Through his own accounts with a good friend of Eliot's (Maugham himself is a character in the book) in various Parisian cafes and restaurants (many of which can & should be visited today in Montparnasse or throughout Paris so as to get a true flavor of the novel) Larry talks about his adventures. He is the quintessential seeker and bohemian. What he's after is fulfillment and self-knowledge (or is it really salvation?) - something he would hardly be able to have time to find in any depth on the path he was on before. While he predictably loses Isabel (who has her own legitimate needs and reasons for pursuing her own ambitions & desires) to Gray, Larry gains intangible, unquantifiable (and for some like Eliot or the author, questionable) benefits through his experiences. He works in low-paying, crummy jobs in order to live in Paris where he reads a lot, hangs out in cafes and restaurants, enjoys the nightlife and lives a lifestyle he finds invigorating. Later we find him working in a coal mine in Germany. There he meets an every-day kind of guy miner named Kosti who tells him about his travels to India, and recommends reading the Upanishads. "But you won't find answers in a book; you'll have to go there." Larry is hooked. Upon arrival he visits the Elephanta cave in Bombay and has a sort of vision. He finds his way to Varanasi, where he stays on the boat of a man who asks him why he worked in a coal mine, and Larry responds, "To make money to come here". And his Indian host replies something like, "that was the reason, but what was the intention? For work without meaning is an empty motion." We see that Larry's education has reached a new plateau, and eventually we find him in a Buddhist monastery where he stays for a visit. (I seem to recall a visit at a Christian monastery too, perhaps earlier while he was in Germany, but I saw the movie version more recently and that scene's left out too). Anyhow, Larry learns that it's easy to be a philospher on a mountain-top (Nietzsche's "Zarathustra") and that he must return to society. He must get "dirty" again and grovel with the people. In fact, one of the first things we find him doing is helping he friend Gray recover from a mental breakdown following the stock market crash and his father's apparant suicide. Yes, he's also lost his fiance, for which he's remorseful, but she wouldn't come with him on his journey. But the career prospects which he'll never have again are gladly sacraficed in the name of being several steps closer to the salvation he truly thirsts for than he'd ever be had he not gone down this path. A path which beckons many, but has few takers. A path that is "as thin and difficult to traverse as the razor's ege."

Choices are more abundant and confusing nowadays . . . it's harder and harder to say no to some job we'll obviously hate when we need the money. Or think we need the money. In any event, these are the types of universal personal choices Somerset Maugham captures so well here (not without his own ambiguous criticisms and opinions if you read closely enough too), and which are difficult. Life's choices are never easy, and there are both long term and short term consequences of all decisions, the implications of which may not be known for many years. Sophie had some bad luck, but also made destructive choices that perhaps, she couldn't help making. Fate & karma versus individual empowerment and choice: these are interesting (unanswerable in my opinion) dilemmas underlaying this novel. Larry looks for answers - does he really find any? In the end, as in real life, no one's really "better" than anyone else, and each has achieved success in some degree. They have gotten what they wanted. And I can't think of a better way to end this review other than to say that I would like you to give my favorite novel of all time a try. Namaste!

And by the way, if you like this novel you may want to try "The Moon & Sixpence", which was written earlier, and covers a very similar theme, where Paul Gauguin is the subject.
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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on December 5, 1999
THE RAZOR'S EDGE originally had the sub-title "The Story of a Man Who Found a Faith," and I think anyone willing to take the time to read this masterpiece will do the same. Larry Darrell embarks on a philosophical journey, but Maugham does not turn his novel into an INTO TO PHILOSOPHY text (like SOPHIE'S WORLD). Instead, Maugham portrays the goodness of one man as juxtaposed by the worldliness of the others. It is fascinating reading by an eloquent, stylish writer.
If you are a relatively new reader, THE RAZOR'S EDGE will change your life. If you are an avid reader who is acquanted with Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, O'Neill, etc, Maugham will certainly fit in neatly with your library.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on December 20, 2000
I don't believe any other story has moved me quite the way this one has. Larry Darrell's single-minded quest for meaning is told by one of the true masters of prose, Englishman W. Somerset Maugham. Set mostly in upper-class Europe following the first World War, Larry contrasts sharply with his rich acquaintances who desperately seek meaning in their own lives, but never seem to know exactly what they are looking for.

While Maugham makes it clear that Larry has gained unique insight from his endless quest, he also takes pains to detail what Larry has given up - allowing us to wonder about the choices we might have made along the way. He never quite allows us inside of Larry's head, leaving his peaceful state just out of reach, almost as if Maugham is urging us to pursue a quest of our own.

Maugham wrote this late in his career, and he patiently tells this story in a way that demonstrates understanding of both the subject and form. Unfortunately, in a culture that values 60-minute television dramas and 120-minute films with clear plot-markers, his style of meaningfully building characters who actually live the story instead of being rushed past the various turning points is not well understood or appreciated today. However, any reader who willingly follows Maugham as he learns about Larry Darrell will be richly rewarded.
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65 of 76 people found the following review helpful
on May 21, 2004
'The Razor's Edge' is usually billed as the story of Larry Darrell, a young man on a spiritual journey. However, the bulk of the text concerns Elliott Templeton, as he journeys from middle to old age, as a garrulous, opinionated, in some sense well-meaning, but in many ways tragically limited character. His motivations remain overtly uncharted, yet much is implied. Prime among these implications is his sexual orientation.
*
Maugham himself is the narrator and a character in this novel; hence, it's not unreasonable to think that his own life history would be relevant to the book. Jeffrey Meyer's recent biography, available on Amazon, is a good source of information. Maugham was married, unhappily, and during the Second World War, openly admitted his homosexuality, living as a homosexual for the rest of his long life. He published 78 books, selling over 40 million copies. Many, if not all, his characters were reportedly based on people he knew in real life. There are suggestions, then, that Elliott is an amalgam of several persons, possibly even of some aspects of Maugham himself. It's worth bearing in mind that homosexuality was illegal in England at the time the book was written. This in itself might go some way to explaining why certain matters are implied rather than directly addressed.
*
The Larry Darrell character is less insightfully presented that one might expect. He seems more the object of infatuation of several of the characters, not least of Maugham himself. As such, he is indulged, even when his actions might, objectively, be objectionable or obscure. His ruminations upon mysticism, in particular, are related by Maugham in a spirit of tolerance, with the occasional, very much muffled, hint of skepticism. His physical appearance, in contrast, is openly admired and, rather repetitiously, drawn to the reader's attention.
*
The treatment of the female characters is far less sympathetic, but, for that, far more realistic. They are variously portrayed as hedonistic, materialistic, lost, and mothering. Their lusts are generally far more earthy than those of the ethereal Larry. They are also capable of far greater hatred, as a particular turn in the plot reveals.
*
It's tempting to accuse Maugham of a certain degree of misogyny, except that it would be more accurate to label him a misanthopist, and indeed he has been labelled so; the fact that Larry escapes his scorn is less a contradiction of this indictment than a reflection of Larry's insubstantiality - his actions and personality are hardly human, approaching more those of an archetypal saint figure.
*
The writing style is very readable, without ever becoming elevated and enjoyable for its own sake. This is in keeping with the book's wide popularity.
*
Personally, I was very surprised by the difference between the book's reputation and its reality. If you are intrigued by Elliott Templeton and Maugham himself, then this will be an interesting read, as much for what is not said as for what is; if, however, Larry is the lure, then much will remain elusive.
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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on October 15, 1996
I think I may have made a tactical error the other day when I told my boss that my career goal was to win the lottery. But last week I read The Razor's Edge and ever since I've been wondering what made me think that work was so important.

Here's the story: Larry Darrell is a changed man when he returns to Chicago after serving in World War I. During the war he witnesses the death of a good friend and comes to the inescapable conclusion that life is too precious to waste. Armed with this insight, he alarms his friends, family and fiancee when he turns down the plum job and heads to Europe to begin the great adventure of his life. From the coal mines of southern France to a lama's monastery on a mountain top in Tibet, Larry Darrell steadfastly resists the pressure to succumb to the societal norms of money and career and instead pursues the meaning of life with a single-minded intensity and a touch of grace.

So how are you going to live your life? Have you had that gnawing feeling lately, as you are working through your 20's and 30's, that you may have unwittingly entered into a Faustian bargain? Have you ever considered trading in the ordinary for the extraordinary? These are questions that we all face and ones that are explored with great insight and skill by W. Somerset Maugham in The Razor's Edge. And with great humor too--not for nothing was it made into a surprisingly good movie starring Bill Murray as Larry Darrell. So forget about the 12-step programs, the books that tell you how to get along with people you'd rather not get along with and send your inner child to bed. Check out The Razor's Edge. Just don't tell your boss what you've been up to. Oh what the heck, tell the boss. It would make Larry Darrell smile and who knows, it might make you happy too
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
I discovered Maugham last year reading Of Human Bondage for the first time. Instantly, I became a fan. Having finished The Razor's Edge, I am on a quest to read everything I can by this wonderous, insightful and witty author. Maugham himself appears in this book and takes quite an actively passive role with his cast of characters. The lines between reality and fiction are blurred and I agree with another reviewer when you begin to question what is story and what is memoir.
I walked away from this book, for the most part, admiring Larry who deliberately chose to follow a different path than his peers.. a path leading towards spritual enlightenment. Due to an unfortunate encounter with the loss of a comrade during the War, Larry decides that he needs to find out the meaning of life-- much to the dismay of his betrothed. Isabel just wants to live the "normal" life that every girl of her station (upperclass) has the opportunity to take advantage of. They choose to go their separate ways and the book follows their choices (as well as others in their circle) over the next couple of decades through the roaring 20's and the Great Depression. While no character actually seems by the end of the novel to be truly happy (except Larry) each achieves exactly what they set out to achieve. Maugham points this out in the end, and it is a comment that still leaves me questioning. What amazed me most about this novel was that I could recognize people in my own life as fitting some of the roles depicted in it. The people we learn of are REAL people...their actions, sufferings, and idiosyncracies are recognizable in ourselves and others. A morality play of sorts, the Razor's Edge offers a look at how individuals choose to fulfill their time here on Earth.. it is both a comment on society and its mores as well as a discourse on personal freedom and spirituality.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on January 19, 1998
First let me say to the new reader of this great Somerset Maughm story, be patient in reading this work. It takes a while to get going. This book has always been a favorite of mine. I even have my students read it as part of their HS english curriculum. If you have an ounce of the seeker in your soul, this book will appeal to you. Larry Darrell's world-wide trek helped allow me to become content with my modest life in my early 20s. Very few books can change lives. This book is one of them. I never saw the original movie, and wasn't real happy with the 2nd version. I liked Bill Murray though as Larry. This book gets my highest possible recommendation. Buy it, read it, become your own Larry Darrell. The world needs you!
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