Larry Darrell is the type of character that get a reader in a lot of trouble if that reader comes into contact with Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge at the wrong time. Maugham’s hero is one of those romantic figures of literature that we all want to think really exists out there in the real world, but probably doesn’t and, if he did, would almost assuredly be a disappointment if ever met. Impressionable readers of any age can fall under his enigmatic, purposely underwritten spell. Impressionable readers for whom The Razor’s Edge presents a dangerous undertaking should be; young and impressionable not so much. One doesn’t need to be young to be transported by the idealistic search for meaning to which Larry commits. In fact, Maugham’s hero could be every as potentially dangerous an influence on those who are undergoing on existential mid-life crisis of shattered dreams as he is on those very young and inexperienced readers still expecting to equate their dreams of life with the actual experience of living it.
It is perhaps inevitable that none of the other characters rise quite to the same level of interest as Larry although Sophie comes close, but it is difficult to tell whether that is due to her actually being an interesting character or leading the most interesting life of any character other than Larry. Her is a tragic narrative and the tragic narrative is almost always more fascinating than the narrative of those who simply orbit around a romantic figure like Larry Darrell without full understanding or appreciating him. That is by design as well. Somerset Maugham may not be considered one of the great literary artists to ever walk the land, but his ability to craft a story that reads exactly the way it should is almost unparalleled.
Information on Larry Darrell is held back because, of course, he must remain enigmatic. An enigma has to offer enough to capture attention, but not so much that it can be easily explained. Maugham’s portrait of Larry as enigmatic stranger around whom the lives of the other characters intersect in irregular and unpredictable ways is constructed solidly upon this foundation of withheld information. Which is exactly why the opening paragraph of Chapter Six ranks as one of the most brilliant to be found anywhere in anything Maugham ever wrote.
“I FEEL it right to warn the reader that he can very well skip this chapter without losing the thread of such story as I have to tell, since for the most part it is nothing more than the account of a conversation that I had with Larry. I should add, however, that except for this conversation I should perhaps not have thought it worthwhile to write this book.”
Well, of course, it goes without saying that probably no chapter is read more attentively than this one. It is not for skimming, it is for penetrating analysis because it alleges both to offer nothing essential about Larry and everything essential about what makes Larry worth writing about. One would naturally conclude that it cannot possibly be both and that it has to be one or the other. The genius of Somerset Maugham is that it actually is both: one very well can get by perfectly find without losing the thread of the story, but the story of The Razor’s Edge is not just the story of Larry’s quest for meaning. It is the central element unifying the various stories of the other far less interesting characters, but the funny thing about the structure of the novel is that it mirrors what we know of Larry quest. And what we know are individual blocks of time with extended periods in between remaining unexplained and untold. The Razor’s Edge is a novel about Larry Darrell in them. In structure, however, it is much closer to a series of loosely collected short stories featuring the same cast of characters.
Fortunate, indeed, are those impressionable readers who pick up the book at a potentially dangerous time in their lives and find themselves enjoying a short story collection rather than a novel. Such is the powerful lure of Larry Darrell’s rejection of conforming to the soul-sucking expectations of society.