The Razor's Edge is an unusual Maugham novel. Having read quite of few of Maugham's better and less well-known pieces, I found that this one lacked the psychological urgency that makes them so compulsive. This is meant as a philosophical fable, a speculation on the earthly and the divine. What is a life morally lived? Does it reside in the search for God? Or is it best to cultivate one's garden, to raise children and follow everybody else's worldly pursuits? Should one aim to leave a trace among one's fellow human beings? Or is that mere vanity as well? Such are the questions that this multi-stranded novel explores, criss-crossed with the lives of four fundamentally different characters. Larry Darrell is the young man in search of transcendental truth, having come so close to death as a WWI pilot. His best friend Gray is the stockbroker whose material success is put to the test by the 1929 crash. And Isabel, Larry's fiancée, balances between the two. The fourth protagonist, meanwhile, Elliott, is an older social climber who has made it and whose only interest is in rubbing shoulders with nobility.
Maugham takes his reader through familiar territory, especially Paris and the French Riviera. Yet The Razor's Edge is slow-paced, dragged to contemplative speed by its long polemical dialogues and made more ponderous by its four-stranded plot. Also unusually, Maugham set himself as narrator, and he has a quite active protagonist's part. This gives a modern feel to the book, but it also reduces its immediacy, as if creating an extra, translucent layer by which everything is seen. The Razor's Edge is interesting - I have yet to be disappointed by Maugham - but it is not for novices, to whom I would rather recommend Of Human Bondage or The Moon and Sixpence.