Sunday, April 20, 2008

Just like in that movie with Kumar...

Frequent visitors will notice that I've finally lived up to my nom de guerre and slightly updated the currently reading list. I intend to make this a recurring theme, inasmuch as I hope to continue reading noteworthy books and, well, noting them.

So, on to W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge. Amazon insists that his seminal work is Of Human Bondage, a claim I'm somewhat reluctant to take at face value when delivered in the form of a “Amazon also recommends:” message in every email they send me. Wikipedia corroborates, though, and also offers that Maugham was one of the British Red Cross' Literary Ambulance Drivers along with ee cummings, Hemingway, et al. My awareness of The Razor's Edge is informed by the sterling recommendation of Bill Murray, who agreed to appear in Ghostbusters only in exchange for funding for his adaptation. But, that's neither here nor there, really.

So, on to W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge. (Is there an echo in here?) Maugham's writing is really stellar: characterization that really carries the book, floating around archetypes without delving into stereotype, and a captivating facility with narrative. In fact, Maugham himself is the narrator, the British confidant to a group of wealthy Americans abroad. Most synopses will attempt to convince you that these characters are essentially in orbit around Larry Darrell, a young fighter pilot damaged by the atrocities of WWI seeking... hope? faith? Gilead. But you won't be fooled. You know better than they that attraction at a distance is the result of more than a singular magnetism but rather the mutual interaction of bodies.* And so does Maugham; his depiction of altruistic, searching, saintly Larry is touched with a small measure of pity and incomprehension, while his fond dedication to Elliot is clear despite his expressed disdain for Elliot's priorities, for example. Rather, I think Maugham weaves these characters' intertwining orbits to make a broader observation of human aspirations, done with such a light touch that his simple conclusion is both surprising and satisfying.

Odds and ends. I can imagine that Larry's spiritual enlightenment in India and the wonders of his “Oriental” mysticism might have delighted the WWII-era audience to whom it was sort-of fresh, who were themselves seeking respite from the atrocities of war, but it doesn't really hold up to this modern reader. Larry's zen and hypnosis schtick is uncomfortably similar to another of 20th century literature's finest characters: Lamont Cranston.

Also, it made me want to re-read the Picture of Dorian Grey.

Meanwhile, I'll admit that my attentiveness to the Iliad has been so spotty that, as Hector and the Trojans approached the Achaean ships with torches to gut them with fire, I felt a flush of relief recalling swift-footed Achilles waiting just beyond the Argives' ships, forsworn from battle unless the lines were breached.

*Okay, so technically it's the effect of the distortion of space-time by massive bodies, but we're dealing with metaphor here, so I think I should be allowed some pre-Einsteinian leeway.

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