The Paris restaurant of legend Maxim's is situated a crepe's-throw from the Place de la Concorde, and is overlooked by the church de la Madeleine, originally built by Napoleon as a Temple of Reason. The décor is unreconstructed 1893, and the bar is lit by art nouveau lamps of the eighteen nineties, featuring statuettes of wind-blown damsels. Mahogany, brass and mirrors abound.
Maxim's is like entering a time-warp, which makes it easier to relive the scene in Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge when, circa 1921, Isabel Bradley dined here with Larry Darrell. They're in love, but they've broken off their engagement. Something happened to Larry in the war, which has made him restless. He refuses to settle down to stockbroking, and plans to roam the world in search of knowledge, truth and God. Isabel can't contemplate life on just "three thousand a year," nor a world without Chanel dresses and smart full-dress parties. And so the match is off. They drink champagne at Maxim's, so as to part without hard feelings. But Isabel has a scheme for after dinner. If she can seduce Larry, and get pregnant, he'd have to abandon his dream, and conform.
Isabel to Maugham in The Razor's Edge, speaking of Larry Darrell:
"I didn't think I was looking too bad and it was my last chance. Larry had reserved a table at Maxim's. We had lovely things to eat, all the things I particularly liked, and we had champagne. We talked our heads off, at least I did, and I made Larry laugh. One of the things I've liked about him is that I can always amuse him. We danced. When we'd had enough of that we went on th the Chateau de Madrid. We found some people we knew and joined them and we had more champagne. Then we went to the Acacia. Larry dances quite well, and we fit. The heat and the music and the wine--I was getting light-headed. I felt absolutely reckless. I danced with my face against Larry's and I knew he wanted me. God knows I wanted him. I had an idea. I thought I'd get him to come home with me and once I'd got him there, well, it was almost inevitable that the inevitable should happen."
Maugham, like Maxim's, stands the test of time. People no longer live the lives or wear the clothes of the characters in his novels, but otherwise we're much the same. Maugham understood the eternal truths of vanity, ambition, love and disappointment. The Razor's Edge has enough sex, drugs and violence to make it feel thoroughly modern. Isabel gives up her chance of passion with Larry for material wealth with the man she eventually marries, Gray Maturin. Larry travels the world searching for God and the Absolute. In Europe, working in a coal mine in Lens, France, Larry meets a former Polish army officer and mystic named Kosti that starts him on a spiritual journey. The European segment of his journey ends with Larry meeting a Benedictine monk named Father Ensheim. The Father suggests Larry can find the answers he seeks in the East. Larry follows his advice ending up in the south of India studying under a venerated maharshi called Shri Ganesha by Maugham in the novel, but is known to be in real life the famed Indian holy man the Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. Another character, Larry's childhood friend Sophie Macdonald, loses her husband and baby in a car wreck, becomes a drunkard longing only for death. She was eventually found floating nearly stark naked face down in the harbor at Toulon --- basically through shenanigans of Isabel. In the end, one way or the other, viewed either good or bad, everyone in the novel seems to get what they want, and especially so Larry who, high in the mountains of India, experiences an Awakening to the Absolute.
ISABEL BRADLEY JOINS SOPHIE PRIOR TO
TRICKING HER INTO RETURNING TO DRINK
BY OVER-HYPING THE VODKA ZUBROVKA
From the events of Maxim's to the harbor in Toulon there are however, FOUR major tangent points, each as important as the other, in Darrell's life and Maugham's that had to come together for The Razor's Edge to be. The first is the Darrell character HAD to be the right chronological age to participate in the war. Second, he HAD to see his best friend die so he would be driven to go on his spiritual quest. Third, he HAD to meet that specific holy man in the temple at Madura so he could be sent to see the Maharshi inorder that his Enlightenment would transpire. Fourth, Darrell HAD to cross paths with Maugham at the Cafe Du' Dome along the sidewalk in Paris following his Enlightenment experience in order to tell his story.
Fundamentally, our experience as experienced is not different from the Zen master's. Where
we differ is that we place a fog, a particular kind of conceptual overlay onto that experience
and then make an emotional investment in that overlay, taking it to be "real" in and of itself.
Author: Michael PortilloDaily Express magazine published 7 August 1999