The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over;
the the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.
Maugham's opening quote to THE RAZOR'S EDGE
From the Katha-Upanishad
In my long life I have seen many changes in our habits and customs.
The world I entered when at the age of eighteen I became a medical student was a world that knew nothing of planes, motor-cars, movies, radio or telephone. When I was still at school a lecturer came to Canterbury and showed us boys a new machine which reproduced the human voice. It was the first gramophone. The world I entered was a world that warmed itself with coal fires, lit itself by gas and paraffin lamps, and looked upon a bathroom as a luxury out of the reach.
On Sundays the muffin man made his rounds ringing his melancholy bell and people came out of their door to buy muffins and crumpets for afternoon tea.
It was a very cheap world. When I entered St Thomasís Hospital I took a couple of furnished rooms for which I paid 18s a week. My landlady provided me with a solid breakfast before I went to the hospital and high tea when I came back at half-past six, and the two meals cost me about 12s a week. I was able to live very comfortably, pay my fees, buy my necessary instruments, and clothe myself.
I had enough money to go to the theatre at least once a week. The pit, to which I went, was not the orderly thing it is now. There were no queues. The crowd collected at the doors, and when they were opened there was a struggle, with a lot of pushing and elbowing and shouting to get a good place. But that was part of the fan.
Travelling was cheap, too, in those days. When I was twenty I went to Italy by myself for the six weeks of the Easter vacation. I went to Pisa and spent a wonderful month in Florence; then I went to Venice and Milan and so back to London.
I spent five years at St Thomasís Hospital. I was an unsatisfactory medical student, for my heart was not in it. I wanted, I had always wanted, to be a writer, and in the evening, after my tea, I wrote and read.
I wrote a novel, called Liza of Lambeth, sent it to a publisher, and it was accepted. It appeared during my last year at the hospital and had something of a success. It was of course an accident, but naturally I did not know that. I felt I could afford to chuck medicine and make writing my profession; so three days after passing the final examinations which gave me my medical qualifications, I set out for Spain to learn Spanish and write another book. Looking back now, after these years, and knowing as I do the terrible difficulties of making a living by writing, I realise that I was taking a fearful risk. It never occurred to me. I abandoned the medical profession with relief, but I do not regret the five years I spent at the hospital, far from it.
They taught me pretty well all I know about human nature, for in a hospital you see it in the raw. People in pain, people in fear of death, do not try to hide anything from their doctor, and if they do he can generally guess what they are hiding.
The next ten years were very hard. I did not follow up my first success with another. I wrote several novels, only one of which had any merit, and I wrote a number of plays which managers more or less promptly returned to me.
Then I had a bit of luck. The manager of the Court Theatre, Sloane Square, put on a play that failed. He read a play of mine, called Lady Frederick, and thought he did not much like it, thought it might just run for the six weeks. It ran for fifteen months. I had four plays running in London at the same time.
Nothing of the kind had ever happened before, and the papers made a great to-do about it. If I may say it without immodesty, I was the talk of the town. One of the students at St Thomasís Hospital asked the eminent surgeon with whom I had worked as a Ďdresserí whether he remembered me:
"Yes, I remember him quite well," he said. "Very
sad. Very sad. One of our failures Iím afraid."
Although Maugham does not mention much of it about himself he was way more than merely an author and playwright. During World War I he was one of the so-called Literary Ambulance Drivers of the day, experiencing the death and carnage on the field level on a daily basis. He was in addition, a spy for the British in both wars.
As well, when the Nazis crossed into France and raced toward Paris, he was living in his villa in the south of France, and because of their continuing lightning advance, at the age of 66 years old, he was forced to flee. The quote below regarding Maugham's harrowing and narrow escape from that Nazi advance in the early days of World War II is from Guy Hague, the person thought by many to be the role model for his main character Larry Darrell in The Razor's Edge:
"Waiting too long, Maugham sought refuge aboard his then only means of escape, one of two coal barges slowly plying their way off the coast of the Mediterranean. His escape turned out to be a horrific twenty-day voyage to England. Onboard the barge, a vessel that was not designed for even one passenger, he was crammed together with 500 other fellow escapees. It has been reported a number of the children as well as older and weaker refugees, because of the severe and crowded conditions and lack of food and water and other amenities, died of malnutrition and thirst."
BEST OF THE ONLINE MAUGHAM BIOGRAPHIES:
- William Somerset Maugham
- W. Somerset Maugham: A Biography
- Literary Ambulance Drivers
- Travels in India
THE RAZOR'S EDGE: TRUE OR FALSE?
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.
AWAKENED TEACHERS FORUM
ZEN ENLIGHTENMENT IN A NUTSHELL
ON THE RAZOR'S
BESTSELLING NOVELS OF THE 20th CENTURY: The Razor's Edge
THE RAZOR'S EDGE NOTES