In 1944 William Somerset Maugham, the British author and playwright, wrote and had published a novel that is more often than not, thought to be one of the best novels of the 20th Century. The novel, although considered by most as a work of fiction, it is actually --- at least as far as the main character called Larry Darrell by Maugham in the novel is concerned --- based on a real-life person.
That novel is of course, The Razor's Edge. The story builds around the lives of six individuals: Elliott Templeton, a socialite snob with a kind soul; Isabel Bradley, Elliott's charming and tactful niece; Gray Maturin, the paradigm of the All-American regular guy; Suzanne Rouvier, the down-to-earth and to-the-point bohemian; Sophie MacDonald, the lost and self-destructive soul; and Larry Darrell, the eager student of life. While the tales of all six of these characters are important, Maugham chooses to focus his story on the last character, Larry Darrell. His spiritual and philosophical development is the focal point of Maugham --- both as the narrator and as the writer.
Larry is introduced to Maugham as a charmingly friendly yet enigmatic character who was a pilot in World War I and since that time has done nothing with his life, which frustrates his fiance Isabel. Larry's goal in life in the beginning of the book is to, in his own words, 'loaf'. He is, for the most part, a mysterious character, never feeling it necessary to tell more then he has to, skillful at avoiding questions. Larry's peculiar nature bewilders Isabel and infuriates Elliott, both of whom are disposed to the material side of life and rank status as necessities:
"Isabel had been brought up in a certain way and she accepted the principles that had been instilled in her. [Money] meant power, influence, and social consequence. It was the natural and obvious thing that a man should earn it. That was his plan life's work."
Larry was not the regular guy that Isabel wanted. He was disillusioned and deeply disturbed after having seen his good buddy Patsy die in the war. He wanted to travel the world, find answers to his seemingly unanswerable questions, and discover wisdom. Larry asked her to join him on his journey so they could be together, living off the interest from a trust fund set up by his now deceased father. Isabel declined.
"I wish I could make you see how much fuller the life I offer you is than anything you have a conception of. I wish I could make you see how exciting the life of the spirit is and how rich in experience. It's illimitable. It's such a happy life. There's only one thing like it, when you're up in a plane by yourself, high, high, and only infinity surrounds you. You're intoxicated by the boundless space. You feel such a sense of exhilaration that you wouldn't exchange it for all the power and glory in the world. I was reading Descartes the other day. The ease, the grave, the lucidity. Gosh!"
Larry, filled with excitement for the mysteries of the universe, still young and uneducated, ventured out into the world and was not seen for TEN YEARS. When he finally did show up in the spring of 1931 in Paris, he told the narrator of his incredible journey.
In real life, however, regardless of the incredible journey he told Maugham about himself, the two of them had NOT met previously in 1919 as Maugham cites in the novel. Their FIRST meeting actually occurred some eleven years AFTER the 1919 date cited, during the Spring of 1931 in Paris. Even Maugham himself discloses such was the case, although he does recorrect himself immediately inorder for the storyline of the novel to continue in a timely fashion. Maugham writes he was sitting at a table in the front row at the Cafe Du' Dome one evening in the Spring of 1931 when a rather scrubby looking man Maugham says looked like a bum stepped up to his table, said "Hello," and told him they knew each other. Maugham looked at him blankly and replied:
"I've never set eyes on you in my life."
In clarification of same in THE RAZOR'S EDGE: W. Somerset Maugham, Sri Ramana Maharshi, Guy Hague, and Zen the following is found:
Their first encounter probably unfolded very similar to how Maugham describes it in the novel when he meets Darrell in Paris following the spiritual traveler's Awakening experience in India. His Enlightenment transpired on his birthday during the fall of 1930 and the Paris meeting some six months later, in the spring of 1931. The novel has Darrell being in Paris about a month when he and Maugham meet inadvertently at a sidewalk cafe, which in real life is most likely a fairly close portrayal of actual events. Maugham had been there only half the amount of that time himself, having arrived in Paris barely two weeks before. He was sitting outdoors one evening in the front row of the Cafe Du' Dome having a drink when a man walking by stopped at his table displaying, as Maugham notes, "a grin with a set of very white teeth." He wore no hat, had unkempt, uncut hair, his face was concealed by a thick brown beard. He wore a frayed shirt, threadbare coat with holes in the elbows and shabby grey slacks. His forehead and neck was deeply tanned. Following a short salutation Maugham writes that to the best of his belief he had never seen the man before and, in the course of the rather brief interlude, even goes so far as to quote himself as saying, 'I've never set eyes on you in my life.' In the novel, of course, Maugham quickly reneges on his assumption, as the man turns out to be Darrell. In real life, such was not the case --- that is, unlike as portrayed by Maugham in the novel, they had NOT met before. This was their FIRST encounter.(source)
Larry tells Maugham he started his adventure some ten or eleven years before by finding work at a coal mine in the northern French village of Lens. He befriended a fellow miner, a Polish man named Kosti who would speak of mysticism and all the wonders of thought, but only after getting thoroughly plastered. One day Kosti, eventually tiring of the mine, turned to Darrell and said:
'"I'm getting out of here. D'you want to come with me?"
'I knew a lot of the Poles went back to Poland in the summer to get the harvest in, but it was early for that, and besides, Kosti couldn't go back to Poland.
'"Where are you going?" I asked.
'"Tramping. Across Belgium and into Germany and down the Rhine. We could get work on a farm that would see us through the summer."
'It didn't take a minute to make up my mind.
'"It sounds fine," I said.
Kosti was the first bastion of spiritual knowledge that Larry had yet found, and though he was an unstable, uncouth man, he was the first stepping stone in Larry's spiritual journey. Kosti's long, morbid rants about the universe and mysticism both scared and excited Larry, whetting his appetite and pointing him in the direction of what he vaguely knew he was looking for. In combination with what is presented about Kosti above and Father Ensheim below, the following is offered for clarification as to the reason WHY Larry finally chose and then actually acted on going to India in the first place --- the single most important thrust of the novel --- and without which, if he had NOT gone there would have been no story:
"Meanwhile, Larry begins a sojourn through Europe taking a job at a coal mine in Lens, France where he befriends a former Polish army officer named Kosti. Kosti encourages Larry to look toward things spiritual for his answers rather than in books. Larry and Kosti leave the coal mine and travel together for a time then part ways. Larry then meets a Benedictine monk named Father Ensheim in Bonn, Germany while Father Ensheim is on leave from his monastery doing academic research. Father Ensheim, having certain insights other than strictly western spiritual influences, suggests Larry widen his spiritual perimeters and go to India in search of answers." (source)
Larry's next encounter was with a Benedictine monk in Bonn. Father Ensheim appeared to Larry a greatly knowledgeable and open-minded person, and when he returned to his monastery Larry followed. At the monastery Larry read much and had plenty of time to learn about himself. It was at the monastery that he began the find the questions to which he could seek answers. Though he respected the monks greatly and found their way of life to be absolutely fulfilling, Larry was unable to accept their explanations for the existence of Evil.
"If an all-good and all-powerful God created the world, why did He create evil? The monks said, so that man by conquering the wickedness in him, by resisting the temptation, by accepting pain and sorrow and misfortune as the trials sent by God to purify him, might at long last be made worthy to receive His Grace. It seemed to me like sending a fellow with a message to some place and just to make it harder for him you constructed a maze that he had to get through, then dug a moat that he had to swim, and finally built a wall that he had to scale. I wasn't prepared to believe in an all-wise God who hadn't common sense."
This is not to say that Larry disliked the monastery or Father Ensheim, but he had not found the question and not the answer. He wanted to know why there was evil in the world, and though the monks were very intelligent and wise, their answers seemed quite ridiculous and inadequate. From there Father Ensheim's role then took on a startling dimension as found in the following from The Hemis Manuscript:
"The Father had heard that sometime in the late 1880s or early 1890s a man from the west had ended up in the monastery of Hemis high in the mountains of India recuperating from some sort of injury. While at the monastery he was shown an ancient manuscript that indicated Jesus of Nazareth had been in India during the so-called missing years of his life. Being a fully entrenched member of the Catholic clergy he thought the prospect of Jesus being in India heretical, but found the idea intriguing nonetheless. Thinking that such a scenario, Jesus being in India, would be a perfect starting place or bridge for a western mind to open up to eastern religious thought, the good Father suggested Darrell go to India."
After a brief stay in Seville, Spain, according to how Maugham writes it, Larry found a deckhand position  on a passenger ship headed toward India, arriving in Bombay sometime in the late spring, early summer of 1925. While onboard the ship Larry met a man of Indian descent who urged him, if nothing else, to see the caves at Elephanta. After his arrival, Larry, curious as to the wonders of the sub-continent, stayed on shore as the boat departed, selecting instead to travel with the man that night by third-class train to Benares. Larry stayed in Benares six months, then, according to Maugham, visited other countries including "China, Burma and India." After two to three years --- the so-called Missing Years of The Razor's Edge, of which are explored more thoroughly in the Father Ensheim link above --- Larry ended up in the southern temple city of Madura:
"I think it's the only temple in India in which the white man can walk about freely so long as he doesn't enter the holy of holies. At nightfall it was packed with people. Men, women, and children. The men, stripped to the waste, wore dhoties, and their foreheads, and often their chests and arms, were thickly smeared with the white ash of burnt cow dung. You saw them making obeisance at one shrine or another and sometimes lying full length on the ground, face downwards, in the ritual attitude of prostration. They prayed and recited litanies. They called to one another, quarreled with one another, heatedly argued with one another. There was an ungodly row, and yet in some mysterious way God seemed to be near and living."(see)
While in the temple at Madura he met a holy man that had meditated for months in a cave above the ashram of another venerated Indian holy man. The holy man, who Larry had met previously in Elephanta near Bombay when he first arrived in India and has since been identified historically as Swami Ramdas, suggested to Larry that he go to the ashram of that venerated Indian saint. The suggestion led Larry to an eventual meeting between himself and the holy man Maugham called Shri Ganesha in the book, who was actually modeled after the real life Indian saint the Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. Ten years later, in 1938, for his book, Maugham did his own research of the holy man during his Travels in India.
Larry left Madura right after the suggestion of the holy man in the temple, arriving at the ashrama sometime in the fall of 1928. He was immediately taken aback by the intense aura surrounding the holy man and without hesitaion took up the Maharshi's offer to stay in a small hut near the Ashrama. From there he began learning, meditating, reading, and sitting in darshan under the Maharshi. A friend of Larry's that he met during darshan at the Ashrama, a forestry officer, invited him to stay in a forestry service bungalow in the mountains several days away that Larry could visit as he pleased. Larry took up the offer.(see)
"When I'd been at the Ashrama just two years I went up to my forest retreat for a reason that'll make you smile. I wanted to spend my birthday there. I got there the day before. Next morning I awoke before dawn and I thought I'd go and see the sunrise from the place I've just told you about. I knew the way blindfold. I sat under a tree and waited. It was night still, but the stars were pale in the sky, and day was at hand. I had a strange feeling of suspense. So gradually that I was hardly aware of it light began to filter through the darkness, slowly, like a mysterious figure slinking between the trees, I felt my heart beating as though at the approach of danger. The sun rose.
"I have no descriptive talent, I don't know the words to paint a picture; I can't tell you, so as to make you see it, how grand the was was that was displayed before as the day broke in its splendour. Those mountains with their deep jungle, the mist still entangled in the treetops, and the bottomless lake far below me. The sun caught the lake through a cleft in the heights and it shone like burnished steel. I was ravished with the beauty of the world. I'd never known such exaltation and such a transcendent joy. I had a strange sensation, a tingling that arose in my feet and traveled up to my head, and I felt as though I were suddenly released from my body and as pure spirit partook of a loveliness I had never conceived. I had a sense that a knowledge more than human possessed me, so that everything that had been confused was clear and everything that had perplexed me was explained. I was so happy that it was pain and I struggled to release myself from it, for I felt that if I lasted a moment longer I should die; and yet it was such rapture that I was ready to die rather than forgo it. How can I tell you what I felt? No words can tell the ecstasy of my bliss."(see)
In Larry's Enlightenment he understood everything he needed to understand. This is not to say that he knew everything there was to know, but that he was contented with understanding what knowledge he did possess. He did not find an absolute and definite reason for existence of the finite, or the necessity of evil, but he had answers that he was contented with. In retrospect, Father Ensheim's views, while more religiously oriented, were not so much different. Larry's entire journey can be summed up in his answer to the narrator's curiosity.
'Larry, old boy,' I said, 'this long quest of yours started with the problem of evil. It was the problem of evil that urged you on. You've said nothing all this time to indicate that you've reached even a tentative solution of it.'
"'It may be that there is no solution or it may be that I'm not clever enough to find it. Ramakrishna looked upon the world as the sport of God. 'It is like a game,' he said. 'In this game there are joy and sorrow, virtue and vice, knowledge and ignorance, good and evil. The game cannot continue if sin and suffering are altogether eliminated from the creation.' I would reject that with all my strength. The best I can suggest is that when the Absolute manifested itself in the world evil was the natural correlation of good. You could never have had the stupendous beauty of the Himalayas without the unimaginable horror of a convulsion of the earth's crust. The Chinese craftsman who makes a vase in what they call eggshell porcelain can give it a lovely shape, ornament it with a beautiful design, stain it a ravishing colour, and give it a perfect glaze, but from its very nature he can't make it anything but fragile. If you drop it on the floor it will break into a dozen fragments. Isn't it possible in the same way that the values we cherish in the world can only exist in combination with evil?"(see)
And this was it. Larry's reasoning was not absolute, but it was satisfactory to him. He had found inner peace and understanding, something that had been stolen from him during the war. Larry did not yet possess the wisdom of age, but did have inhuman knowledge of the world, and he had regained his zest for life. Maugham regards Larry's life as the ultimate of successes. He had found true, pure, unbridled happiness.
NOTE: Besides the person discussed in Larry Darrell as the real-life role model for Maugham's main character in The Razor's Edge, some people think Larry Darrell was really a man by the name of Guy Hague. Others cite a man named Ronald Nixon as being the roll model. Any chance either could he have been the REAL Larry Darrell? Click their names and find out.
THE RAZOR'S EDGE
A CRITICAL REVIEW OF MAUGHAM'S NOVEL
THE RAZOR'S EDGE: TRUE OR FALSE?
BESTSELLING NOVELS OF THE 20th CENTURY: The Razor's Edge
THE MEETING: An Untold Story of Sri Ramana
SRI RAMANA MAHARSHI TIMELINE
ON THE RAZOR'S
With thanks to Shawn Walters
Any and all copyright materials are used under authority of the Fair Use statute.
(United State Code, Title 17)
The following appears in the Father Ensheim web page linked previously in the above main text:
Some people read the following below, in The Razor's Edge, and question my thesis that Father Ensheim was actually the first person who directed my mentor to go to India. They say --- as written by Maugham --- the suggestion to go to India happened AFTER he left Father Ensheim. In the book Maugham has Darrell take a deckhand job on a frighter apparently working his way back to America. Darrell in conversation with Maugham about that voyage says:
"An Indian had joined us at Alexandria for the passage to Bombay and the tourists were rather sniffy about him. He was a fat little man with a brown round face and he wore a thick tweed suit of black and green check and a clerical collar. I was having a breath of air on deck one night and he came up and spoke to me. I didn't want to talk to anyone just then, I wanted to be alone; he asked me a lot of questions and I'm afraid I was rather short with him. Anyhow I told him I was a student working my passage back to America.
'You should stop off in India,' he said. 'The East has more to teach the West than the West conceives.'
'Oh yes?' I said.
'At any rate, he went on, 'be sure you go and see the caves at Elephanta. You'll never regret it.'
Three things are in play here. I have no quarrel with how Maugham lays it out regarding Darrell traveling by ship up to a point. First, I do not think in real life my mentor was working his way as a deckhand. It is my belief he was a passenger. I say so because of all the interaction between himself and the passengers as outlined by Maugham. In those days, and it still much the same today, the lower ranking seamen and deckhand types did not interact or hob-nob with the passengers. Besides, the Indian passenger says he "should stop off in India." That may be fine for a passenger, but somewhat iffy for a deckhand --- and not that easy either as various rules of the high seas which include strict sanctions, deportation, and possible incarceration make it somewhat difficult for a crew member, especially lower ranking ones, to just stay behind whenever they choose wherever they choose.
Second, although I say that Father Ensheim suggested my mentor go to "India," he actually suggested he go to the monastery in Himis. Himis is more Tibet than India, at least travel-wise, especially in the time period we are talking about here. My mentor was not quite sure in exacty what manner he was going to accomplish the journey --- that is, what route, etc. However, he did know it was best for him to disembark in Bombay because any later stops would take him further and further away from his destination.
Third, re-read again with a little more depth what Darrell has to say about his encounter with the man from India:
"I didn't want to talk to anyone just then, I wanted to be alone; he asked me a lot of questions and I'm afraid I was rather short with him. Anyhow I told him I was a student working my passage back to America."
Darrell did not want to talk to anyone so he was rather short in reponse to the Indian man. He says, "I told him I was a student working my passage back to America." Darrell tells Maugham that he just "told" the man that he was working his way back, not that he WAS working his way back. Big difference. From that Maugham extrapolated that he was working his way back when instead he was just telling the Indian man that basically to get rid of him.
Darrell also said "the tourists were rather sniffy about him." As I see it Darrell did not want to be seen as being sniffy --- so what does he do? He says he is "working," that is, he is a deckhand, which, like I have stated above, automatically puts a buffer between the passengers and crew. So, in Darrell's case, by saying he is working he can separate himself from the man from India without appearing sniffy. Quite the ploy.
THE BEST OF THE MAUGHAM BIOGRAPHIES:
SPIRITUAL GUIDES, GURUS, AND TEACHERS INFLUENTIAL IN DARRELL'S LIFE OTHER THAN THE MAHARSHI:
When it comes to possible role models for Larry Darrell in Maugham's novel The Razor's Edge two people rise to the top, Guy Hague and Ronald Nixon. Hague is delt with quite extensively elsewhere leaving us, for those who may be so interested, Nixon to discuss.
Nixon is often confused with my mentor because of a number of similarities, especially the early years. Although my mentor and Nixon knew each other because they flew together during World War I they were two widely separate people. Nixon's nationality, life before the war, and his years relative to India after the war are just too different to reconcile.
During the four years I was in high school the president of the United States was Dwight D. Eisenhower. Just as I was graduating Eisenhower ran for a second term and won. Both times his vice presidential running mate was Richard Nixon. Just before the start of my junior year I met my mentor, with the following junior year then my senior year paralleling the last two years of the first Eisenhower-Nixon administration. Those two years, and especially the last was filled with an ever continuous onslaught of Eisenhower-Nixon re-election hoopla.
My mentor never expressed himself politically one way or the other. However, one day when we were walking together he saw a newspaper headline related to Richard Nixon and out of the blue told me that during the war he flew with a man named Nixon. Since it was always hard to get anything out of him about the war I pressed him on it.
He told me the man was named Ronald Nixon. They were both fairly young to be aviators, with my mentor the youngest of the two 16 when he joined age 17 by the time they began flying with Nixon one year older. They had similar experiences in the war, ending with similar yet different outcomes, both involving India.
My mentor was an American and had never been to college, Nixon was British and right after the war ended he entered one of the colleges of Cambridge University, studying English literature and philosophy. During that period my mentor traveled and learned on his own throughout Europe and into Asia, with both he and Nixon eventually ending up in India.
Nixon graduated in 1921 and after going to India was offered and accepted a lecturer position teaching literature at the University of Lucknow, located in northern India, eventually taking a high paying professorship at Banaras Hindu University, In 1925 my mentor arrived in Bombay by ship. Not long after seeing the city sights and visiting the Caves of Elephanta he took a train third-class to Benares. He used Benares as a home base, operating in and around the general area for about six months. I know he went to Japur on the way to see the Hemis Manuscripts and Lucknow. In Benares he was able to see his former flying buddy on regular occasion, then well established as a professor at the university while seeking an ever deepening spiritual awareness.
In 1928, Sri Yashoda Mai, the wife of the university vice-chancellor, initiated Nixon into the Gaudiya Vaishnavite, a religious movement within Vaishnavism, one of the main Hindu schools of thought, after which he adopted Krishna Prem as his monastic name. Two years later, in 1930, Sri Yashoda Mai and Krishna Prem founded an ashram at Mirtola, near Almora, in north-central India.
Two years earlier, in 1928, after traveling throughout India and Asia my mentor showed up at the ashram of the venerated Indian holy man the Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi in Tiruvannamalai south India. Two years later, in the fall of 1930, he experienced Absolute Awakening at the same level as the ancient classical masters.
There is nothing anywhere that indicates Maugham ever met, knew, or knew of Ronald Nixon other than the possibilities of my mentor mentioning him. If you remember Nixion joined the military at age 16 or 17 only to return after the war and attend college which straightforward thereafter he immediately left for India never to leave. People continue to go on-and-on about Darrell but always forget the obvious that Maugham himself said in connection to him:
"The man I am writing about is not famous. It may be that he never will be. It may be that when his life at last comes to an end he will leave no more trace of his sojourn on earth than a stone thrown into a river leaves on the surface of the water. But it may be that the way of life that he has chosen for himself and the peculiar strength and sweetness of his character may have an ever-growing influence over his fellow men so that, long after his death perhaps, it may be realized that there lived in this age a very remarkable creature."
W. Somerset Maugham, THE RAZOR'S EDGE
In 1948, twenty years after my mentor first visited Sri Ramana, Krishna Prem, aka Ronald Nixon, traveled to his ashram in Tiruvannamalai to meet with the Bhagavan. That meeting is fully recorded in "FACE TO FACE WITH SRI RAMANA MAHARSHI: Enchanting and Uplifting Reminiscences of 202 Persons" Number 117, accessible by clicking HERE. When the page comes up scroll down one half page to Number 117.
THE REAL LIFE LARRY DARRELL