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Somerset Maugham

The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over;
thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.
Katha Upanishad (3.14)

Christopher Isherwood

So begins Somerset Maugham�s bestselling twentieth century novel, The Razor�s Edge (1944), whose main character gives up a life of privilege in search of spiritual enlightenment. Maugham himself visited Ramanasramam where he had a direct interaction with Ramana Maharshi in Tamil Nadu, India in 1938. But, it is said that Maugham received his inspiration and direct translation for this epigraph from Christopher Isherwood, with whom he had become acquainted through The Vedanta Society�s Hollywood Hills center.

William Somerset Maugham (25 January 1874 � 16 December 1965) was an English playwright, novelist and short story writer. He was among the most popular writers of his era, and reputedly, the highest paid author during the 1930s.

Maugham had three older brothers already enrolled in boarding school by the time he was three and he was effectively raised as an only child. His mother died when Maugham was only eight years old; her death left Maugham traumatized for life, and he kept her photograph by his bedside until his own death at the age of 91 in Nice, France.

After boarding school, a career in the church was rejected, likewise, the civil service. The local doctor suggested the profession of medicine so he spent the next five years as a medical student at St Thomas' Hospital, Lambeth, London.

Some critics have assumed that the years Maugham spent studying medicine were a creative dead end, but Maugham himself felt quite the contrary. He was able to live in the lively city of London, to meet people of a �low� sort that he would never have met in one of the other professions, and to see them in a time of heightened anxiety and meaning in their lives. In maturity, he recalled the literary value of what he saw as a medical student: �I saw how men died. I saw how they bore pain. I saw what hope looked like, fear and relief...�

Maugham kept his own lodgings, took pleasure in furnishing them, filled many notebooks with literary ideas, and continued writing nightly while at the same time studying for his degree in medicine. In 1897, he presented his second book for consideration. (The first was a biography of opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer written by the 16-year-old Maugham in Heidelberg.) Liza of Lambeth, a tale of working-class adultery and its consequences, drew its details from Maugham's experiences as a medical student doing midwifery work in the London slum of Lambeth. Liza of Lambeth proved popular with both reviewers and the public, and the first print run sold out in a matter of weeks. This was enough to convince Maugham, who had qualified as a doctor, to drop medicine and embark on his 65- year career as a man of letters. Of his entry into the profession of writing he later said, �I took to it as a duck takes to water.�

The writer's life allowed Maugham to travel and live in places such as Spain and Capri for the next decade, but his next ten works never came close to rivalling the success of Liza. This changed dramatically in 1907 with the phenomenal success of his play Lady Frederick; by the next year he had four plays running simultaneously in London, and Punch published a cartoon of Shakespeare biting his fingernails nervously as he looked at the billboards.

By 1914 Maugham was famous, with 10 plays produced and 10 novels published. Too old to enlist when World War I broke out, Maugham served in France as a member of the British Red Cross's so-called �Literary Ambulance Drivers�, a group of some 23 well-known writers including John Dos Passos and E. E. Cummings. During this time he met Frederick Gerald Haxton, a young San Franciscan who became his companion and lover until Haxton's death in 1944.

Of Human Bondage (1915) initially received adverse criticism both in England and America. Influential critic and novelist Theodore Dreiser, however, rescued the novel, referring to it as a work of genius, and comparing it to a Beethoven symphony. This review gave the book the lift it needed and it has since never been out of print.

In 1916, Maugham travelled to the Pacific to research his novel The Moon and Sixpence, based on the life of Paul Gauguin. This was the first of those journeys through the late-Imperial world of the 1920s and 1930s, which were to establish Maugham forever in the popular imagination as the chronicler of the last days of colonialism in India, Southeast Asia, China and the Pacific, although the books on which this reputation rests represent only a fraction of his output. On this and all subsequent journeys he was accompanied by Haxton, whom he regarded as indispensable to his success as a writer. Maugham himself was painfully shy, and Haxton the extrovert gathered human material that Maugham steadily turned into fiction.

In 1928, Maugham bought Villa Mauresque at Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera, which was his home for most of the rest of his life, and one of the great literary and social salons of the 1920s and 30s. His output continued to be prodigious, including plays, short stories, novels, essays and travel books. By 1940, when the collapse of France forced Maugham to leave the French Riviera and become a well-heeled refugee, he was already one of the most famous and wealthiest writers in the English-speaking world.

Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham

Maugham's last major novel, The Razor's Edge, published in 1944, was a departure for him in many ways. While much of the novel takes place in Europe, its main characters are American, not British. The protagonist is a disillusioned veteran of World War I who abandons his wealthy friends and lifestyle, travelling to India seeking enlightenment. The story's themes of Eastern mysticism and war-weariness struck a chord with readers as World War II waned, and a movie adaptation quickly followed.

Maugham, by now in his sixties, spent most of World War II in the United States, first in Hollywood (he worked on many scripts, and was one of the first authors to make significant money from film adaptations) and later in the South. While in the US he was asked by the British Government to make patriotic speeches to induce the US to aid Britain, if not necessarily become an allied combatant. Gerald Haxton died in 1944, and Maugham moved back to England, then in 1946 to his villa in France, where he lived, interrupted by frequent and long travels, until his death.

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Read David Godman's article, Somerset Maugham and The Razor's Edge about the writer's trip to the Ramanasramam and his meeting with Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi.

[Source: Somerset Maugham, Wikipedia]

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Page last updated: 09-Jul-2012