The Razor’s Edge, W. Somerset Maugham (1944)

“I’ve been reading a good deal. Eight or ten hours a day. I’ve attended lectures at the Sorbonne. I think I’ve read everything that’s important in French literature and I can read Latin, at least Latin prose, almost as fluently as I can read French. Of course Greek’s more difficult. But I have a very good teacher. Until you came here I used to go to him three evenings a week.”

“And what is that going to lead to?”

“The acquisition of knowledge.”

“That doesn’t sound very practical.”

 

 

razorThis is my first book by W. Somerset Maugham and I found it to be a compelling narrative with a theme that is close to me. It is a book with a large cast of characters, but by weaving them in and out of each other’s lives Maugham keeps them familiar to us. We watch as their individual fortunes rise and fall affecting all around.

The story begins just after WWI and centers on Larry Darrell and his childhood friends. He is the only one of his group who fought, joining the Air Force to train as a fighter pilot. Traumatized by seeing his best friend killed, when he returns home he is unable to resume his carefree life as a member of the upper class. Set to marry his long-time love, Isabel, and live the conventional life of his class, his experiences during the war have changed him in ways that make that life impossible. He is full of questions about the meaning of life and no longer feels comfortable in the Chicago of his childhood. With inner demons demanding attention he embarks on a life of study and manual labor in France and Germany and to India where at the feet of gurus and into ashrams he spends several years. Confounding his friends with his voluntary poverty and perpetual study, he refuses to reign in his voracious quest for answers.

As the years pass and Isabel loses her ability to wait for him; as the offers of employment dry up and the words of wisdom from well-meaning friends fall on deaf ears, Larry remains undaunted. At its heart this is the story of one man’s spiritual journey, but it is also that for all the characters who experience existential crises in the life choices they make and in the way their lives unfold.

Maugham, who plays himself in the story, met Larry just after he returned from the war at a party given by Isabel’s uncle Elliott. As a writer, he comes to Paris often. His meetings with Larry make him the perfect go-between keeping all at home informed of Larry’s whereabouts and progress on a quest they cannot understand.

Maugham structures the narrative so that he runs into the characters accidentally on streets, in restaurants, at events as a device for “catching up.” He is the older, trustworthy, non-gossipy family friend. They pour out their trials and tribulations to him, their decisions, their changes of heart or circumstances, whether their hopes are attained or dreams dashed.

That Maugham plays himself in this story had me confused. Is this a fictional account of a true story? If so, does his presence make it nonfiction? Or are the characters fictional in order for Maugham to expand on the real point of the book—the quest for the meaning of life vs. living a conventional material life, and as a vehicle that showcases the new Eastern spirituality that had become so popular in the West?

My confusion forced me to learn more about Maugham to see if that might shed some light.

Maugham was involved with some of the major players and organizations that brought Indian religion and philosophy to the States in the late 19th to mid 20th centuries. Swami Vivekananda and the Vedanta Society, Paramahansa Yogananda and The Self-Realization Fellowship were well-known messengers of this new spirituality. They lectured throughout the United States and Europe to packed houses making positive impressions everywhere. Maugham uses himself in the book as a sort of messenger not only between Larry and his friends, but as Larry’s sounding board, foil, and inquisitor to his spiritual journey. By forcing Larry to explain himself through their conversations he becomes the transmitter of this spirituality to the reader.

As a new reader of W. Somerset Maugham I thoroughly enjoyed his style of writing and telling of this story. He is asking us to think about what makes a meaningful life and the struggle between material desire and spirituality. Is Larry the better person for his choices and Isabel, who refuses Larry’s life of poverty, the villain? Is a life of inner exploration superior to that of outer conformity to convention? Or does there have to be a choice between the two? A universal conundrum for sure.

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My Edition
Title: The Razor’s Edge
Author: W. Somerset Maugham
Publisher: Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc.
Device: Hardcover
Year: 1944
Pages: 258
Full plot summary

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Mistress of the Art of Death (2007), Ariana Franklin (Diana Norman)

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Quickly she knelt and asked the dead beyond the door to forgive her for handling their remains. She asked to be reminded not to forget the respect she owed them. “Permit your flesh and bone to tell me what your voices cannot.”

 

It is the year 1170. The city of Cambridge is tense. Four young children have been tortured to death. The people of the town have accused the Jewish community of blood libel and the perpetrators of the murders, causing them to flee their homes for protection in the castle. Henry II is angry and concerned. Imprisoned, the Jews are unable to pay the heavy taxes by which the king finances his realm. Henry does not believe the murders are the work of the Jews and must find a way to exonerate them. Henry writes to his cousin, the King of Sicily, who presides over the world renowned medical school in Salerno asking him to send his best “investigator of death.”

Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar is the Mistress of the Art of Death, a combination modern day coroner and police detective. When she arrives with her Arab assistant Mansur and fellow investigator Simon of Naples, a Jew she must hide her true vocation. Though the cultural, religious and gender diversity of Salerno allows women in the medical college, Adelia’s specialty conflicts with the Church’s teachings on both women and dissection, so she is used to passing off her findings to her foster father. While in England Mansur becomes the doctor and she his assistant. At least at the beginning. From enlightened city to crude backwater, the trio of friends reluctantly make the journey. The moment they arrive in Cambridge, however, they are besieged with a multitude of illnesses and accidents untreatable before now. But the bodies of the children need to be examined and with some restrictions on her gender, the investigation begins.

The stabbing around the pelvis had left distinctive marks; she had seen knife wounds before, but none like these. The blade of the instrument that had caused them appeared to be much faceted. She would have liked to remove the pelvis for leisurely examination in better light, but she had promised Prior Geoffrey to do no dissection.

It is fascinating to watch how Adelia studies the bodies of the children and how she deduces their killers. It is like watching a Medieval version of a CSI episode. Body by body and clue by clue culminating in a frightful incident where Adelia almost meets her own end. But she succeeds in discovering the culprits responsible.

I was incredibly drawn to this story as it ticked many of the boxes I enjoyed studying in college. As the ‘king’s persons” Jews were England’s bank account being taxed to unbelievable degrees financing everything from the building of castles and cathedrals, the bankrolling of crusades to the general running of the realm. Thus, the king’s castle was their safety zone when attacked. They were an easy target when anything abnormal occurred. Leaving their homes and fleeing to the castle for the protection of the king was often a precarious situation. As illustrated in this story, anti-Jewish sentiment is so high with the townspeople, even when it is pointed out the Jews have been in the castle for a year and children have been killed during this time. The townspeople cook up an elaborate fantasy that the Jews leave by night and return to the castle early in the morning to commit the crimes. Never mind there are townspeople stationed at every entrance day and night which would make escape impossible.

Franklin also describes the diversity of students and teachers that peopled the medical school of Salerno, which included Arabs, Jews, Africans and others from across Europe, as well as women. The medical training here surpassed the other schools on the continent. Adelia, who was orphaned and fostered by a couple from the medical school, acknowledged her intellect from a young age and encouraged her studies. Adelia’s skills come from her training and investigative experience, which included time spent at the pig farm, a medieval version of the modern-day body farm.

Adelia was forcing herself to see a pig [not a child]. Pigs were what she’d learned on. Pigs—the nearest approximation in the animal world to human flesh and bone. Up in the hills behind a high wall, Gordinus had kept dead pigs for his students, some buried, some exposed to the air, some in a wooden hut, others in a stone byre…Most of the students introduced to the his death farm had been revolted by the flies and stench and had fallen away; only Adelia saw the wonder of the process that reduced a cadaver to nothing.

One of the strengths of this historically dense novel is constructing a story with a protagonist who is foreign and unfamiliar with the culture in which she is thrust. The reader learns along with Adelia, Mansur and Simon, so prior knowledge of the period is unnecessary and Franklin’s narrative makes it easy to follow the story. And to further this point, Franklin uses the British to further our knowledge. Though most of the townspeople are portrayed as suspicious and ignorant of foreigners, the novel opens with a band of pilgrims and crusaders having just returned from the Holy Land. Several of the knights are familiar with the customs and culture of both the Arab and Jewish worlds and of Europeans in general. Franklin uses their knowledge in usually positive, but sometimes humorous ways to make points about the cultural and dietary habits of Mansur, Simon and Adelia.

A Personal Observation

I have missed out on many richly drawn historical novels. Early in Medieval studies it was drummed into our heads that we couldn’t take fictionalized accounts of historical events seriously and were discouraged from books and other historical “reconstructions.” “This could never have happened.” “That is just historically inaccurate.” I can remember classmates mocked for their interest in the King Arthur mythos or those students who participated in the activities of the Society for Creative Anachronism. The only contemporary Medieval fiction we were encouraged to read was Josephine Tey’s, The Daughter of Time, because it was about research. It has taken me a long time to reject those voices critical of historical fiction. And that’s too bad. I have a lot of catching up to do.

In this regard, if those professors of mine were still alive I would make them read this book! While obviously some license has to be taken in the way a story like this is told in order for a modern person to understand it, historical accuracy does not have to suffer.

The novel is a page turner, a fascinating mystery and manages to dispel ignorance about the Middle Ages many people may have.

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Challenges: RIPXIII, RBRTBR

 

R.I.P.XIII-Lucky Thirteen for this Scary October

RIPXIII

 

Readers Imbibing Peril or R.I.P. is a gathering of readers taking advantage of the encroaching darkness* of autumn to read books of mystery, horror, Gothic, suspense, the dark fantasies, thrillers and so on. It starts in September, though I usually join in October. Any reading format is game as are films, tv, web series. Don’t think of this as a challenge, but as a community of appreciators of the Dark…cue scary music. For more details you can go here. It’s not too late to join.

I made my list, read my first book and will start posting next week.

 

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The Historical Fiction
Mistress of the Art of Death, Ariana Franklin

The Classic
The Turn of the Screw, Henry James

The Short Stories
Poe, HP Lovecraft

The Films
The Turn of the Screw, Fall of the House of Usher

I never used to read these kinds of books….just too scary. And I certainly never thought I would read an HP Lovecraft, the master of “Oh. My. God!” But after getting “horror baptized” with The Case of Charles Dexter Ward for a reading challenge a couple of years ago, I was stunned by how drawn I was to the story and realized good story telling is good story telling….as long as I am in a room with lots of lights….And now I am back for more!

In choosing the right reading challenges for me I have grown as a reader through the books I have chosen as well as discovering new ones from reading the posts of others.

Happy Scary October!

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*I just realized this is a northern hemisphere concept. What must it be like to celebrate Halloween in the Spring with the light getting longer?!

It was a rough summer…..

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…..I didn’t think it would take this long to read and post again, but life threw some curve balls forcing me to take a break. I do intend to finish my Classics Club Spin, which I got 1/3 of the way through (Sir Walter Scott’s, Rob Roy) before things went south, and I hope to finish Persuasion and may attempt to write up why I did not like Pride and Prejudice. Yikes, I really did just say that!

I believe my health and other issues are now taken care of. I didn’t post anything for Banned Books Week, but I read through many of the books I own (The Diary of Anne Frank…really???) that have been challenged, and Instagrammed a few as well as some books I found at library sales. This is a stimulating week for me, it gets my ire up. I think it is important to see what classic and contemporary works were or continue to be under fire so we can support them. It is not up to some named or unnamed power to withhold knowledge or information from us or our children, because they think they know better. Only we can know for ourselves what is important to read and why.

I am gathering up my RIP choices for the month and will post those this week. I can’t think about scary books during September when it is still warm here and I am so physically active outside. Once the Equinox comes, the days cool off and it’s darker at night then I can feel the fear…..!!!!

I will continue to post for BTS* on the last Sunday of the month. Nature, through words and images, inspires me and heals me through every big and small thing. And today’s offering feels like a nice way back in.

I look forward to spending some time today seeing what you have all been up to!

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* as a way to share what is spiritually inspiring to me at the moment.

Blogging the Spirit-Soul of Earth

Florespeak

 

Soul of Earth, sanctify me.
Body of Earth, save me.
Blood of Earth, fill me with love.
Water from Earth’s side, wash me.
Passion of Earth, strengthen me.
Resurrection of Earth, empower me.
Good Earth, hear me.
Within your wounds, hide me.
Never let me be separated from you.
From the power of evil, protect me.
At the hour of my death, call me
That with your living ones I may thank you
For all eternity. Amen.
Adapted by Jane Pellowski, from Anima Christi

Classics Club Spin #18

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A perfect event for a first blog post after being away for so long!

I am not sure why these Spins are so exciting. Like the lottery, maybe? Whatever the reason they give me both the push I need to get myself reading from my list and to feel like part of the CC community. Once the Spin Gods choose the number it is so much fun to go to other blogs to see who got what.

If you have never heard of the Classics Club it is basically a blog and community of bloggers who want to read more classic literature. We make up a list of at least 50 books we want to read in five years, then blog or use some other form of social media for our reviews and enjoy the comments and discussions with the folks who stop by. A few times a year, we separately list out 20 books from our main list and the Spin Gods chose a number.  The book that corresponds to that number is our Spin book. It is not too late to sign up both for this Spin or the Club itself. Here is all the information you need.

With all that said, here is my list. I have decided to list from the bottom up, instead of starting at the top. I am a dare devil, I am. I will stop back on Wednesday and announce my Spin book. Good luck, All!

ETA: And the Spin number is 9. I will be reading Rob Roy, by Sir Walter Scott. This has been on my shelf for a long time and frankly, I don’t even know what it is about! THIS is one of the reasons this event can be fun as well as meaningful.

Elizabeth Gaskell
1. North and South (1854)

George Gissing
2. The Odd Women (1893)

Aldous Huxley
3. Brave New World (1932)

Henry James
4. Portrait of a Lady (1881)
5. The Ambassadors (1903)

Sinclair Lewis
6. Main Street (1920)

George Meredith
7. The Egoist (1879)
8. Diana of the Crossways
(1885)

Sir Walter Scott
9. Rob Roy (1817)
10. Ivanhoe (1820)

Mary Shelley
11. Frankenstein (1818)

Robert Louis Stevenson
12. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886)

Harriet Beecher Stowe
13. Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)

W. M. Thackeray
14. Vanity Fair (1848)

Susan Warner
15. The Wide, Wide World (1850)

H. G. Wells
16. First Men in the Moon (1901)
17. The Invisible Man (1897)

Oscar Wilde
18. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)

Virginia Woolf
19. To the Lighthouse (1927)
20 .The Years (1937)

Update in the “Pause”

Thank you All for your good thoughts and optimism. My surgery is on Friday and I cannot wait to have my eyeball back in good working order!

With age-related cataracts, both eyes are usually done one after the other, but in my case only my right eye has a cataract. It will be interesting to see how this will effect my overall eyesight without glasses. At present, I don’t wear them to read. I won’t be fully recovered for a month.

At any rate, the books are piling up and calling my name!

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A Pause in Posting: The Eyes Have It!

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I spoke briefly about my adventures with skin cancer last Fall. Another fallout from growing up in Southern California and years of sun exposure–I am old enough to have spent many summers frying my skin because the words ‘sun block’ were not a product–is the development of a non age-related cataract in my right eye. These types are determined as such by the fact that the damage is on a different part of the lens. They are also fast growing. My eyesight began to change in April and by the end of May it was time to call the doctor.

I just had the appointment and I hope to have surgery next month. I was scared when this first began, but now I can’t wait to have it taken care of, because it has affected my ability to read. You may have noticed I am posting less; that’s because I read slower and, oh my, this is frustrating! I also find my laptop screen is sometimes blurry, which is why I am not commenting on your posts so much.

I am going to do myself a favor and take time off Relevant Obscurity until sometime in July. I don’t know what the recovery period is for cataract surgery…I won’t leave altogether, because hey, I am right in the middle of Persuasion (and liking it SO much better than Pride and Prejudice…oops, I did just say that, didn’t I?) and I know I will want to blog about it. I will continue to read slowly and do the best I can. And I know I’ll “Like” and pop up on your blogs if I can. Fortunately, I see very well off the page, so other parts of my life can continue as usual.

And may I just leave you with this: Wear sunscreen and a hat, as well as uv protecting sunglasses!

 

beachlaurie
I still go to the beach, but this is my attire now 🙂

Under the Greewood Tree or The Mellstock Quire, Thomas Hardy (1872)

This story of the Mellstock Quire and its old established west-gallery musicians,…is intended to be a fairly true picture, at first hand of the personages, ways and customs which were common among such orchestral bodies in the villages of fifty or sixty years ago….One is inclined to regret the displacement of these ecclesiastical bandsmen…by installing a single artist….Under the old plan, from half a dozen to ten full-grown players and singers, were officially occupied with the Sunday routine, and concerned in trying their best to make it an artistic outcome of the combined musical taste of the congregation. Thomas Hardy, Introduction

 

greenwoodUnder the Greenwood Tree concerns the fate of a group of church musicians, the Mellstock parish choir, who have been informed by the vicar of their parish, Mr Maybold, that he intends to replace them with a single organist, Fancy Day, who is also the new school teacher. The vicar wants the small village to keep up with the times, which means changing the traditional musical accompaniment to Sunday services with the more modern barrel organ. This is devastating to the musicians, some of whom come from families who have been church musicians for generations. In a last ditch effort to plead their case, they descend upon the vicar to negotiate, but the organ has been purchased and modernity has descended upon the little village.

Times have changed from the times they used to be…People don’t care much about us nowserpent! I’ve been thinking we must be almost the last left in the county of the old string players? Barrel-organs and the things next door to ‘em that you blow wi’ your foot, have come in terrible of late years….They should have stuck to strings as we did, and kept out of clarinets, and done away with serpents. If you’d thrive in musical religion, stick to strings…Strings be safe soul-lifters….

The story unfolds on Christmas Eve as the quire makes the many-hour trek through the night to the church. Hardy introduces us to a wonderful cast of characters including cantankerous old Reuben Dewy, frail young Thomas Leaf and Dewy’s grandson, Dick. When the group reaches the schoolyard near the church their playing rouses Fancy who comes to a window. This vision sparks the interest of Dick, who is quickly smitten. As the days turn into weeks he is in constant rumination on the details of her dress, her thoughts, aching over snippets of conversations, essentially embodying the hopes and fears of young romance.

Fancy’s interest in him grows, but her father is not impressed with the working class Dewy and forbids their marriage. Enter the iconic single woman of the town who people call a witch, whom Fancy visits for advice. She gives Fancy instructions on how to change her father’s mind and with success. The book ends with their marriage.

This is a wonderful pastoral tale of tradition versus progress, yet the fight is not so passionate, as the men of the quire understand they will lose in the end. Bargaining with the vicar to finish out the year before the organ takes over, he gives them only until Michaelmas. During this time they feel the changes coming on and know their days as musicians are numbered. And as Fancy gets to know the musicians and especially as her affection for Dick grows, she assures them she will NOT play the organ. But she can’t thwart progress either and the day comes for her debut.

The old choir, with humbled hearts, no longer took their seats in the gallery as heretofore, but were scattered about with their wives in different parts of the church. Having nothing to do with conducting the service for almost the first time in their lives, they all felt awkward, out of place, abashed, and inconvenienced by their hands.

Progress always has a human toll and while I ached for these musicians having to face a changing world, I was also impressed by their acceptance of the that reality.

Hardy’s prose in this early work is not without lengthy detailed descriptive passages that are unnecessary to the narrative. But there are other aspects of Hardy’s writing that I find quite beautiful and creative. In fact, in his opening paragraph where he describes the land surrounding the village he cleverly infuses his description of nature with musical description, being obviously a main point of the novel. This beginning paragraph will remain a favorite of mine for a long time.

To dwellers in a wood almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature. At the passing of the breeze the fir-trees sob and moan no less distinctly than they rock; the holly whistles as it battles with itself; the ash hisses amid its quiverings; the beech rustles while its flat boughs rise and fall. And winter, which modifies the note of such trees as shed their leaves, does not destroy its individuality.

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My Edition
Title: Under the Greenwood Tree or The Mellstock Quire
Author: Thomas Hardy
Publisher: Macmillan and Co., Limited
Device: Hardcover
Year: 1872
Pages: 273
Full plot summary