There are innumerable books that have been labeled "classics" over the years. Sadly, the very point at which a book receives this designation seems to be the point at which people stop reading it. In the case of the great English novelist and playwright W. Somerset Maugham, this "classic" label has long been applied to his book Of Human Bondage. Fortunately this is not as much the case with his best novel, The Razor's Edge, so we are all free to continue reading it.
The Razor's Edge is not simply Maugham's finest novel, however; it is easily one of the best novels of all time. I freely admit that I am an evangelist for this particular book, having read it every year since 1985. When I'm finished I give that copy to someone who has never read it and buy myself a new copy. Some have seen the 1946 film adaptation starring Tyrone Power, which was fairly true to the book, and almost 40 years later Bill Murray attempted an ill-conceived film version that was, in a word, awful. Neither film comes close to the greatness of the novel.
The Razor's Edge tells the story of Larry Darrell, a World War I flying ace who returns to his native Chicago profoundly impacted by the events of the war and unwilling to join in his friends' pursuit of money and leisure in booming 1920s America. Rather than enter the business world (as everyone expects him to do), he leaves his home and his fiancé Isabel and travels to Europe to, in his words, "loaf."
Loafing as Larry practices it is quite strenuous however, consisting of days working on a farm or in a coal mine and nights reading the great philosophers and mystics. He eventually travels to India and comes under the teaching of a guru who helps him greatly in his search for meaning. As these events transpire, back home Isabel has married Larry's best friend, the stock market has crashed, and the friends are ultimately reunited at the Paris home of Isabel's uncle Elliott Templeton.
One unique feature of this book is that Maugham inserts himself in the story as its narrator, giving the novel the feel of a memoir; indeed, after the publication of the book in 1944 there was no small amount of speculation as to the identity of the person Larry is based upon. While putting himself in the story is an unusual plot device, it allows for what are some of the best scenes of all: the interplay between Maugham's character and Elliott Templeton. And while Larry is certainly the main character, Elliott steals every scene he's in (this happened in both film versions as well).
Although not as well known today as some of Maugham's other novels (including The Painted Veil and Up At the Villa, both of which have been made into films in the past decade), The Razor's Edge was a huge bestseller upon release, selling over a million copies in the 1940s; it has never been out of print since. It is as relevant today as when it was written nearly 70 years ago, and contains some unmistakable and prophetic parallels to our society today, from the dangers of a consumer society to the effects of war on those who fight it to the search for meaning through Eastern religions. It is also the only book I've ever read that makes the search for meaning both interesting and entertaining, which may be the most amazing thing of all.