TRUE OR FALSE?
WILLIAM SOMERSET MAUGHAM
"I have invented nothing. To save embarrassment to people still living I have given
to the persons who play a part in this story names of my own contriving, and I have
in other ways taken pains to make sure that no one should recognize them."
W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM, The Razor's Edge
THE RAZOR'S EDGE: True or False?
Almost from the very second The Razor's Edge was made available to the reading public there has been a raging controversy as to IF the storyline as presented by Somerset Maugham in what has turned out to be one of the Bestselling Novels of the 20th Century was true or false, fact or fiction.
Throughout the years a variety of literary heavyweights from both sides of the aisle --- and some not so heavyweight --- have taken up the challenge in an attempt to either prove or disprove the contents as being nothing but factual to the storyline being no more than a total figment of the author's imagination. Thus far, no one from either side of the spectrum has been sucessful in proving their belief is 100 percent accurate without a doubt.
What you find, however, on the PRO or TRUE side of The Razor's Edge being factual, is not so much major attempts with major proofs, but little drops here and there --- expertly researched --- that cumulatively fill a bucket that spill over and become a torrent. Such an example is found in "MAUGHAM AND THE WEST: the Human Condition: Bondage," a monograph by Fulbright Scholar and Professor Emeriti of Comparative Literature, Hunter College, City University of New York, Mildred C. Kuner. Kuner writes, "the oblique construction of the book is one of Maugham's happiest inventions. In Maugham's unique use of first person, the narrator (Maugham) is an entertaining host describing to his guests a series of events which HE witnessed and which are indisputably authentic."
"A series of events which HE witnessed and which are indisputably authentic!" Strong words about a book thought by many to be fiction rather than based on fact. True, although what the good doctor says doesn't make it so, almost any Professor of Comparative Literature, professor Kuner included, no doubt has a much wider base of resources available to them in order to clarify and deliniate issues related to literature, authors, and writers than the average reader or critic. It is a given they probably know people who know people who know people and able to elicit direct access and response in the process of their research as well as have reams of literature based information to call upon if so needed. So too, in their circle of Professor of Comparative Literature peers there is most likely ample discussion to shootdown or authenticate any proposal. Hence the use of "indisputably authentic" is probably based on more than mere speculation or wishful thinking --- even though the full spectrum behind the arrival at such a distinction may not be readily available to the common layperson.
Fortunately, there is a way to distinguish between facts readily available in order to determine if The Razor's Edge is TRUE rather than FALSE --- a way that falls somewhat between the exaulted position of Professors of Comparative Literature and that of the common layperson, albeit based more on personal experience and personal knowledge than anything else.
W. Somerset Maugham was a writer. He wrote articles, books, plays, and novels of fiction. As a writer of novels of fiction he had a literary license to create, mix, match, invent or make up just about anything he liked. However, in The Razor's Edge, except for his efforts to "save embarrassment to people still living" by using "story names of his own contriving," he stuck to a fairly interesting set of facts, facts that could have been written, rewritten or changed in another way if he had so chose. He didn't. As he says, he invented nothing.
Maugham goes on to say, "I think my book, within its acknowledged limitations, will be a useful source of information for my friend's biographers," and for the most part, except for the few minor discrepancies presented earlier, the story pretty much self-substantiates itself.
Taking Maugham at his word, but eliminating certain obvious literary elaborations discussed previously --- while fully taking into consideration Maugham's three earlier attempts using the exact SAME plot (see), it becomes clear the underlying storyline weaved throughout The Razor's Edge is based on fact and that the Darrell character is based on a real person. It is my contention that the person Maugham used in real life was the same person I met and knew and refer to in my writings as my Mentor and sometimes "the man nextdoor." For the doubters, however, the following presents what I consider as Three Main Facts in the story that help corroborate or solidify that Maugham "invented nothing" and what was told to me is accurate within the bounds of memory:
I. THE FACT THAT LARRY DARRELL WAS TOO YOUNG TO GO TO WAR:
- Maugham could have just as easily thought up a much more reasonable time frame reference or chronological age related to the main character, Larry Darrell, but he didn't. To have fought in World War I the Darrell character as Maugham wrote him was just about at the lower limits of age that would allow him to particpate. Darrell tells Maugham in the narrative of the story that his best friend in the military was age twenty-two, that is, twenty-two in 1918. Earlier in the novel Maugham had written, speaking of Darrell's girlfriend Isabel in Chicago following the war, that "She's nineteen and he's (Darrell) only just twenty." During conversation that same night in Chicago, when Maugham suggests that Darrell seemed much to young to have been in the war, Isabel tells him:
"He was. Much too young. He behaved very badly. He ran away from school and went to Canada. By lying his head off he got them to believe he was eighteen and got into the air corps. He was fighting in France at the time of the armistice."
Darrell's age plays no part in the novel except that he had to be the right age to be in the war to see his best friend die, so inturn, he would go on his spiritual quest.(see) Maugham could have written him as twenty-two like his best friend, or even twenty-five, but he didn't. Why? Because he chose to use the actual age of the person he used as his model.
II. THE FACT THAT LARRY DARRELL WAS AN AMERICAN:
- Maugham had been a volunteer ambulance driver during WWI, one of the so-called Literary Ambulance Drivers of the day, not unlike the expatriate come-Parisian and fellow contemporary, albeit totally American author and writer, Ernest Hemingway. Maugham had the personal experience of being an ambulance driver and seeing the death and carnage of the war firsthand like Hemingway --- and COULD have drawn on that experience to make the Darrell character an ambulance driver not unlike Hemingway did with his character Frederic Henry in A Farwell to Arms. But he didn't. Instead, just like the person in real life, he wrote about a young, not British or even Canadian, but imagine that, American pilot --- that flew for the British --- keeping him as a product of the U.S., lock, stock, and barrel --- even as Maugham goes on and on in the book to disclaim he has any personal expertise in American dialect and philosophy. Even so, he turns around and demonstrates a rather impressive inside understanding of both American philosophy and dialect throughout the novel, keeping his main character and most of the periphery characters from the United States. Why? Because of his interaction with the main character in actual life.
As you may recall, in Maugham's 10th novel Moon and the Sixpence (1919), he tells a story about a man he calls Charles Strickland, an Englishman who, at the age of 40, completely abandons his wife and two children and runs off to the south seas to pursue art. The novel is totally based on that of the French artist Paul Gauguin along with some elements from Maugham's own life. In the novel Maugham easily changes the French painter Gauguin into the Englishman Strickland --- and he could have just as easily done the same with Darrell, writing him as an Englishman in The Razor's Edge instead of an American. Again, he didn't.
There is a possible interesting twist to this Literary Ambulance thing, although based on pure speculation more than anything else. In Razor's Edge Notes as well as found in the novel, it is stated that Darrell was wounded twice in the war. The nature of those wounds are not discussed, nor did my Mentor ever mention any such wounds. However --- and I discuss this elsewhere -- Maugham, being the ambulance driver he was, the wounds could have played a role in the two meeting in the first place. When I asked my mentor about scars I saw on his shoulder one day, he simply replied, "Jousting with dragons." Later, unrelated to any time frame reference here, while staying at the compound of the largely unheralded and anonymous American Zen master Alfred Pulyan, I would figure out jousting with dragons meant bringing down in air-to-air combat, the giant hydrogen filled airships called Zeppelins --- the burning hydrogen being the fire breathing breath of the dragon. To wit, the following:
Since the dates or timing of those wounds are not part of the story, it could be that the Darrell character, in the process of one or the other or both wounds was picked up by Maugham PRIOR to his departure from the ambulance service. Now Maugham might not have remembered Darrell, but from my own experience, Darrell might have remembered him. Maugham, as an ambulance driver no doubt assisted hundreds of wounded, so in turn most would eventually become not much more than just a blur. The opposite would happen to the person wounded. I say so because of my own experience being found in a ditch unconscious with my stomach ripped open. The very second the staff sergeant that found me stepped next to my bed in the army hospital to see how I was three days later, even though I knew I didn't "know" him, I "recognized" him instantly.(see)
Finally, and one of the most interesting and basic reasons for this footnote, is what Maugham writes about regarding Darrell's Enlightenment experience --- and the one thing that almost everybody who reads the novel, critic, aficionado, or casual reader alike, NEVER gets:
III. THE FACT THAT LARRY DARRELL DID NOT AWAKEN AT THE ASHRAMA OR THE HOLY MOUNTAIN OF ARUNACHALA:
- As the Darrell character's spritual quest unfolds Maugham has him travel to the ashrama of Sri Ganesha, that we know in reality is the Enlightened Sage Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. In the process of gathering information for the novel Maugham went to India too, although more than a decade AFTER my mentor, visiting the ashrama and meeting the Bhagavan --- and, as mentioned previously, even fainting after becoming overwhelmed in the presence of the Maharshi.(see) Through research, prior knowledge, plain old footwork, or just because of being in India, Maugham eventually found out what everybody finds out that ever visited the ashrama, met the Maharshi, or studied the Maharshi --- and that is how the sacred mountain Arunachala played a major role in the Holy Man's Awakening, and as well, that of his devotees. While it is true Sri Ramana Awakened to the Absolute as a young boy through what has been likened to as a Near Death Experience before he ever physically saw Arunachala, he was driven by the mountain's existence and it remained of the utmost importance in the overall scheme of things relative to the Maharshi, his Awakening, and his other devotees. Ramana was sixteen years of age when he first heard about Arunachala. An elderly relative stopped by to visit the family and Ramana asked where he came from. The relative replied "From Arunachala." The very name Arunachala was like a magic spell had befallen him. Referring to this incident Sri Ramana says later on in one of his hymns to Arunachala:
Oh, great wonder! As an insentient hill it stands. Its action is difficult for anyone to understand. From my childhood it appeared to my intelligence that Arunachala was something very great. But even when I came to know through another that it was the same as Tiruvannamalai I did not understand its meaning. When, stilling my mind, it drew me up to it, and I came close, I found that it was the Immovable.
Unusually, such was not the case for the Darrell character. Why? Because again Maugham followed a certain set of highly UNUSUAL facts.
Maugham has Darrell travel clear to the south of India, meet the Maharshi and be invited to stay at the ashrama. However, he also writes that Darrell did not stay at the ashrama continuously. He had met a man that was a forestry officer and devotee of Sri Ramana who would spend a few days at a time at the ashrama. The forestry officer gave Darrell a key to a secluded forest service bungalow that was a two-day journey by bus followed by a long hike high into the mountains. It was in that isolated area that Darrell had his Awakening experience, which means his Enlightenment did NOT occur on or about Arunachala or at the ashrama like one might expect. It just isn't feasible that Maugham would concoct such a scenario out of whole cloth, especially so for how important it should be, you would think, to have had Darrell Awaken under the direct auspices of the Maharshi. True, Ramana played a major role and directly responsible for setting the environment for the Awakening to transpire, but to have Darrell go off and self-Enlighten on his own is even too much for Maugham to think of. Maugham presents to the reader the following from The Razor's Edge as well as As the Day Broke in its Splendor, as he quotes Darrell telling of his Enlightenment experience:
"How grand the sight was that was displayed before me as the day broke in its splendour...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 it lasted a moment longer I should die; and yet it was such rapture that I was ready to die rather than forego it. How can I tell you what I felt? No words can tell the ecstasy of my bliss. When I came to myself I was exhausted and trembling"
The Wanderling quotes his Zen mentor personally telling of the SAME experience from ZEN ENLIGHTENMENT: The Path Unfolds:
"After a year of studying, meditating, and working at stoop labor in and around the fields near the ashrama, he took to taking long solitary pilgrimages into the mountains. One morning high in the mountains he was waiting in his usual spot to watch the sunrise. That morning when the very first glint of light pierced the very top edge of the distant mountains the rays fell across his eyes and shot straight through his pupils directly into his brain. His mind exploded. He actually thought he had physically blown to bits in a brilliant flash of light, that the whole back of his head had been blown off and opened to eternity. The initial sensations abated in a series of bodily contractions and convulsions, leaving him shaking and trembling. Rubbing his arms he could see he was still alive and whole. Never was he so exhilerated, like walking on air, his insides bursting with pleasure. He wanted to yell to the whole world how wonderful he felt, and although there wasn't a fellow human being around for miles to hear his exuberance, he ran down the mountain path toward the forester's hut where he stayed yelling and screaming like a crazy man."
The above quote was taken from a whole stack of notes emanating from a series of personal discussions about my mentor and my journey along the path in his footsteps that a friend inturn backtracked through and typed. Please notice the specific use of "forester's hut" within the quote. It may not seem like much, but I know the use of "forester's hut" is accurate as I recall its use specifically during my talks with the man next door. It struck a lasting cord with me when I first heard the two words strung together for a couple of reasons. One is, during those high school years one of my best friends had an older brother whose name was Forrest, and it always seemed odd that a person would be named that, especially since most of my buddies had names like Bob, Mike, Bill, and John. Secondly, in the fourth or fifth grade or so I had lived in the tall pine forests in and around Big Bear Lake, California, as well as spending several summers of my pre and early teen years living off the land with my Uncle in the High Sierras, so, even if I never saw a foresters hut in real life, I had a pretty good mind-vision of what one was.(see) In the process I, as many people do when they read the novel, mistakenly placed Darrell's foresters hut on the mountain near the ashrama when I was first being told the story. At the time I was penning my original notes however, even if I had a clue, it didn't dawn on me that in and around Arunachala there was NO need for a foresters hut as there were no forests --- the PHYSCIAL environment of the Holy Hill for the most part, except for minor scrub brush here and there, long denuded and not much more than bare dirt and rocky terrain. (see)
Although some people have claimed Maugham never even heard of Sri Ramana before he left England for India (see) he actually followed a well planned itinerary --- every step on the way leading directly to the ashram. After arrival in India Maugham traveled to Madura then on to Madras. From Madras he went by car to Tiruvannamalai. During his Travels In India he celebrated his 64th birthday. The day he arrived at the Ramana ashrama he didn't enter the main room where Ramana was seated because "he was wearing big klunky boots and, because he was tired from his long journey, was not up to taking them off." Such a scenario indicates that just the mere fact of traveling in India for the sixty-four year old was fatiguing, that is, he couldn't even take his boots off --- so it isn't likely, even though he traveled clear to India to meet the Maharshi and see the ashrama, that he went trekking off to see some forest retreat two days ride by bus and a long hike into the mountains just for background material UNLESS it was absolutely necessary. He could have just written the story so Darrell Awakened at the ashrama or maybe in the caves, but he didn't. Instead he wrote it the same way it was told to him during his talks in Paris and the same way it was described to me by my Mentor and how I present it in:
Spiritual guides, gurus, and teachers influential in Darrell's life other than the Maharshi:
The Best of The Maugham Biographies:
RECOUNTING A YOUNG BOY'S NEARLY INSTANT TRANSFORMATION INTO THE ABSOLUTE DURING HIS ONLY DARSHAN WITH THE MAHARSHI
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.
A hundred years ago Arunachala was covered by a thick forest where tigers roamed and streams flowed down its sides. However, photographs of Sri Ramana on the mountain taken well before his death in 1950 show the forests long depleted and most of the trees along the slopes above the plain gone. The mountain was hot and dry; there were thorns and goats, but few other animals or birds. The environment of the Holy Hill was unique in that originally it had a system of lakes and over 300 ponds and temple-tanks charging the water-table within a small area of 50 sq.km. These were charged mostly by over and under-ground springs from the Hill. There were several small ponds on the Hill also. The ancient history of the mountain testifies to dense forest cover, home to many wild animals living in harmony with the humans who dwelt in simple Ashrams all around the Hill. But today, unchecked human encroachment with no concern for one's responsibility towards Nature, has led to a situation where the watershed system has all but vanished. Only about 150 of the over 300 ponds and tirthas mentioned above can be visually located. Of these less than 50 are functional, mostly through the thanks of repair and desilting by philanthropists and the Government.(source) See also: Mountain of Medicine Mildred Christophe Kuner: Recipient of an MFA, Yale University and a PhD, Columbia University. Professor Emerita, Department of Drama and of Comparative Literature, Hunter College, City University. Has taught at the New School and New York University. Fulbright Scholar, Vienna, Austria. Winner of Maxwell Anderson and Charles Sergel Awards for Playwriting. Plays produced at university and community theatres, off-Broadway and at the Bristol Young Vic. Author of articles on theatre; a monograph on W. Somerset Maugham published in England and Japan titled "MAUGHAM AND THE WEST: the Human Condition: Bondage"; a critical biography of Thornton Wilder; a dramatic adaptation of Victoria Holt's novel The Mistress of Mellyn; and a lecturer on theatre for New York CIty radio station WNYC. Member, Internaional Society for Theatre Research; member, Dramatists Guild.
Kuner's monograph MAUGHAM AND THE WEST: the Human Condition: Bondage can be found in THE WORLD OF SOMERSET MAUGHAM, Klaus W. Jones (editor),
THE MEETING: An Untold Story of Sri Ramana
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A hundred years ago Arunachala was covered by a thick forest where tigers roamed and streams flowed down its sides. However, photographs of Sri Ramana on the mountain taken well before his death in 1950 show the forests long depleted and most of the trees along the slopes above the plain gone. The mountain was hot and dry; there were thorns and goats, but few other animals or birds.
The environment of the Holy Hill was unique in that originally it had a system of lakes and over 300 ponds and temple-tanks charging the water-table within a small area of 50 sq.km. These were charged mostly by over and under-ground springs from the Hill. There were several small ponds on the Hill also. The ancient history of the mountain testifies to dense forest cover, home to many wild animals living in harmony with the humans who dwelt in simple Ashrams all around the Hill. But today, unchecked human encroachment with no concern for one's responsibility towards Nature, has led to a situation where the watershed system has all but vanished. Only about 150 of the over 300 ponds and tirthas mentioned above can be visually located. Of these less than 50 are functional, mostly through the thanks of repair and desilting by philanthropists and the Government.(source) See also: Mountain of Medicine
Mildred Christophe Kuner: Recipient of an MFA, Yale University and a PhD, Columbia University. Professor Emerita, Department of Drama and of Comparative Literature, Hunter College, City University. Has taught at the New School and New York University. Fulbright Scholar, Vienna, Austria. Winner of Maxwell Anderson and Charles Sergel Awards for Playwriting. Plays produced at university and community theatres, off-Broadway and at the Bristol Young Vic. Author of articles on theatre; a monograph on W. Somerset Maugham published in England and Japan titled "MAUGHAM AND THE WEST: the Human Condition: Bondage"; a critical biography of Thornton Wilder; a dramatic adaptation of Victoria Holt's novel The Mistress of Mellyn; and a lecturer on theatre for New York CIty radio station WNYC. Member, Internaional Society for Theatre Research; member, Dramatists Guild.
Kuner's monograph MAUGHAM AND THE WEST: the Human Condition: Bondage can be found in THE WORLD OF SOMERSET MAUGHAM, Klaus W. Jones (editor), 1959.