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Wednesday Western Civilization

What I've Just Finished Reading

The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham -- interesting and enjoyable without being great, I think?



I keep unfairly comparing it to The Horse's Mouth, though they aren't actually similar. A young man watches his friend die in the war, and decides to be Prince Myshkin; some other characters lead more ordinary lives. There's something very frothy about it, but maybe it just has a lighter touch than I would expect in a book where a guy goes on a spiritual quest. I read it with interest but not much investment, and maybe a little annoyance, though I'm not sure what it was that bothered me. I liked the form: the narrator is a fictionalized version of the author who is constantly being confided in by fictional characters. There's a conceit that they are real people he knows, but nothing about the story supports that idea; they are fictional characters flocking around a novelist simply because he is a novelist, and where else do they have to go? Most of the book is quiet, pleasantly meandering, pleasantly bitchy, with only the occasional casually misogynist pebble in the breakfast cereal.

It's kind of hard for me to evaluate the "spiritual journey" aspects of the book. Larry goes "loafing" in Paris, works in a coal mine in Belgium, studies with monks in Greece and attaches himself to a couple of gurus in India. The narrative is pretty frank about the fact that Larry's inherited income makes all of this saintly searching possible. It doesn't condemn him for using his privilege in this way or pretend it isn't a factor. I don't think there was anything terribly insufferable about fictional!Maugham's presentation of Larry's discoveries, but they left me very, very cold.

There's also a murder mystery -- buried at the end, but possibly the most effective part of the book. Unfortunately, one of the most interesting characters was more or less entirely reduced to a symbolic function -- I'm not sure if I think Maugham's characters are a little better than he deserves, or what I think of them for the most part.

This book also contains one of my literary pet peeves: Larry refers to a young woman he lives with as "of course a little animal, but a very nice, attractive, domesticated animal," because she has a practical attitude toward sex and doesn't share his intellectual interests. I know this is figurative language, but I dislike it anyway. Just accept that people have a wide range of preferences and attitudes; there's no need to trot out the A-word.

Unfortunately, I did not manage to read any more short stories this week. Next week I should be back on that train.

What I'm Reading Now

"The conversation is suddenly terminated by the downfall of Western civilization"
- Edmund Wilson, "The Critics: A Conversation."

"It was about this time that Maxwell Bodenheim described me in some such phrase as 'a fatuous policeman, menacingly swinging his club.' In rereading this essay -- in which I have qualified or softened some of the original judgments -- I have sometimes been reminded of this."
- Edmund Wilson, footnote to "The All-Star Literary Vaudeville"

The Shores of Light is still delicious, detail-packed fun. Edmund Wilson is at his best when he has a sense of humor about himself; he's not always at his best, but he is always engaging.

I'm also still reading the Emily Dickinson biography and just started How to Suppress Women's Writing by Joanna Russ -- both good. The latter tells the story of how Jane Eyre's early critics thought it was a work of genius until they learned that Currer Bell was a woman and realized that it was actually disgusting and immoral! and many other stories.

What I'm Reading Next

Brideshead Revisited is next up in 99 Novels, but I'm going to finish a book from outside the list before I start it, because my non-99 Novels to-read pile is getting ridiculous.

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