Mar 03 2009
A few years ago I read the V.S. Naipaul novel Half a Life. It was my first Naipaul. I was never really sure what was going on, but I enjoyed his prose style, and it was somewhat light and comic while still being (ahem) literary.
Last week I picked up W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. It was my first Maugham. I was always pretty sure of what was going on, and I really enjoyed his prose style. It managed to be both stuffy and breezy at the same time, which is quite the achievement. I think the key is to write about stuffy people in a breezy way. To wit:
Antoine, the manservant, brought in a tray with an array of bottles, and Isabel, always tactful, knowing that nine men out of ten are convinced they can mix a better cocktail than any woman (and they are right), asked me to shake a couple. I poured out the gin and the Noilly-Prat and added the dash of absythe that transforms a dry martini from a nondescript drink to one for which the gods of Olympus would undoubtedly have abandoned their home-brewed nectar, a beverage that I have always thought must have been rather like Coca-Cola.
The Razor’s Edge left quite an impression, which is nothing unusual, as it seems to have captured the imaginations of several generations of young (or young at heart) and restless men who yearn for something different than the accept path through life. It’s been adapted for film a few times, most notably in 1984 when Bill Murray took the lead in what was his first dramatic (which is to say, non-comedic) role. That film owes its existence to Ghost Busters — or perhaps its the other way around. As the story goes, Murray would only accept the Ghost Busters role if the studio ponied up the cash to make The Razor’s Edge. Ghost Busters, as we know, was a huge success. Not so The Razor’s Edge; it brought in only $6 million at the box office, on a production budget of $12 million. The failure prompted Murray to take a four year hiatus from the movies.
Back to the books. Finishing the Maugham novel, I picked up another Naipaul — The Enigma of Arrival. Clearly this Naipaul was not like the last. After 13 pages describing the scenery during a long muddy walk in the English countryside I put it down. (At least I didn’t throw it across the room.) Later in the day I was poking around and reading up on Maugham and The Razor’s Edge and I found out that Naipaul hated Maugham; hated him enough that he wrote a novel satirizing The Razor’s Edge, in which the lead character — something of a misfit and a failure — is named after Maugham (Willie Somerset Chandran) because the character’s father had met Maugham when he (the father) was young and enduring a vow of silence in an ashram. You guessed it — that novel was Half a Life.
Suddenly the first Naipaul made a whole lot more sense. Also, I found myself wishing Naipaul had spent more time being funny and less time wandering those muddy paths. Say goodbye to Naipaul (who, by the way, is a righteous prick in real life).
All that to say, I read the Naipaul, not knowing it had anything to do with the Maugham, and I liked it. Then I read the Maugham, not knowing it had anything to do with the Naipaul, and I really liked it. Then I started reading the Naipaul that had nothing to do with anything (aside from muddy paths) and I didn’t like it.
So the lesson is to read more Maugham and less Naipaul. Except now I’m reading a lesser known Orwell. (And I’m dying with pleasure on every paragraph. Who knew Orwell could be so funny?)
3 Comments on “Reading in Circles”