The Razor’s Edge.
I have tried to read this book. Yes, I have an English BA, I am a writer, I have read many of the classics with varying degrees of difficulty, subtext, and mechanical artistry that make them nearly opaque. But for whatever reason W. Somerset Maugham’s story of Larry Darrell begins with the author himself standing right in the way, like someone with a really big hat sitting in front of you at the theatre, and he just never gets out of the way. So, I’m going to talk about the Bill Murray version of the movie instead.
Decades before Lost in Translation, this was his first serious role. Rumor has it that Bill Murray held out on taking the starring role in Ghostbusters just so this movie could be made. I read it on Wikipedia, so it must be true. Larry Darrell (Murray) is a member of the Chicago aristocracy. He is engaged to be married to Isabel Bradley and everything seems great until war breaks out in Europe. Like many of his peers, Larry volunteers for the war effort and finds himself postponing his marriage so he can be an ambulance driver on the Western Front. There, we get to see the absurdity of war as well as the tragedy of how easily human life is wasted. At a pivotal scene, Larry is riding shotgun in his ambulance, as Piedmont (played by real-life brother Brian Doyle-Murray), sings a flat, monotone rendition of Frere Jacques to the dying men as the Germans lob artillery shells at them.
The World War I scenes are marvelous, and often echo the expatriate tales of disenfranchisement started by writers of the Lost Generation such as Hemingway, who himself was an ambulance driver in Europe during the war. The scenes of battle, loss, heartbreak and disillusionment are nearly cut and pasted from this film into the widely more popular film which launched Brad Pitt’s career ten years later: Legends of the Fall.
Piedmont’s cynicism is infectious and after his death and the war, Larry returns home changed. Isabel and his socialite friends haven’t missed a step, however Larry’s best friend, Gray, seems to have taken a liking to his betrothed, much to Sophie’s chagrin, as she was Gray’s fiancée herself. Larry seems indifferent to all this. Something inside of him has been lost since the war and so he decides to take some time to get his head back together. He goes to Paris where he lives in squalor, works menial labor jobs, and reads. Isabel makes a surprise visit one day and after seeing the state of Larry’s living conditions, she bolts and presumably gets more chummy with Gray. Larry is even more indifferent and so after being introduced to the Upanishads by a coal miner, he decides to go to India, then to the Himalayas.
The ahah! Moment hits Larry as he is freezing to death on top of a mountain where he has been reading and searching for answers in himself. Bill Murray captures this moment perfectly, in such a subtle way that makes the 1946 version of this movie so melodramatic and heavy-handed. You truly get to see Murray’s genius in this moment. He lets go and just starts burning the pages of the book he is reading for warmth. He had lost himself in the quest to find himself and has come through to the other side.
Returning to the world of his old peers, Larry seems relaxed. He has learned that Gray and Isabel are married, Sophie is an alcoholic prostitute, well, really a flapper, but potato-potahto. He doesn’t seem bothered by any of it. He takes in Sophie, gets her cleaned up and begins a romantic relationship with her, which pisses Isabel off to no end. The film ends in more tragedy, and even though Larry is saddened by it, he continues on. The years of his life and the pain being so many pages going up in flames. He isn’t lost or ruined. Larry continues on in spite of the way things have turned out.
I would consider this movie to be more of a travelogue than anything else. In his travels, Larry realizes that the person he is has been with him all along, but in his journey, he has lost so much of what has burdened him along the way. I think it is a story of survival as well as revelation, and would put it in the same category as Laura Hillenbrand’s novel, Unbroken, about Olympic runner, Louis Zamperini who was held as a prisoner of war by the Japanese during World War II, and also Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which is a story of overcoming addiction and self-destruction and finding oneself at the other end of a long, difficult journey.
Those stories, as well as The Razor’s Edge are played off as victories, unlike the narrative of Chris McCandless’s ill-fated, yet fairy predictable tale told by Krakauer in Into the Wild, which though fascinating, is much more suited to the sub-genre of something more like Titanic or White Squall. A car-crash in slow-motion we continue to watch, but cannot pull ourselves away. We are at first wowed by the wonders and then tradegy brings it all into focus, rather than emerging from the chaos to find a sort of truth.
Stories like these are cathartic. The climax of the story is often reached when the protagonist learns a vital truth about themselves or the world and is better for it. Why did I drag everyone through this analysis of a 1984 movie? Because as a person who wants to write about traveling to places, I want to convey the spirit of the experience. How in leaving the comfort of our own homes and regions, we not only explore these places we are seeing, but also how we fit into the large scheme of things. By being open to new experiences we often reach a moment of catharsis. We lose something of what we once knew or held as sacrosanct and it is lost, yet replaced with something new. A broader perspective.
In writing fiction, you often take a kernel of truth and surround it with a fictional universe, or at least one that is somewhat recognizable. In writing about travel, you are drilling down through the layers to find that kernel and bring it into the light. An “enlightenment” in a very real sense. Sometimes our adventures are a mess and sometimes they are a way to find peace. The reality of both is being able to look into these experiences and gain from them, rather than detract. Anyway, that’s what I’m going with.
The TD;DR is This is Larry. Larry went through some bad times. Now Larry is happy. Be like Larry.