Last Easter Sunday, my mom embarrassed me in her signature style. My cousin had invited us to her house for dinner, and during the course of the conversation, she showed us pictures of a luau during her mother-in-law’s visit. “Bob must not be very close to his mother,” my mother remarked. “Why do you say that?” my auntie asked.
My mom proceeded into a very long Philip Marlowe-esque analysis of the picture, as if she herself were some sort of private dick – as if she were honing her observational skills to make a point.
It turns out Bob’s posture and angle are quite revealing: he is standing next to his mother, but not touching her; and not only is he not leaning in towards her – he is angled away from her. He is, in fact, standing in closer proximity to the rippling, half-naked male Tahitian dancer posing in the picture with the family. (Of course, even my mother is sensible enough to not extrapolate on that theme to this deeply religious family.) She made some further observations about the lilt of his head, and the direction of his eyes, and I left the room. However credible her analysis, she presents it with authoritative flair, and has absolute conviction that she had captured the full truth. She has the offensive quality of believing that she is never wrong.
This state of constant espionage is what I grew up with. It is unpleasant, to say the least, believing that the slightest angle of my posture or the over-extension of my knees or the position of my tongue or my poor sense of spatial relationships could betray some dark pathology that, when I was little, I always presumed to be an accurate portrait of me. I hid from view whenever I could. If no privacy was to be had, I used the closet. To be seen was to be judged.
“It seemed to me that I could see a great many things that other people missed,” Somerset Maugham once said. In October 2009 I wrote (here in WordPress) about Maugham after reading “The Razor’s Edge”. Maugham observes while withholding judgment; but he sees everything. I wrote:
What I like most about the narrator, though, is that he observes and sees the complexity in people, almost in an omniscient way. He x-rays peoples’ hearts and appreciates the mechanics of how so many wonderful and not-so-wonderful qualities come together and never fail to create a dynamic, textured work of art in the form of human being.
In the May 31, 2010 issue of The New Yorker, Ruth Franklin critiqued Selina Hastings’ “The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham” and reiterated many of my own impressions. Summarizing a portion of “The Razor’s Edge,” Franklin wrote:
Larry has embarked upon a spiritual quest. “I want to make up my mind whether God is or God is not,” he tells Isabel. “I want to find out why evil exists” . . . He asks Isabel to join him, but she refuses to live frugally on his small inheritance . . . She tells the narrator that she broke off her engagement because she didn’t want to stand in Larry’s way. He scoffs. “You gave him up for a square-cut diamond and a sable coat.”
Yet, if you read the book, the narrator sees these flaws of Isabel’s – her haughtiness, her self-delusion, her opportunism – in full synchrony with her inner beauty and strength, and holds Isabel – in her entirety – in great esteem.