In his reply Dennis Wills told me that he had spoken to Wilmon Menard about his article. Wills wrote: ‘…any conversations between Maugham and Hague in this article are completely non-existent. Wilmon told me that the text used was from his play on Maugham, a work of fiction; but this is not the impression given in the article.’
In a subsequent letter he told me, ‘I have suggested to Wilmon that if he receives any letters in response to his article he should indicate that his publication was based on a play he has written and that this was a work of fiction.’
Dennis Wills has been researching the lives of Maugham and Hague for many years. Although he clearly believes that Menard’s dialogues between Bhagavan and Maugham and those between Maugham and Hague are fictitious, there are still a few compelling reasons for supposing that Hague was the person who had inspired the character of Larry Darrel.
Hague was an American mining engineer who travelled widely in many parts of the world before coming to Sri Ramanasramam in 1938 for a stay of 2½ years; the fictional Darrel was an American who had travelled round Europe doing odd jobs, one of which was in a Belgian mine, before coming to India in the 1930s to spend several years at a South Indian ashram.
The similarities are striking but there is no evidence that Maugham met Hague either in India or anywhere else. Hague was not at Sri Ramanashram, or even in India, on the day that Maugham visited Bhagavan, and Dennis Wills informs me that despite intensive research he has been unable to come up with any evidence that Maugham met Hague in the years prior to the publication of The Razor’s Edge.
A few people have told me that Christopher Isherwood, the famous English novelist, was the model for Larry Darrel. Although he was neither an American nor a miner, he was a keen student of Vedanta who spent many years in California studying Indian philosophy with Swami Prabhavananda. When I mentioned this theory to Dennis Wills he told me that he had also heard the story and that he had taken the trouble to talk to Isherwood himself about it. Isherwood informed him that he had never visited Bhagavan, nor had he ever spoken to Maugham about Bhagavan’s life and teachings. This testimony seems to eliminate him as a possible candidate. A few years ago I was shown a letter written by Paul Brunton’s son in which Paul Brunton was put forward as the model, although, as with Isherwood, there is little or nothing to support this claim.
The current consensus among Maugham scholars is that Darrel is a composite character derived partly from different people Maugham had met and partly from Maugham’s imagination. Maugham had been inventing characters who dropped out of the mainstream of life to pursue spiritual or artistic quests long before he began work on The Razor’s Edge. Most scholars now feel that Darrel is yet another fictional embodiment of a theme that fascinated Maugham throughout his life.
In his preamble to The Razor’s Edge Maugham makes the following statement: ‘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 recognise them.’ Bhagavan was still alive when The Razor’s Edge was first published. ‘To save embarrassment’ he was renamed Shri Ganesha, and Sri Ramanashram was located on a lagoon near Trivandrum in Kerala, hundreds of miles away from Tiruvannamalai. Despite these disguises, and a few other minor distortions of facts, both Bhagavan and the ashram are clearly recognisable in many passages in the novel. The following extracts are all taken from the 1944 edition published by William Heinemann.
[Larry Darrel speaking] ‘It was three or four miles from the nearest town, but people used to come from there, and even from much further, on foot or by bullock car, to hear the Yogi talk when he was inclined to or just sit at this feet and share with one another the peace and blessedness that were radiated from his presence as fragrance was wafted upon the air by a tuberose. (pp. 137-8)
[Darrel in conversation with Maugham, the narrator]
‘What was your Yogi like?’
‘In person d’you mean? Well, he wasn’t tall, neither thin nor fat, palish brown in colour and clean shaven, with close-cropped white hair. He never wore anything but a loincloth and yet he managed to look as trim and well-dressed as a young man in one of our Brooks Brothers’ advertisements.’
‘And what had he got that particularly attracted you?’ Larry looked at me for a full minute before answering. His eyes in their deep sockets seemed as though they were trying to see to the depths of my soul.
I was slightly disconcerted by his reply. In that room [in Paris], with its fine furniture, and with those lovely drawings on the walls, the world fell like a plop of water that has seeped through the ceiling from an overflowing bath.
‘We’ve read all about the saints, St Francis, St John of the Cross, but that was hundreds of years ago. I never thought it possible to meet one who was alive now. From the first time I saw him I never doubted that he was a saint. It was a wonderful experience.’
‘And what did you gain from it?’
‘Peace.’ He said casually with a light smile.’ (pp. 139)
[Darrel speaking again] ‘Everyone knew of him. For many years he’d lived in a cave in the hills, but finally he’d been persuaded to move down to the plain where some charitable person had given him a plot of land and had built a little adobe house for him. It was a long way from Trivandrum, the capital, and it took me all day, first by train and then by bullock cart to get to the ashram. I found a young man at the entrance of the compound and asked if I could see the Yogi. I’d bought with me the basket of fruit which is the customary gift to offer. In a few minutes the man came back and led me into a long hall with windows all around it. In one corner Shri Ganesha sat in an attitude of meditation on a raised dais covered with a tiger skin, ‘I’ve been expecting you,’ he said… I was surprised but supposed that my friend of Madura had told him something about me. But he shook his head when I mentioned his name. I presented my fruit and he told the young man to take it away. We were left alone and he looked at me without speaking. I don’t know how long the silence lasted. It might have been for half an hour. I’ve told you what he looked like; what I haven’t told you is the serenity that he irradiated, the goodness, the peace, the selflessness. I was hot and tired after my journey, but gradually I began to feel wonderfully rested. Before he’d said another word I knew that this was the man I’d been seeking. (pp. 256-7)
[Darrel speaking]: ‘I was given as a dwelling place the shack in which Shri Ganesha had lived in when he first came down to the plain. The hall in which he now passed both night and day had been built when disciples gathered around him and more and more people, attracted by his fame, came to visit him… I read a great deal. I meditated. I listened to Shri Ganesha when he chose to talk; he didn’t talk very much, but he was always willing to answer questions and it was wonderfully inspiring to listen to him. It was like music in your ears. Though in his youth he had himself practised very severe austerities he did not enjoin them on his disciples. He sought to wean them from the slavery of selfhood, passion and sense, and told them that they could acquire liberation by tranquillity, restraint, renunciation, resignation, by steadfastness of mind and by an ardent desire for freedom. People used to come from the nearby town three or four miles away, where there was a famous temple to which great crowds flocked once a year for a festival. They came from Trivandrum and from far off places to tell him their troubles, to ask his advice, to listen to his teaching; and all went away strengthened in soul and at peace with themselves. What he taught was very simple. He taught that we are all greater than we know and that wisdom is the means to freedom. He taught that it is not essential to salvation to retire from the world, but only to renounce the self. He taught that work done with no selfish interest purifies the mind and that duties are the opportunities offered to man to sink his separate self and become one with the universal self. But it wasn’t his teaching that was so remarkable; it was the man himself, his benignity, his greatness of soul, his saintliness. His presence was a benediction. I was very happy with him. I felt that at last I had found what I wanted. (pp. 246-7)
When The Razor’s Edge was published it immediately became a best-seller. Wilmon Menard says that 1½ million copies were sold but I have read other reports that put the figure as high as three million. Whatever the figure, there is general agreement that it was Maugham’s most successful novel. Shortly after it was published, he sold the film rights to Twentieth Century Fox for $250,000. Darryl Zanuck, the head of Twentieth Century Fox, asked Maugham to work on the screenplay, and Maugham agreed. Maugham wanted to work for nothing, but Zanuck insisted on paying him with a Matisse painting. It was an expensive present because when the film was finally made not a single word of Maugham’s dialogue was used.
Although Maugham’s screenplay was not used by Zanuck, the film was a critical and financial success. It was nominated for four Oscars and it made so much money that Zanuck asked Maugham to write a sequel to The Razor’s Edge so that he could film it. Maugham, understandably disenchanted with Hollywood after his script was thrown away, declined the offer. He never worked in Hollywood again and never wrote a sequel.
This is the scene in The Razor’s Edge where Larry Darrel arrives at his ashram. Like Maugham, he arrives with his shoes on, but is not told to take them off. The set was created in Hollywood and represents a scenic designer’s idea of what an ashram might look like. It resembles a Greek temple with snow-capped mountains in the background. The casting director managed to find an Indian to play Bhagavan’s attendant and the few words of Hindi that are exchanged between them are the only truly Indian part of the scene. The speech that Bhagavan makes is a confection of platitudes that has little or no connection to Bhagavan’s real teachings, or even to the words that Maugham attributed to him in the book.