By Alison Bate

Rearranging the furniture during Covid, I’m reminded of Somerset Maugham’s novel, “The Razor’s Edge.”

I read the novel a long time ago and because I love travelling and living overseas, one part sticks with me. It’s when the young American Larry tells Isabel, his materialistic girlfriend, he wants to see more of the world and not stay home “rearranging the furniture”.

pix book cover Somerset Maugham novel
The Razor’s Edge, published in 1944, is just as relevant today

Larry is using “rearranging the furniture” as a metaphor, of course. The way I remember it, Somerset Maugham was writing about the fear of living and the importance of embracing new adventures, both internal and external.

Ten months into Covid, one of the hardest things about dealing with the pandemic is that it doesn’t challenge me to climb difficult peaks but to simply stay home. Mental challenges such as staying close to home are much harder to deal with than physical ones.

When I lived in England, I used to play squash every Friday night after work with a friend, Steve, and we’d have a pint afterward. It was 100 per cent guaranteed pleasure once a week.  Every time. Slogging up a mountain, huffing and puffing, and reaching the top had a similar effect.

So now here I am, rearranging furniture during the pandemic.

My Christmas wish list was for two IKEA chairs for my living room table/writing area. I collected them before Christmas from my niece Joanna and, armed with five tools and a John Prine tribute playing in the background,  assembled them on Boxing Day.

I like the chairs, so promptly ordered two more online and decided to replace a heavy Thrift Store armchair as well. On Dec.29, three big flat boxes were dropped off at my door and I’m slowly tackling them, too.

Friends and family had also made various digs about how uncomfortable my old chairs were and spending so much time at home during Covid made me notice mismatched items. 

All my furniture was previously picked so it could be packed into storage while I worked overseas in the U. S., China, Sudan and Vietnam. Fold-up wooden chairs, dining table legs that could be dismantled and a futon couch that could also be pulled apart.

Of course, why I’m buying new chairs when I can’t invite anyone over for meals is another matter for discussion.

But what does this have to do with “The Razor’s Edge” and have I even remembered it right? Definitely time to re-read the novel.

I began by reading the epigraph, that explains the book title:

“The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard” — Katha Upanishad (a sacred Hindu text)

The book is much more of a spiritual quest than I remembered and there are a lot of descriptions of fine art and furniture. But three-quarters the way through it, I’ve yet to find the phrase about rearranging furniture. Did I imagine it?  

Mostly it’s about a spiritual young man struggling to find his path in life, first in books, then by living and “loafing” in France, Germany and, most importantly, India.

Now I’ve just finished reading the book and realize there really is nothing about rearranging the furniture. I guess I was projecting all those years ago or maybe I mixed it up with “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic”. I also learned in urban slang, this has a very different meaning.

At least it got me re-reading a thought-provoking book during the biggest global event of my lifetime. 

As a metaphor for Covid-19, rearranging the furniture is as good as any. It reminds me of the things I can’t do right now: socialise, travel to other cultures and live comfortably in $10/night hotels. But I’ve had a good run overseas and during Covid I can write, read and go for wet walks in the rain.

I mostly I think about people in their twenties and thirties who can’t travel and live cheaply and communally in different cultures. Hopefully the pause on international travel is temporary, until Covid-19 has finished its cycle.

There really is no substitute to “loafing” and living outside your comfort zone, crossing borders at will, watching sky burials in a Tibetan culture or sleeping like sardines in a row in a colorful ger in Mongolia.