Trevor's Reviews > The Magician

The Magician by W. Somerset Maugham
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Mar 02, 08

bookshelves: literature

** spoiler alert ** I’m becoming increasingly fond of Maugham. There is something about the self-deprecation of the English that is so utterly appealing. It is worth even just reading the ‘Fragment of Autobiography’ that precedes the text and can be read here - - for a taste of his tone. Bits of this made me laugh out loud. Take: “I was looked upon as a promising young writer and, I think I may say it without vanity, was accepted as a member of the intelligentsia, an honourable condition which, some years later, when I became a popular writer of light comedies, I lost; and have never since regained.” Isn’t that gorgeous?

I think this book could so easily have been much better than it ended up, but I still enjoyed it immensely and if I think that I would have written it differently, that in itself is fairly high praise – for a book to have me considering how I would re-construct it shows how interested in its themes and concerns I was.

The antagonist in this story is based on Aleister Crowley – someone who has an important role to play in Of Human Bondage too. He is a real person and sounds like quite a character. As you can see, I’m working on my understatement.

I kept thinking of Alan Bennett at the start of this book and his wonderful monologue, A Lady of Letters – where she says that in a book if someone says they are terribly alone and without love in their life and feel that nothing is ever going to change, that is a sure sign that things are about to completely change for them and happiness is about to come streaming into their life, whereas in life if you say that you are alone it is very likely that that is how your life will remain. A truth I’m more or less working on proving at the moment.

So at the start of this novel when the happy loving couple are gazing into each other’s eyes and say that they could not be more happy – and Suzie says of Margaret that she must be careful as she could make Arthur more unhappy than anyone else in the world, well, it is pretty obvious where this story is going. Not that I mind that. A storm is not made less frightening by our hearing it rumble in the distance as it approaches.

I’m going to have to spoil this book for you now. Haddo, the character based on Crowley, is a fat magician. Years ago I was thinking of having a car sticker made up that said, “Necromancers Raise Hell” – I thought it was very funny, but a dear friend of mine pointed out that what I take to be funny, many people take to be deadly serious. Haddo is that sort of magician.

Where Haddo is full of himself and terribly proud, Arthur is a doctor who is the essence of rationality and who is madly in love with Margaret. Margaret is in Paris having a bit of a holiday before marrying Arthur. She would rather have just married Arthur, but he insisted she have a bit of a holiday beforehand. She is accompanied by Suzie, who also falls in love with Arthur on first seeing him. Haddo, the magician, is fat and a revolting pig of a man, a fact that Arthur points out repeatedly at the start of the novel. No one is completely good, but Haddo is as near to completely evil as one could reasonably expect to get away with in a novel.

The turning point of the novel is an altercation in which Haddo is humiliated by Arthur – it is clear that Haddo plots to revenge himself on Arthur and he does this more than completely by stealing Margaret from him. Worse for Arthur, she goes from being a pure and sweet innocent to a debauched harlot – if one who remains a virgin can really be a harlot. There is no doubt that Haddo is both a cad and a bounder (how is it possible that either of those words could have been lost to the lexicon? Or Blackguard – pronounced blag-ard – as if the language wasn’t suffering enough with the loss of Zounds!)

But the book makes it clear that her conversion is due to Haddo’s black magic. You see, I’d not have had it so. I would have left that unclear – I’d have played with the desire of innocent young women to be debauched under the power of mystical men much more. But I guess the book is also a product of its time and for a ‘lady’ to make such a descent, well, black magic is the only possible explanation.

But how much more psychologically interesting this book could so easily have been!

All the same, it reminds me of Of Human Bondage in another sense too – in that idea of Maugham’s that there is no hope for a balance of love. Do you know that Joe Jackson song Be My Number Two? (A song my daughter Maddy hates more than any other) “Won’t you be my number two, me and number one are through. There won’t be that much to do, just smile when I feel blue”? Repeatedly he makes Suzie all too aware of her role as number two, the person who everyone can see is in love with Arthur and who must do what she can to re-unite him with his true love. Oh, love is a terrible and strange thing.

There are problems with this novel, as Maugham himself says, “The style is lush and turgid, not at all the sort of style I approve of now, but perhaps not unsuited to the subject; and there are a great many more adverbs and adjectives than I should use today.”

All the same, there are moments when the writing is breathtaking. The scene in the middle of the storm towards the end where Margaret returns is a fantastic piece of writing. I mean, just look at this: “Without a pause between, as quickly as a stone falls to the ground, the din which was all about them ceased. There was no gradual diminution. But at one moment there was a roaring hurricane and at the next a silence so complete that it might have been the silence of death.”

The other piece of writing that stood out was the whole scene between Haddo and Margaret in her apartment with him basically magically seducing her. The image of the burning water is etched into my memory now – though mostly the idea of him contemplating the end of the world as being in his power really stole my imagination at this point.

And as can be said of so much of female sexuality from this era – if not all eras – the loss of control is to be blamed elsewhere. This is also true in this scene. But Haddo's final words are “When you want me you will find me …” And you know what, I don’t think I could get someone out of my mind who said that to me as they left either.

Margaret’s last evening with Arthur shows just how cruel passion can be. Margaret’s whipping him into a sexual frenzy that can never be satisfied, and the irony of this scene is fully known to the reader. is a remarkable scene, all the more remarkable by the limits placed on Maugham’s ability to say more than is ‘within the bounds of decency’. That kiss is as painful as any I've ever experienced in life.

So, even though there were things about this book I didn’t particularly like and things I’d have done differently – I really did enjoy it and thought the bits that were good were very, very good.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Wendy (last edited Mar 03, 2008 07:56AM) (new)

Wendy Crowley ...Yes an understatement that he was a character,a man who traveled and explored the exterior world as he also attempted to go to the limits of his inner world "and beyond" with an ego unbounded... Not a pleasant person though fascinating to many due to his fearless eccentricity and "depravity" . I would imagine that "Haddo" was indeed Maugham's depiction of AC, having known him personally and been treated nastily by him and his set in Paris. I happen to have read The Confessions of Aleister Crowley years decades ago because so many interesting authors mentioned him.

message 2: by Greg (last edited May 12, 2014 11:20PM) (new) - added it

Greg A very good review Trevor. The Magician is on my to-read short list, although I'm now inclined to bump it back down the list a little as it sounds like it covers a very similar
subject, although a very different story and set in France, to a book I'm on the last pages of, J. K. Huysmans' La-Bas, which I recommend.

Trevor I've been thinking about this book lately - I can't believe I read it so long ago now - but it is a very strange thing. Every time I think of a homunculus - which is much more frequently than you might imagine - I think of this book.

And thanks too Wendy. That's two books I ought to try to get to eventually.

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