Tim Pendry's Reviews > The Magician

The Magician by W. Somerset Maugham
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The Penguin edition is not being reviewed here. This is the Vintage Edition. The only difference in practice is that this does not have Calder’s introduction but has a short and somewhat languid autobiographical sketch from Maugham himself.

Written around 1907 before he began to make serious money as a playwright, this exhibits all the strengths and weaknesses of Maugham.

The strengths are (in general and allowing for a few moments where he shifts in to the purple-conventional) his exceptional ability to use language, create believable character and tell a story. The weakness lies in his callous detachment.

The book famously draws on his acquaintanceship with Alastair Crowley in Paris. He uses this base line of experience to build a remarkable picture of manipulative psychopathic evil in the character of Oliver Haddo.

From a rather conventional group of hero, heroine and two second fiddles who have to deal with Haddo’s vengeance for a slight, Maugham constructs a tale of manners that descends (after a rather obviously literary-decadent interval when Haddo magicaly ‘seduces’ the heroine) into horror.

The horror is of two types – an emotional horror at the fate of the heroine (on which I shall comment no further to avoid spoilers) and a more Gothic tale that has moments of genuine cosmic horror worthy of Hope Hodgson or even Lovecraft with a clear willingness to deal with the visceral.

Maugham strikes out quite radically in this novel – he over-turns the conventional requirement for the happy ending and he is quite prepared to make his horrors physical. The story is undoubtedly indebted at one remove to both Poe and Mary Shelley.

Unfortunately, the book is, as one might expect of the era, unreflective because the question soon arises in the modern reader just who is being evil here. Maugham always writes for money and so for an audience as much as for himself.

In the story, Oliver Haddo is undoubtedly thoroughly evil but, in real life, there is a kind of evil as well in Maugham’s appropriation of another man (Crowley) and his recasting (for literary effect) in a cold detached way, in caricatured terms, that give him little benefit of the doubt.

In the autobiographical fragment, Maugham has the goodness to emphasise that Haddo is a literary creation and that Crowley had qualities (and, indeed, the fact that Haddo is not a charlatan is a sort of back-handed compliment to his model) but this was written many years later.

Perhaps no harm was done since Crowley apparently signed himself Oliver Haddo in a review of the book. The man could certainly look after himself in his self-destructive, wilful way but it raises a question about evil.

Is it the flamboyant offense to society or a detached knife job on those who offend society that represents the most dark in the individual? High imperial society has an interest in assuming that the first is far worse but we need not.

Maugham is a complex character who must be understood as a master of detached observation with some experience of security work but also as a man hiding his true nature both as homosexual and social critic (from his days as a South London doctor) under a veneer of country house conformity.

If he observed to cure as a doctor, that detachment made persons simply material for the tales and plays that kept him in the style he required to protect himself and to hold together a sexual and private life that required a social standing that needed to be maintained to allow his pleasures.

If Haddo is modelled on Crowley, Maugham’s morality, or lack of it, is based on sub-conscious fears resulting from the vicious destruction of another writer, Oscar Wilde, during his youth.

This excellent and readable story, at one level Gothic nonsense and at another level exceptionally fine genre writing, does make one think about the nature of evil. The ‘grand guignol’ of Crowley/Haddo pales into insignificance against the detached and cold cruelty of a literary doctor.

But this is a problem for literature in general – are the people around a writer rightfully mere objects for re-interpretation to pleasure hundreds of thousands of others?

Perhaps not, if it is an appropriation of a whole personality in order to create a monster. There is something as evil as Haddo in that.
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07/20/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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Shamim E. Haque Thank you for this thoroughly insightful review. I don't know if Maugham himself could be considered on a good-evil continuum as many other novels and stories by him can be critiqued in the same way. One of the hallmarks of Mr. Maugham's craft seems to be his detachment, his 'matter of fact' way of exposition. He certainly used this style to great effect. I don't know about you, but I have enjoyed all of Maugham's writings simply because of his fine writing. I could not find comparable authors. I have read Crowley's criticism too; and Aleister Crowley derides the then young Maugham for having copied unaltered passages from other works directly onto this novel. But despite this I thought there were enough reasons to forgive Maugham. If I became interested about Crowley, it must have been mediated via Maugham's writing, and not because Crowley was infamous for his mystic views. Only a master story teller like Maugham could shape the raw material that was at his disposal to such an esoteric story. I think that is highly commendable and no mean feat.


message 2: by Tim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Tim Pendry If you have not read it, I think you might like Selina Hastings' rather brilliant biography of Maugham. I reviewed this at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...

I certainly agree with your assessment. The detachment is at the core of his art in my view, but it is also a moral detachment. He is not a bad man by any means - almost beyond good and evil, oddly conventional in the sense that his ethics have been replaced by his good manners.

I suppose I was using this novel to raise a question about literature in general and the ethics of invention when the model for the invention still lives and breathes and can be judged by others through the reception of the work. I hold no brief for Crowley per se but I do wonder by what right, except by the law of the jungle, lives may be thieved and appropriated without informed consent. I am not outraged by this, just philosophically intrigued.


Shamim E. Haque Sorry for the rather belated response to your post. Thank you for the great comments. Unfortunately I have not read Selina Hasting's book. I do intend to read it though.
I was wondering about the issue that you refer to regarding the "ethics of invention" in literature. But is it possible at all for an author to write good novels, especially quality literature that makes us wonder about our own lives- its makes and mars, without appropriating the real world in which the author lives? If the author keeps thinking about which acquaintance or friend becomes featured negatively in his writing, he will be almost in the position of the anxiety laden counterfeiter who keeps worrying about copyright and patent infringement laws that will dent his efforts. You are very well read and you must have noticed that many great works are based purely on real people and real events. W. Somerset Maugham's entire canon is supposedly based on real world characters, in your words entities that "still lives and breathes". I am not trying to say that your point is not a good one and the question that you raise does not have a moral side to it; but what options are left? Creativity needs to be given full play; and it ought to be as unencumbered as is practicable. I guess as long as the author is able to avoid libel charges leveled at him, he will utilize the experience of his social intercourse with various acquaintances, friends and colleagues.


message 4: by Tim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Tim Pendry Good literature is generally a process of continual disinformation out of which the reader gets interpretative value relevant to their own situation. We like to believe (a liberal arts presumption) that literature is both good and true but it is neither - it is merely effective in that it is good or true for the reader and then sufficient individual choices will enter it into the canon by consensus. But it has no intrinsic worth outside the reactions of individuals, socialised or not.

The 'ethics of invention' might be regarded as a non-issue because none of this is a matter of ethics but only of aesthetics or taste. My point, I suppose, was to use this work to highlight a problem - that literature has no ethical content (especially when it claims to have it) but makes implicit claims (usually at the behest of its readership) to 'improve' the human condition as if it was an ethical rather than an aesthetic enterprise.

Maugham's aesthetic is detached and observational and I wanted to pull the reader up short and ask whether such detachment and observation is fair when it deals with real persons - similar things might be said about journalism, history and photography when they are not commissioned by the portrayed to their own commissioned taste.

One is left with a set of lies, more or less noble, which are perpetrated by propagandists at one end of the scale and hero-artists at the other but where both are no better than the other in their presumption of their right to define the lives of others. Indeed, the propagandist may be more honest because the picture, though a lie, is at least a consensual one with the subject (albeit at the expense of the reader) whereas the detached artistic portrayal can be another sort of lie entirely, the imposition of ego-morality on the reader at the expense of a real and complex person.

Again, who is to say the reader and the liberal writer have greater rights than the person portrayed and the propagandist - it is simply a matter of 'situation' The fact that more people are in one situation rather than the other seems to be taken to mean that majoritarian judgments, usually within a cultured elite, must (ethically) automatically matter (a classic liberal-democratic fallacy about a democracy of taste based on education which automatically privileges the educated).

I am not suggesting that this can or should change (it is intrinsic to how humans manage the world), only that we should read literature without illusions as to any claim of moral improvement it may make insofar as it is a general category and with a mind to fiction in relation to reality being what we commonly call a 'lie'.

We love to privilege creativity in and for itself but nothing is quite so simple ... armaments manufacturers are immensely creative people, after all. I just think, in the case of literature, that we need to appreciate the lie at every level as we enjoy it and not delude ourselves us to our 'goodness' in being literate.


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