Friday, December 17, 2010

The Magician by Somerset Maugham

When Alan Moore decided to source all the fictional representations of famous occultist Alesteir Crowley for his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century, he soon found that he had his work cut out for him. It seems that the Wickedest Man in the World made quite an impression on any number of writers during his life, many of whom decided to pay him the questionable compliment of including a facsimile of him in their works.
Somerset Maugham famously disliked Crowley upon meeting him, thinking him an outrageous humbug, but clearly found the man interesting enough to base The Magician on him.

Arthur and Margaret are English lovers hanging out with the artsy crowd in Paris during the late belle epoque. Their friends are dandies, bohemians and Impressionists and their lives are the stuff of Renoir paintings. That is, until, one Oliver Haddo comes into their lives. Haddo is an obese and boastful man who is rude and crude, yet not without some wit and charm. Though nobody seems to actually like him, he fascinates all who know him with his tales of travels in the East, and his hunting prowess. His absurd boasts invariably turn out to be true, so people afford him a grudging respect. And his favourite subject of all, and one on which he can converse endlessly, is the occult.

At first Margaret can't stand the man. But after Haddo is humiliated and physically abused by Arthur in their studio home, Haddo begins to use his strange powers to affect a change in her attitude towards him. Her perfect (chaste- and this does become a plot point later on, as well as being an example of prudery) relationship with her fiance Arthur comes to an abrupt end as she embarks on an unthinkable affair with the repulsive Haddo. But what does the magician really want with the beautiful, virginal Margaret?

This is my first Maugham book, so I didn't really know what to expect. He almost disowns it in the introduction, claiming that he doesn't even remember writing it, and that he seems to have been trying out a flowery continental style that he later regretted. His prose is readable but a little stilted. He draws his characters somewhat naively, they're flat characters who are either good or bad. We are constantly told how lovely and beautiful and innocent Margaret is, and this is supposed to make her fall even more tragic. Instead, it's kinda of annoying- it's 'tell- don't- show' storytelling, and there's kind of a lot of it in this book.

It's pretty obvious that Maugham has little real interest in the occult. He sticks in just enough information about magical matters to make the plot work, and in the introduction he muses that he must have spent at least a few days researching it in the British Museum. A few pages of this slim volume are given over to the works of Paracelsus and his ilk. Compare the later work of Dennis Wheatley, another writer who claimed that he had no particular interest in the occult prior to using it as a plot device in his fiction. Someone's been telling porkies, because even the casual reader of The Devil Rides Out can tell that Wheatley must have become an enthusiast at some stage- why else would he have included such a tremendous amount of research?

In any case, the magic that Oliver Haddo concerns himself with is not Satanism nor Spiritualism, but alchemy. In particular, he's interested in creating a homunculus. Unfortunately, not much time is given over to the mechanics of how he intends to achieve this, nor to what end. His motives remain decidedly nebulous.

Instead, much of this slim novel is taken up with the foibles of Arthur and Margaret's friend Susie as they ponder how to combat Haddo, though 'combat' might be too strong a word. There's a lot of crying, a lot of broken hearts, and a lot of cups of tea in the studio, and a lot of inaction. The only character who seems likely to do something is Dr. Porhoet, a kind of Van Helsing character who has lived his life in Alexandria, and so is knowledgable about the occult. Unfortunately, even he's so cowardly that Arthur has to force him to use his knowledge to help out Margaret.


By the time this group has stopped sniveling and decided to take action, it's too late and Margaret is already dead. They have a poke about Haddo's English mansion, and find a laboratory full of occult paraphernalia. Then, hidden in his attic, they find the most interesting thing in the whole book: Haddo's attempt to re-create that scene from Alien Resurrection, eighty-nine years before it will be released to an uncaring public:

'...but what immediately attracted their attention was a row of those large glass vessels... each was covered with a white cloth. For here too, was a strange mass of flesh, almost as large as a new-born child, but there was in it the beginnings of something ghastly human. It was shaped vaguely like an infant, but the legs were joined together so that it looked like a mummy rolled up in its coverings. There was something that resembled a human head, covered with long golden hair, but it was horrible; it was an uncouth mass, without eyes or nose or mouth. The colour was a sickly pink, and it was almost transparent...'

Arthur removes the coverings from the other jars, and they see

'...abominations so awful that Susie had to clench her fists not to scream. There was one monstrous thing in which the limbs approached nearly to the human. It was extraordinarily heaped up, with fat, tiny arms, little bloated legs, and an absurd squat another the trunk was almost like like that of a human child, except that it was patched strangely with red and grey. But the terror of it was that at the neck it branched hideously, and there were two distinct heads, monstrously large, but duly provided with all their features...'

Well, I can tell you that I woke up a bit after reading that. Unfortunately, Maugham does nothing with this great set-piece. It explains nothing about Haddo's magic, or how he killed Margaret, or what he needed from her.

So is there anything else worth noting about The Magician? The orientalism factor is extremely high. Once again, any character who has been to 'the East' has experienced impossible things and knows that the supernatural is real. Dr. Porhoet speaks to Arthur about his childhood in the 'Arabian Nights' world of Alexandria. When Haddo seduces Margaret, he talks of

'...strange Eastern places where no infidel had been. He spoke of the dawn upon sleeping desolate cities, and the moonlit nights of the desert, of the sunsets with their splendour, and of the crowded streets at noon. He told her of the many-coloured webs and of silken carpets, the glittering steel of armour, and of barbaric, priceless gems. The splendour of the East blinded her eyes. He spoke of frankincense and myrrh, of heavy perfumes of the scent-merchants, and drowsy odours of the Syrian gardens. The fragrance of the East filled her nostrils... it seemed to her that a comparison was drawn for her attention between the narrow round which awaited her as Arthur's wife, and this fair, full existence.'

Yep, once agin those mysterious Easterners are decadent and wondrous, barbaric and yet knowledgable about ancient powers. If only there had been a bit more of this stuff in the book and less of Arthur and his chums faffing about like an far less effective parody of Dr Quincy Morris and co from Dracula, there might have been a happy ending. As it stands, The Magician seems to be a book that Maugham wrote about a subject that he wasn't particularly interested in, and he didn't even put much magic into it anyway.


  1. I found The Magician to be much better and scarier than this review has it. The book is indeed slender, but the portraits of Haddo and the other more stock characters are masterfully economic, and give both stolid hero plus the ingenue and her friend much more substance than contemporary pulp writers can bring to characterization (cf Harry Potter, for starters). The great scene is Margaret's seduction -- via hypnosis? -- into a vision of hell that owes a lot to Bosch. I'm not a student of alchemy or the occult, but found the episode in which the arcane history of "scientific sorcery" is outlined to be quite convincing. The pacing of the book is marvellous -- not fast, but it builds, and Margaret's despair/destruction is persuasive, too. The novel is modern by showing less than the reader comes to imagine. I'll compare it favorably to Well's Island of Dr. Moreau. Its a good read and does not indicate that Maugham was bored with his subject at all.

  2. Well, that's fair enough. I'm glad you enjoyed it anyway. I do think that compared to other authors who wrote about the occult, Maugham just wasn't really interested in it (by his own admission) and it shows in his work. He throws in just enough info about it to make the book work, but not enough to be really interesting to anyone who's used to the likes of Wheatley, who was a real enthusiast. I'll admit that I don't see the connection to Dr Moreau, which is a book I did really enjoy (I love Wells). All the same, I'm always glad to see a lengthy comment that expresses a thought-out opinion.