The Feckless Wonder (uvula_fr_b4) wrote,
The Feckless Wonder

Things that man was not meant to know: a review of Somerset Maugham's The Magician.

From Saturday, 10 May through Thursday, 14 May, I read W. Somerset Maugham's The Magician (originally published in 1908 by Heinemann (London) and in 1909 by Duffield and Company; but I read it in a Project Gutenberg edition in OverDrive Media Console on my Kindle Fire [the Project Gutenberg edition included Maugham's introductory "A Fragment of Autobiography," which, as far as I can tell, first appeared in the Penguin edition published in 1967, in association w/ Heinemann]; 199 pps.).

cover to The Magician by W Somerset Maugham

The Magician is apparently an exception that proves the rule to Somerset Maugham's usual oeuvre: a sensational, proto-pulp (or a neo-gothic) thriller that, after a deliberate build-up, actually delivers in its hellzapoppin payoff.

Stuffy and unimaginative English surgeon Arthur Burdon travels to Paris to visit his one-time ward, current fiancée, Margaret Dauncey, as well as renew his friendship with the retired Breton physician and autodidactic occultist Dr. Porhoët; while there he makes two new acquaintances: Margaret's roommate, Susie Boyd (who is a vacationing teacher at least a decade older than Margaret), and the repulsively corpulent, alarmingly charismatic Oliver Haddo, a wealthy squire and a casual acquaintance of Porhoët, who met while they were each studying the occult in the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal. Haddo is deliberately provocative, even rude, but has a wealth of worldly anecdotes (he is a keen lion-hunter, for example) and a recondite erudition to entertain and silence any would-be critics, over and above his slightly mesmeric stare.

Due to a contretemps with Burdon -- Haddo kicks Margaret's dog while visiting her and Susie in the company of Porhoët and Burdon, in consequence of which Burdon physically attacks Haddo, who fails to defend himself -- Haddo conceives a terrible hatred for Burdon, and plots a convoluted, wholly improbable, but nonetheless awful, vengeance against him. Haddo woos and wins Margaret away from him, acting less the passionate and sentimental lover than a Svengali (who debuted in George du Maurier's 1895 novel Trilby; his fame far outshone that of the novel's titular character, notwithstanding the fact that she had a type of hat named after her) who clouds her mind and breaks her will. Burdon, though spiritually wounded nigh unto the breaking point himself, nonetheless doesn't contest the marriage, believing Margaret to be in full possession of her faculties, and honestly in love with Haddo. Eventually Susie, who has fallen in love with Burdon, convinces him otherwise, and he calls upon Porhoët's expertise to assist him in bearding Haddo in his ancestral home of Skene, in Staffordshire, in the West Midlands, England.

Interest is added to The Magician by the knowledge, which Maugham confirmed in his "Fragment of Autobiography" some fifty years after The Magician's initial publication, that Haddo is a caricature of Aleister Crowley, the self-described "Great Beast," whom Maugham knew in passing. Crowley was so incensed by this mocking and unflattering portrait of him that he undertook to review The Magician in the pages of Vanity Fair, signing himself "Oliver Haddo;" Maugham claimed to have never read the review.

While Maugham claimed, in his "Fragment," to have spent "days and days reading in the library of the British Museum" to research The Magician, he still produced such idiocies as Porhoët declaring that Haddo "'had studied the Kabbalah in the original'" (Chapter 1) -- as though there was an "original," ur-text of the Kabbalah. Nonetheless, Maugham manages to reward the reader's suspension of disbelief with a slow-burn building up of tension and suspense that is magnificently rewarded with a climax that is at least the equal of most of the sensational works that were of a time with The Magician; the conclusion of The Magician is more thrilling and eerie, for example, than that of the first two Fu Manchu novels or, come to that, than Dracula's (or Alraune's). Maugham very wisely limits Haddo's time on-stage, and, more importantly, limits his tirades about his esoteric activities, so that the reader is nearly as ignorant and impressionable as Burdon and Susie (and, for all his time spent at the Arsenal, Porhoët), and so can react with the appropriate levels of horror and revulsion when they slink through Haddo's attic workshops at Skene.

The Magician was much more enjoyable, on the whole, than the only other work I've read by Maugham thus far, the short story collection The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Seas Islands (1921); I'm somewhat apprehensive of reading more Maugham due to the glum feeling that I'll probably not enjoy his other work as much.

*Cross-posted to LibraryThing.

Tags: book reviews, occult, satire, thriller
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