Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Magician - W. Somerset Maugham

It's world book day so although my head is full of shotguns and knitting (maybe I should be reading a Miss Marple) I'm making the effort to catch up on a book review (it's not much of an effort to think about books).

The book is Maugham's 'The Magician' and seemed an appropriate choice because he's my perfect example of an author I thought I couldn't get on with who turns out to be one I can. Many years ago I tried to read 'The Moon and Sixpence' (at least I think it was that one) and got nowhere with it. I disliked it so much that it took 20 years and a book group to make me read 'The Painted Veil' - which I loved.

Since then I've collected a handful of Maugham's which sounded tempting and essentially just looked at them, but 'Dr Faustus' gave me a push to pick up 'The Magician'. I loved this one too. Written around 1907, the introduction tells me it was inspired by time Maugham spent living in Paris, during which time he crossed paths with Aleister Crowley who he says he took an immediate dislike too, though he also found him amusing.

Oliver Haddo, the villian of 'The Magician' was the result of this meeting, he's a grotesque caricature so it's hardly surprising that in a Vanity Fair review Crowley, writing under the name of Oliver Haddo, accused Maugham of plagiarism (a quick search hasn't produced the full article, so I don't know what else he had to say about the book), but it all adds colour.

The whole thing us a splendid melodrama centring around a young doctor, Arthur, who seems to have a brilliant future ahead of him. He is the consummate man of science, thriving in his career, and about to marry the woman he adores - Margaret, young, beautiful, and artistic. She's been living in Paris with a former teacher, Suzie, as chaperone and it's at this point there respective paths cross. Arthur and Margaret take an instant and instinctive dislike to Haddo, but Suzie finds him amusing so he's invited home for tea. The results are disastrous - Arthur ends up kicking him to the floor after an inciddent with a dog and after that Haddo's revenge is inevitable. The form it takes is easy enough to guess at, and is as over the top as any lover of gothic excess could hope for...

What makes it a winner is the way that Maugham builds up the tension. If I was an absinthe drinker it would be the perfect accompaniment to this book (I'm not), champagne drunk from a coupe might be a suitable alternative. It's tremendous fun, as well as being quite dark enough to be genuinely creepy at times. Maugham himself describes the style as lush and turgid, which it is, and all the better for it. I'm so very glad I took a second chance on Maugham.


  1. I am very fond of Maugham. I have read & re-read his short stories many times ... take a dip into one of the volumes of them; some are sharply linked to their time but all show his sharp eye of details & judgement (amused of course) Anne

  2. I'm getting there with him. Was given a volume of short stories for Christmas and it's something I'm really looking forward to getting into. He's a very good example of why it's worth trying everything twice for me. I'd hate to have missed out because of a negative first impression.