‘The Magician’ by Somerset Maugham (1908), and the story behind the book

In the introduction to The Magician, Maugham himself allows that this is far from his best work. No argument there. The story is based on Aleister Crowley, a fixture in the occultist, black magic trend that was popular for a bit in early 20th century Paris. Maugham and Crowley met at times and established a mutual cordial disdain.

When reading The Magician, his dislike for Crowley is far more intense, in that Maugham never misses a chance to refer to Oliver Haddo (the Magician/Crowley) as a corpulent gas-bag of a man who was a cad, a con and pretty much evil. Maugham implies that he forgot most of the book until a reading of it again after nearly 50 years, where he was astonished to find he had researched the subject so thoroughly. Hmm.

He readily admits that the style is not his usual grounded realism, and that his prose was at times “florid” and full of too many adjectives. The story is that of Arthur and Margaret, a sweet couple who are engaged to be married. Margaret would like to marry immediately, but Arthur feels a trip to Paris with her friend Susie is what she needs. Margaret, looking for entertainment in Paris, soon comes into contact with a set who are involved in the occult/black magic fad. She meets Haddo, is fascinated by him, and buys into his authenticity. Arthur needless to say does not, and believes he is a phony.

Margaret becomes entranced and seduced by Haddo, and by what she believes is truly the effects of black magic. She follows him, and this is where the story is uneven and not Maugham’s usual style. The plot is a little weird near the end, but it still has a few well-turned phrases with an interesting finish. This is not horrible, nor great – more a fable-like telling of one of the numerous trends that were so prevalent at the time; and, more importantly, a jab at Crowley and his claims of being an authentic black magic purveyor.

After publication and a review in the press, Aleister Crowley wrote an infuriated response, claiming Maugham had plagiarized his life. Odd, because the Haddo character was pretty much a jerk and a fake and Crowley claimed it as plagiarism? Since Crowley’s name pops up in literature of that era occassionly, he apparently left the same impression with many writers in Paris at the time. So I rated this 4 stars – 3 for the book, and an extra for the story behind it.

6 thoughts on “‘The Magician’ by Somerset Maugham (1908), and the story behind the book

  1. It was many years ago that I read this book. About all I can remember now was that it was very strange. It did like it though, and coincidentally it just came up the other day in conversation with someone – and now here’s a blog post about it. Funny how that works… 🙂

  2. It’s worth seeking out Crowley’s response. It’s been awhile since I read it, but it is worth printing and folding and inserting in this novel (which I enjoyed). Crowley, as I recall, was angry that Maugham had insinuated himself into Crowley’s hospitality, was given the use of his library (and here is where the accusations of plagiarism arise… passages ripped from other books from Crowley’s own library, without note or citation). Drama, behind the scenes, adds to the enjoyment of this book, and honestly, if Crowley is telling the truth in his published response to this novel, Maugham was the more unscrupulous of the two in the behind-the-scenes drama. That is a big “if.” Crowley, no doubt, enjoyed this caricature and no doubt wished he did have such power and influence, and was probably having a laugh at both the novel’s characterization of him, and of beating up on Maugham in his response.

  3. I left a comment, but it seems to have disappeared. It is worth looking up Crowley’s response (very amusing), printing it and inserting it in your copy of the novel. It’s been a while since I read it, but if I recall correctly, he accused Maugham of taking advantage of his hospitality, as he had allowed Maugham (who he claims he hardly knew) to do research in his (Crowley’s) own library. Crowley’s accusation of plagiarism was, I think, linked to how Maugham had used passages direct from books in his library, without note or citation. If Crowley’s claims are true, I’d say Maugham was the more unscrupulous of the two men in the behind-the-scenes drama, first for pretending a friendship that got him into the library of “the great beast,” and second, for pulling bits of writing on the occult from other books and using them unaltered. That is a big “if,” and the behind-the-scenes drama makes this minor novel all the more interesting, and I’m sure both men got some benefit from the publicity. I’m sure Crowley was very amused by this caricature, and wished he was as powerful and influential as portrayed, as I am sure he had a laugh while blustering about Maugham being a plagiarizing hack in his published response. Crowley had a dark sense of humor, and could bluster away with tongue firmly in cheek.

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