Monday, 14 September 2020

The Magician - Somerset Maugham

 


Despite living until 1965, Maugham was essentially an Edwardian novelist.  This, from 1908, is him dipping a toe into the world of James's Turn of the Screw; in other words, fin du siecle gothic.  Maugham was also a novelist who turned personal experience into fiction.  He had encountered Aleister Crowley, "The Wickedest Man in the World", and despised him.  Crowley is Oliver Haddo, the Magician of the title.  In Parisian bohemia he comes across Margaret and Arthur, Arthur a successful London physician, Margaret his beautiful ward whom he intends to marry as soon as she turns eighteen. Today, this raises eyebrows, and Maugham was clearly aware of it, even in 1908.  He goes to great lengths to demonstrate that their love is romantic and true.  Haddo spitefully takes Margaret from Arthur and marries her.  She briefly returns to Arthur but cannot resist the animal magnetism of Haddo.  Arthur with his friends Suzie and Porhoet determine to rescue her from Haddo's ancestral pile in Staffordshire.

Maugham is a much better novelist than posthumous neglect would indicate.  He wrote The Magician at the height of his powers, midway between Liza of Lambeth and Of Human Bondage.  He has devised a gothic plot and come up with some extremely clever ways of making it credible.  The characters are in a constant state of flux.  Haddo gets fatter and fatter with every appearance; Margaret goes from English rose to debauched jade and finally a pale shadow of her former self; Arthur and Suzie, from the start an obvious match in age and two halves of a whole in terms of personality, slowly get younger and more attractive as they grow closer.  The end, when it came, was genuinely horrific.  A mini masterpiece of the genre, which deserves to better known.


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