Book: The Magician – W. Somerset Maugham (1908)

The-Magician cover  “And what else is it that men seek in life but power? If they want money, it is but for the power that attends it, and it is power again that they strive for in all the knowledge they acquire.”

It could be argued that reviewing a book from 1908 is a sign that I am not exactly up to date with today’s current crop of bestsellers. You’d be right to think that, but it doesn’t matter. I tend to review books that are new to me, regardless of when they were published, and The Magician is one such book.

The Magician tells the story of a practitioner of the black arts named Oliver Haddo. Haddo’s character was actually based on the late Aleister Crowley. The author had met Crowley shortly before he commenced writing this novel, and by that stage in his life, Crowley had grown fat and bald. There are numerous comic and less than complimentary references to Haddo’s “terrible obesity” and “enormous bulk” throughout the book, which are aimed squarely at Crowley.

I first heard the name Oliver Haddo from the title of a song by Canadian rock band Blood Ceremony (from their 2011 album Living With The Ancients). Haddo is also referenced on the song ‘The Magician’ from their 2013 album The Eldritch Dark. You could say this book has influenced them slightly! I always wondered who they were singing about and I decided to look him up after seeing the band live recently.

Blood-Ceremony

Blood Ceremony – big fans of Mr. Haddo

There are five main characters in The Magician: Arthur Burdon (a promising doctor); Margaret (his fiancee), Dr. Porhoet (a French expert on the occult and Arthur’s friend and mentor), Susie Boyd (Margaret’s older, unmarried room mate) and the sinister Mr. Oliver Haddo.

At the start of the novel, things are going well for Arthur and his fiancee. They are living the cafe life in Paris and are looking forward to their forthcoming wedding. One night, a mysterious (and almost comically obese) gentleman interjects into their conversation and introduces himself as Oliver Haddo. Haddo tells tall tales of his time in Africa, such as how he narrowly escaped being mauled by lions thanks to his superior marksmanship and later there is an incident with a venomous snake bite that defies all rational explanation.

Aleister_Crowley

Aleister Crowley

Bearing in mind that Haddo is a caricature of Aleister Crowley, it is unsurprising that Maugham portrays him as such a charlatan and a rogue. At least initially. As the story progresses, Haddo’s evil plans to steal Arthur Burdon’s fiancee from him and use her virgin blood to help him create an humunculus (a very small humanoid creature conjured into existence by occult means) are given more and more credence. Haddo is rightly described as a madman, but as the novel progresses, his magickal prowess becomes more and more believable, until it becomes genuinely chilling. To my mind, this suggests that while Crowley appeared as something of a burnt out old joke to Maugham, deep down he suspected that there was more than a little credence to his mastery of the occult.

The Magician is a compelling and chilling tale of the macabre that stands up very well today, despite being over a century old. While the characters are upper class and rich, Maugham still manages to make the reader care what happens to them. The same goes for the despicable Mr. Haddo. Even though he is a vile manipulator, he manages to charm you into liking him against your better judgement. Highly recommended.

3 comments

  1. Thanks for the review! I greatly appreciate reviews of books which haven’t been published recently, especially if they are fairly obscure. We cannot read them all!
    Somerset Maugham became one of the most celebrated authors during the first half of the 20th century. But “The Magician” was one of his early efforts and it only became more noticed again when the name Aleister Crowley was rediscovered in the 1960s. Although I have loved and read Maugham’s work since I was a precocious teenager, I only discovered “The Magician” recently because I was reading a biography of Aleister Crowley. And I will add the novel to my lengthy reading list☺
    However, may I point out a slight error of yours? When Maugham met Crowley in Paris and then wrote the novel in 1908, Aleister wasn’t at all ugly, bald and obese! He was a dashing and very athletic young man with a considerable inherited Fortune, who styled himself a bit like the young Oscar Wilde. And he had been one of the most accomplished and daring British high altitude mountain climbers! In 1908 he was still married to Rose Kelly who was then a beautiful socialite. They were an absolutely stunning couple! Crowley had married Rose just a few days after they met for the first time in order to spare her a loveless marriage forced upon her by her family. Young Aleister had promised her to retreat into his own life without attaching himself to her. They eloped to Scotland and loved their great adventure! But they soon fell very much in love with each other and decided to remain a married couple. So far that’s a very romantic love story, and there were only a few hints upon the horizon that their union would end in tears, tragedy and madness – and how Crowley would change eventually. Maugham’s portrait of Oliver Haddo/Aleister Crowley is an interesting case of literary clairvoyance, because he nailed pretty accurately how Crowley would appear and be perceived in later decades. I don’t want to imply anything paranormal, when I use the word “clairvoyance”. It may be just a case of Maugham’s astute perception and assessment. But it makes the novel more intriguing, although it’s definitely not one of Maugham’s best novels.

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      1. Hi, thanks a lot for your answer☺
        We all have far more pressing problems right now. But one one of the very few positive aspects of the Corona crisis ist that many of us have more time to read. I have “The Magician” on my e-reader now and will read it soon.
        I truly wonder how Maugham and Crowley would’ve reacted to such a crisis!
        I wish you all the best!

        Like

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