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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

W. Somerset Maugham's 'The Magician' is a fun read


An old friend of mine (and gafiated science fiction fan) Richard Newsome and I agreed to read The Magician by W. Somerset Maugham together and compare notes. Richard read a print edition and I read the Standard Ebooks edition (the cover art is above.) By the way, despite what Standard Ebooks says, their epubs work fine with Amazon Kindle.

First, I can report that The Magician is a fun, easy read; Richard and I both finished it in a few days. I have not read anything else by Maugham, and the book was more of a pulpy fantasy novel than I had expected. Richard commented that Chapter 8 (in which the villain, Oliver Haddo, takes a young woman on an occult "bad trip") "reads exactly like a story in Weird Tales," and remarking on another scene said, "And then Haddo has a laboratory in the attic full of giant glass retorts, test tubes and blazing furnaces, for his experiments. Perfect for Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories."

If you know anything about Aleister Crowley, it couldn't be more obvious that the character of Oliver Haddo is based upon Crowley. Much of it is quite accurate. Richard Kaczynski's biography of Crowley, Perdurabo, says that when Crowley read the book, he recognized many of Haddo's comments as things he had said to Maugham in Paris. Perdurabo says Crowley was "flattered." Maybe, but the book depicts Haddo as a thoroughly evil person, capable of doing terrible things that Crowley (as far as I know) never did. Richard and I were both amazed that Maugham assumed he could get away with that in putting an obviously real person in his novel.

Perdurabo also reports that Crowley recognized that the book incorporated large quotes from books on magick that Crowley had recommended to Maugham and also noticed that portions of the book were apparently indebted to modern writers. He wrote an expose for Vanity Fair about the matter.  Perdurabo says that Maugham was "good-humored" about the article when they met a few weeks after it appeared.

Richard actually tracked down Crowley's article. You can read it here.  


Oz Fritz said...

Thank-you for your impressions of The Magician – makes me want to read it sometime – and for posting the Crowley piece.

michael said...

The American filmmaker Rex Ingram got fed up with interferences in Hollywood and went to France and made a version of Maugham's novel. It came out in 1926 and TCM shows it around once a year. I saw it a few months ago. It's of course a silent, and I thought it very entertaining.

If you didn't know anything about Crowley, you'd see it as a classic "mad scientist" film. The plot is paint-by-numbers, but the style gave me a boyhood frisson,

If you had read about Maugham's take on Crowley and watched this film thinking that you're learning/gettin' the 411 on who Crowley was via the Oliver Haddo character you of course got a bum steer but you didn't care, being a fine upright citizen: I have no doubt the outrageously inaccurate public assumptions of who Uncle Al "really was" were fueled by a film like this.

The Magician (1926, Rex Ingram) must be considered a big player in the Crowley as evil dealio in the mass mind. But as one of the greatest early Pop celebrities, Crowley no doubt knew the truth of "no such thing as bad publicity."

Maugham's style seems reactionary and retrograde for that time. (It's still here: see Brown, Dan) He was a closeted homosexual, a spy, and in my opinion a pretentious asshole.

Isn't studying History a blast?

Rarebit Fiend said...

Crowley had an amusing amount of contempt for Maugham. I'll try to find the relevant passage(s) in his Autohagiography.