Maugham’s occult novel The Magician opens in the Paris of La Belle Époque, a place of light and gaiety where, none the less, it would seem, shadows still lurked, with the shadow in this particular instance being cast by the increasingly corpulent bulk of Oliver Haddo. With speech as ponderous and weighty as his physical form, Haddo, the eponymous magician of this tale, with his tall stories and florid speech, comes across as a more sinister cousin of Withnail and I’s Uncle Monty. It is, without doubt, the villain who gets the best lines in this book.
Maugham based Haddo upon the person of none other than the self-styled ‘Great Beast’ Aleister Crowley, whom he met during a sojourn in Paris in 1904. The former did not take to the latter, and writing some years later he noted that Crowley had published a review of The Magician in Vanity Fair, signing off as ‘Oliver Haddo’. In a later foreword to the book, Maugham wrote, ‘I did not read it, and wish now that I had. I daresay it was a pretty piece of vituperation, but probably, like his poems, intolerably verbose.’ So much for the background, but what of the story itself?
The first two chapters of the novel are rather sluggish and unremarkable, for Haddo’s presence is as yet unseen. They introduce us to the other four main characters: Arthur Burdon, an eminent London surgeon who is in Paris to visit his young ward and fiancée Susie Boyd; the aforementioned Miss Boyd; Margaret Dauncey, Miss Boyd’s older and plainer companion, and Dr Porhoët, a Breton doctor with an interest in matters relating to antiquarianism and the occult that has led him to become something of a specialist in this esoteric field.
It is only once we encounter Haddo in the Chien Noir along with the four other major characters, that the novel picks up pace and begins to hook the reader. Despite his being a narcissistic, snobbish, socially and physically repulsive braggart, Haddo manages to exert a certain allure, and somehow insinuates his way into the lives of this quartet. That there is something preternatural about this soon becomes apparent, and the mutual antipathy of Burdon and Haddo is what propels this story to its destructive denouement via the gaming tables of Monte Carlo, to its climax in the fictitious Haddo familial seat of Skene in Staffordshire.
There is something, it would seem, to the powers claimed by this practitioner of the dark arts, and he has a goal in mind dear to the hearts of the adepts of Paracelsian alchemy: the creation of the homunculus. Quite why either Haddo, or Paracelsus, would wish to go to such great lengths in an attempt to create such a monstrous parody of the human form, rather than adopting the rather simpler expedient of a little, and rather more pleasurable, conjugal rutting, is quite beyond me. Still, this novel makes for an enjoyable read, even if it should be at times a little overwrought and melodramatic, as well as somewhat purple in its prose.
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