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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

Great Book #65: The Magician

The Magician“You think me a charlatan because I aim at things that are unknown to you. You won’t try to understand. You won’t give me any credit for striving with all my soul to a very great end.”

I’d originally planned to read Of Human Bondage so I could tick W. Somerset Maugham off my never-read list. Then Seanan kept telling me to read The Magician, which was published in 1908, seven years before his best-known work. One Saturday afternoon last month I was browsing in The Old Children’s Bookshelf, and when I found a nice red hardcover reissue of The Magician I took it as a nudge. (Not that this is a novel for kids, oh heck no!)A literary genre-bender featuring a black magician and a plain-but-plucky spinster-heroine, fin-de-siècle cafés and a creepy crumbling-down country house: this novel is right up my alley. I’m glad I picked up this particular edition, too: it includes a ‘fragment of autobiography’ that explains how Maugham made the acquaintance of the infamous self-proclaimed sorcerer Aleister Crowley, who inspired the novel and its curiously mesmerizing anti-hero, Oliver Haddo.Here’s the gist. Arthur Burdon, an English surgeon of the unimaginative-but-110%-reliable sort, is all set to marry the lovely young Margaret, who is dabbling in landscape painting at a Parisian academy before settling into housewifely duties back in London. A few weeks before their wedding date, the happy couple are introduced to Oliver Haddo, a boastful adventurer who seems to be universally reviled, and yet no one can ever deny him a place at their café table. Haddo quickly insinuates himself into Arthur and Margaret’s small circle, to the mounting horror of all involved. With the help of Dr. Porhoët, his childhood guardian (and, conveniently, the author of a treatise on the great alchemists of old), and the strong and sensible Susie Boyd, Margaret’s closest friend, Arthur must confront Haddo before his fiance is lost to him forever.

In that autobiographical fragment, Somerset Maugham writes that The Magician is the only one of his early novels that he was able to reread, which in my mind goes a long way toward recommending it. The final chapter feels like Frankenstein spiced up with a healthy dash of Lovecraft, and the result is simultaneously disgusting and unputdownable:

But the terror of it was that at the neck it branched hideously, and there were two distinct heads, monstrously large, but duly provided with all their features. The features were a caricature of humanity so shameful that one could hardly bear to look. And as the light fell on it, the eyes of each head opened slowly. They had no pigment in them, but were pink, like the eyes of white rabbits; and they stared for a moment with an odd, unseeing glance. Then they were shut again, and what was curiously terrifying was that the movements were not quite simultaneous; the eyelids of one head fell slowly just before those of the other.

I devoured this novel. Loved, loved, loved it. Now the question is, will I ever get around to reading Of Human Bondage? (This is the problem with loving a novel too much: I’m reluctant to read any of the author’s other books for fear I’ll be disappointed.The Time Traveler’s Wife and not wanting to read Her Fearful Symmetry is a case in point.)

1 Comment to Great Book #65: The Magician

  1. Kate's Gravatar Kate
    March 23, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    I’m not quite convinced that I would love this book as much as you did–that one passage is pretty grotesque.
    Speaking of books/stories that you recommended, I finally read The Time Machine and really liked it. I’m now in the middle of The Invisible Man and enjoying that as well. Thanks for the book!

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.