Last fall, when The Letter opera was still a wee twinkle, I had tapas with Terry and Maud in New York. It was a lovely sunny day, and we talked a lot about Somerset Maugham over lunch. Enough so that afterward I tried to track down a copy of “The Letter” at Three Lives. No luck, but I did get the first volume of Maugham’s collected short stories, containing the devastating story “Rain,” which I read over the next few days.
That set me off on a Maugham kick that lasted several months. The usual suspects: Human Bondage (half a great novel) and Cakes and Ale (a very happy re-read). The strangest entry in the Maugham-a-thon was a little-known novel called The Magician. Written early in Maugham’s career, it’s a purple, pulpish Gothic set in turn-of-the-century Paris. In it, two lovers are separated when the “sinister and repulsive” magician Oliver Haddo appears on the scene, sets his sights on the beautiful Margaret, bewitches her and draws her into a vile, debauched lifestyle abroad (to the modern reader the descriptions of this lifestyle will suggest that Margaret has gone Eurotrash). It just gets weirder from there. How weird? Secret-laboratory-of-succubi weird.
The Haddo character was modeled on Aleister Crowley, whom Maugham met while living in Paris. At the time, as Maugham writes in the foreword to The Magician, Crowley was “a voluminous writer of verse, which he published sumptuously at his own expense.” The two met several times “but never after I left Paris to return to London. Once, long afterwards, I received a telegram from him which ran as follows: ‘Please send twenty-five pounds at once. Mother of God and I starving. Aleister Crowley.’ I did not do so, and he lived on for many disgraceful years.”
The Magician was first published in 1908, then went out of print. It was reissued by Penguin in 1978, with Maugham penning the accompanying foreword, called “A Fragment of Autobiography.” He writes:
When, a little while ago, my publisher expressed a wish to reissue [The Magician], I felt that, before consenting to this, I really should read it again. Nearly fifty years had passed since I had done so, and I had completely forgotten it. Some authors enjoy reading their old works: some cannot bear to. Of these I am. When I have corrected the proofs of a book, I have finished with it, for good and all. I am impatient when people insist on talking to me about it; I am glad if they like it, but do not much care if they don’t. I am no more interested in it than in a worn-out suit of clothes that I have given away. It was thus with disinclination that I began to read The Magician. It held my interest, as two of my early novels, which for the same reason I have been obliged to read, did not. One, indeed, I simply could not get through. …
As I read The Magician, I wondered how on earth I could have come by all the material concerning the black arts which I wrote of. I must have spent days and days reading in the library of the British Museum. The style is lush and turgid, not at all the sort of style I approve of now, but perhaps not unsuited to the subject; and there are a great many more adverbs and adjectives than I should use today. I fancy I must have been impressed by the écriture artiste which the French writers of the time had not yet entirely abandoned, and unwisely sought to imitate them.
Before he exits the Foreword, Maugham airs his disdain for Crowley one last time: “Crowley … recognized himself in the creature of my invention, for such it was, and wrote a full-page review of the novel in Vanity Fair, which he signed ‘Oliver Haddo’. 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.”
* List Fancy extra: Also purchased that day, Edward P. Jones’ All Aunt Hagar’s Children and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, the latter because Maud promised me twenty bucks if I didn’t like it.