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This review is from: The Magician (Vintage Classics) (Paperback)
Somerset Maugham has always had a rather sober reptation as a novelist: quiet, restrained, elegant, neat and unfussy, so 'The Magician' came as something of a surprise to me - elegant it may be but restrained it certainly isn't. The plot is quite simple. Arthur Burden, decent but rather dull, and his similarly unspectacular fiance Margaret have their forthcoming plans for married bliss ruined by the sinister, charismatic and spectacularly repulsive Oliver Haddo. Maugham based Haddo on the black magician Aleister Crowley and it is Haddo's dark, supernatural personality that makes the book so wonderfully readable. Haddo upsets Margaret, Arthur physically assaults Haddo and the magician takes his revenge by making Margaret fall in love with him and subsequently desert her fiance. From these simple beginnings Maugham crafts a novel which is by turns amusing, frightening and ultimately unsetteling.
The writing is, by Maugham's own later admission, a little flowery but it has terrific power. There is one chapter in the middle of the book which reads like an opium dream: Margaret finds herself in the midst of a nightmare which simply drips with erotic symbolism and intensity and it carries a weight and power a less skillful writer could never have managed. Similarly the ending of the novel is quite spectacularly horrible but in Maugham's hands it works wonderfully. Whatever the attractions of Maugham's later works he clearly learnt much of his craft with this early and rather sensational novel.
The Magician is something of a curiosity. It's a little uneven and the florid prose intially takes some getting used to, but the novel is worth perservering with. Haddo makes for a splendid villain and while Arthur and Margaret are both somewhat dry Margaret's friend Susie is a beautiful portrayal of a woman of character. Taken as a whole the novel is fascinatingly strange - imagine H G Wells muddling Mr Polly with Dr Moreau and you'll have a good idea of the dark places into which this wonderful novel will lead you. Recommended for those looking for something dark, sinister and liable to give you some very strange dreams....