somerset maugham: the magician

Somerset Maugham is suppposed to have modelled his magician on a real one, namely Aleister Crowley, whom he had encountered in real life. The novel is a treat for anyone who gets a high from esoteric gurus or brilliant writing (because he is a stunning author, Somerset Maugham). Here is a passage in which the magician, in the book named Oliver Haddo, ensnares one of the other main characters:

‘He began to talk with that low voice of his that thrilled her with a curious magic. He spoke not of pictures now, nor of books, but of life. He told her of strange Eastern places where no infidel had been, and her sensitive fancy was aflame with the honeyed fervour of his phrase. He spoke of the dawn upon sleeping desolate cities, and the moonlit nights of the desert, of the sunsets with their splendour, and of the crowded streets at noon. The beauty of the East rose up before her. He told her of many-coloured webs and of silken carpets, the glittering steel of armour damascened, and of barbaric priceless gems. The splendour of the East blinded her eyes. He spoke of frankincense and myrrh and aloes, of heavy perfumes of the scent-merchants, and drowsy odours of the Syrian gardens. The fragrance of the East filled her nostrils. And all these things were transformed by the power of his words till life itself seemed offered to her, a life of infinite vivacity, a life of freedom, a life of supernatural knowledge. It seemed to her that a comparison was drawn for her attention between the narrow round which awaited her as Arthur’s wife and this fair full existence. She shuddered to think of the dull house in Harley Street and the insignificance of its humdrum duties. But it was possible for her also to enjoy the wonder of the world. Her soul yearned for a beauty that the commonalty of men did not know. And what devil suggested, a warp as it were in the woof of Oliver’s speech, that her exquisite loveliness gave her the right to devote herself to the great art of living? She felt a sudden desire for perilous adventures. As though fire passed through her, she sprang to her feet and stood with panting bosom, her flashing eyes bright with the multi-coloured pictures that his magic presented.’

I began to transcribe the passage from the printed book, but since that’s a tedious job, I googled and realized you can also read it online here. The quoted passage begins on p 144. It’s a pleasure to read this captivating, humourous and quite thrilling novel, so if you haven’t already I highly recommend it.

2 thoughts on “somerset maugham: the magician

  1. I like Somerset Maugham a lot, and never understood why he was considered second rate. If I’m recalling correctly, stiff-upper-lipped repressed British types who ditch it all for “the beauty of the Far East” (including its exotic religious attractions) are a recurring theme … I think I’m thinking of “The Razor’s Edge.”

  2. Oh — I googled, that seems to be a good one too! Didn’t know about it. I rescued a The moon & sixpence that my parents were tossing in the bin a while ago (still remains unread by me).

    Second rate — weird. Certainly can’t agree with that. Must read more, though.

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