The Magician, by W. Somerset Maugham
The backstory behind this book is at least as interesting as the book itself, in that the author managed to take a creepy and unpleasant real life personage in Aleister Crowley and turn him into a model for the dark titular character of this chilling novel. Another aspect of this book that improves it, at least in my eyes, is the way that the author himself reflected on this book decades after writing it as it was being readied for a reprint, and he comments that although this book does not have the style that marked his own more mature work, including his classic semi-autobiographical novel Of Human Bondage, it was a novel that he enjoyed reading. And looking at Maugham’s body of work that I have read as a whole, there is much in this book to appreciate, and there are a fair amount of similarities between this book and Of Human Bondage. For one, there is the similarity of their being based (however tenuously in this case) on real life. For another, though, there is a dark theme of obsessive love and its consequences that runs through this book, as part of the dark magic of the titular magician is the magic that allows him to inspire an obsessive love on the part of his wife, who he had stolen from the more sympathetic but also somewhat more bland protagonist.
Like many books, this is one whose greatness does not make itself seen immediately. The first part of the book consists of a great many conversations that wander a bit and that do not seem very exciting, but by the time the book is about a quarter over (and since this book is only about 200 pages, that is not a terribly long time) we witness the main conflict in the book concerning the question of the occult. Conversations about the studies of kabbalah and other esoteric arts is mixed with the growing realization that the magician is a figure of particular menace, and that his cruelty towards animals is only a foretaste of his immense cruelty towards humans, including his wife, and indicative of a desire to use his powers to engage in great evil. The ending is dramatic and provides at least a bit of wish fulfillment that the evil dealt with in the book can be eradicated and no trace of it left for others to stumble upon unawares, and even that the protagonist can find a loving relationship with someone even if his initial foray into relationships did not go particular well for him.
There are some potential readers of this book who would likely look somewhat askance at this book for its discussion of the occult arts. The author concedes that the novel is unlike the reality of Crowley’s creepy and unpleasant life in that it gives the magician some powers in that line. But the book in no way endorses the study and practice of esoteric arts as a means of acquiring power. The author, instead, views the occult studies as a way that one can become strongly bent by great evil and responsible for horrific evil. Rather than viewing Crowley and his repulsive worldview of doing whatever one wished to do as a positive call to freedom from moral restraints, the author advocates a worldview that is based on duty and love. It is little surprise that Crowley was not very fond of Maugham’s characterization of him, but it is little surprise that someone as interested in virtue and decency as Maugham was would find nothing appealing about his own approach to life and morality. This book stands as a reminder that even if there was power to be found in the occult arts and esoteric matters that the destruction it does to one’s moral and spiritual aspects of existence makes it something no one should want to explore.