Maugham, W. Somerset: The Magician
A master storyteller, W. Somerset Maugham was no stylist. Someone sobs in each of his books “as if her heart would break,” sometimes half a dozen times, but he wrote plentifully and he wrote catholically. Best known for his coming of age novel, Of Human Bondage, he wrote in many genres. His Ashenden series provided some of the first (and best) spy stories. He was briefly an agent for England and there is validity to his own statement that had he been sent to Russia six months earlier he might have prevented the October Revolution (he arrived with buckets of cash from the UK government which the Kerensky government could have used to great effect had it arrived earlier). The writer closest to him in output and sagacity is Graham Greene whom he predates. He set his stories in the South Seas, the Far East, Europe, England, and India, but The Magician is a story apart, telling of Arthur Burdon, a surgeon, whose wife-to-be, Margaret, leaves him without warning, leaving behind a note: “When you receive this, I shall be on my way to London. I was married to Oliver Haddo this morning.” The vile and corpulent Oliver Haddo, based on Aleister Crowley, master occultist of the day, needed the soul of a virgin to create new life forms—and melodramatic as that may sound, the novel reads credibly and thrillingly. I read it first as a teenager in the Cardinal edition pictured above—and again (in the same edition), well past my sixtieth year, with no less avidity—but I did notice that Margaret still sobbed “as if her heart would break” on at least two occasions.