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[The following contains spoilers.]

There is a lot of bad blood to W. Somerset Maugham’s The Magician (1908). If this novel’s eponymous antihero, Oliver Haddo, bewitches the young beauty Margaret Dauncey into marrying him, such an ostensibly fantastic story would in fact prove rather too close to the bone. Haddo was based upon the occultist and self-publicist Aleister Crowley, whom Maugham had met years earlier in Paris; whilst Margaret finds herself in comparable circumstances to Crowley’s unfortunate wife Rose Edith Kelly.

It is unclear how well Maugham knew Rose, but he was close friends with her brother, the painter Gerald Kelly. This figure fails to materialise to any effect within The Magician, although he had introduced Maugham to the Paris milieu which is initially depicted in the novel. Crowley and Rose had married in 1903 and like so many of Crowley’s worldly dealings, the marriage had been spectacularly disastrous. By 1911 Rose had been institutionalised with alcoholic dementia.

The Magician may not have been written out of revenge and Maugham may not have been personally affronted by Crowley’s treatment of Rose. Indeed, Maugham liberally pocketed characters from amongst his friends and acquaintances, and Crowley would enjoy a second, more sympathetic outing in Of Human Bondage (1915) as the cynical poet Cronshaw. Crowley himself reflected of Maugham’s barbs that,”I always feel that he, like myself, makes such remarks without malice, for the sake of their cleverness.” The Magician may have purely journalistic intentions, in volunteering to record for posterity Maugham’s recollections of an extraordinary acquaintance.

No, this will not do. “To follow a wounded lion into thick cover is probably the most dangerous proceeding in the world,” Haddo brags. “It calls for the utmost coolness and for iron nerve.” Maugham’s eyes are glittering in the undergrowth; he wishes to mount Crowley’s head over the fireplace and show it off to the applause of his literary friends. Yet this is also to misunderstand the metaphor. Haddo only prevails against the lion by assuming its own qualities and supplanting it as “the King of Beasts.” If Maugham is to outdo Crowley, he will have to become as beastly as him. He would compose a merciless character assassination and Crowley would hit back with similarly unflattering revelations about Maugham. They would both be seriously wounded.

We may at first distrust the way that this book seems to go. If the heroine Margaret has been enchanted to devote herself to Haddo, Maugham himself appears to grow equally fixated about Crowley. We can scarcely suppose that a man as prim and stuffy as Maugham could believe in sorcery, but we find him suddenly authoring a lavish tribute to Haddo’s supernatural powers. Crowley was duly impressed by The Magician, chuckling that the book represented “an appreciation of my genius such as I had never dreamed of inspiring.”

The Magician may be an aesthetic botch, with its early realism capitulating to runaway fantasy, but this is at once inevitable and an admission of defeat. Maugham’s ultimate purpose is to expose Crowley’s marriage as cruel and unnatural. He doubtlessly itches to portray Crowley/Haddo as a humbug as well, but then this would concede that an impressionable woman had freely fallen in love with him. Unable to admit that Haddo might be attractive to Margaret, Maugham is forced to grant the wretched man his cherished magical powers.

Once Maugham has surrendered this ground, the fun can begin. Perhaps the key to understanding The Magician is that Crowley was never really very fat. Photographs of the man reveal that he was square and plump around the face, but hardly a figure of “vast obesity.” When reincarnated as Cronshaw, he is, incidentally, “stout but not fat.” By the end of The Magician, however, Haddo has been blown up in more ways than one. His “corpulence… was become now a positive disease. He was enormous.” In his subsequent blustering about the novel, Crowley maintained a dignified silence on the question of his weight. The teasing must have hurt.

Haddo’s obesity may be all a matter of perspective, since Maugham himself was self-conscious about being only five foot seven. The danger of making Haddo fat is that we may regard him as jolly, and so Maugham dwells upon his eerie repulsiveness. In a detail worthy of M.R. James, Haddo is described repeatedly as having a “clean-shaven face [of]… disconcerting nudity.”

It is faintly glorious to behold a great man of letters behaving almost exactly like a bullying schoolboy. In a supreme instance of schoolboy malice, we even get the literary equivalent of a “Yo Mama’s So Fat” joke. Margaret visits Haddo’s mother in a lunatic asylum and finds “a woman of… revolting, excessive corpulence,” wallowing in brown flannel. Crowley’s own mother was a devout evangelist and he had fallen foul of her at an early age. Singling out Crowley’s estrangement from his mother for mockery seems, in some awesomely vicious way, to get to the bottom of his devilry.

In 1956, Maugham reread The Magician and judged this plodding novel to be “lush and turgid.” Yet his writing does seem to almost come to life once he is bullying Crowley. The picture of Haddo being punched in the face and “raising himself to his feet, slowly, with the difficulty of a very fat person” is deliciously funny; and it anticipates PG Wodehouse’s later treatment of Oswald Mosley in the Jeeves novels.

They were too squeamish in 1908 to allow Maugham’s schoolboy imagination to romp through certain pastures. Margaret equates Haddo’s “passion to degrade himself” with “the vile women of the docks,” but this may testify more to Margaret’s Victorian imagination than to anything else. Maugham must have known that Crowley was bisexual like himself, and the two men would both in the end marry conventionally. Whilst this did not lead to solidarity between them, it did not induce them to break ranks either.

If Crowley had joked that, “I had jumped too hastily to conclusions when I said, “Maugham has written a book,”” he was correct to the extent that one cannot found a solid novel upon character assassination. Once Maugham’s snobbery is sated, we are left with a Gothic fantasy which was probably agony for an author as prosaic as Maugham to sit down and write. The difficulty for the reader is that we do not have a dog in this fight. Maugham cannot produce a sympathetic or even interesting character who embodies an alternative to Haddo’s glamour.

The brilliant surgeon Arthur Burdon is an ambassador from our purely rational world who finds himself trapped in a novel where the supernatural is possible. He is doomed to irrationally insist upon the rational in the face of all incoming evidence. We may suspect that Haddo is squandering his diabolical genius upon a man who is too stupid to appreciate it. Susie Boyd has more going for her, but Maugham diagnoses her as “plain,” a condition as apparently debilitating as leprosy. Arthur is “not handsome” and he has a “large” nose, but he can compensate for this plainness with his masculine character.

The heroine Margaret is effectively a child and Arthur and Susie supervise her existence, the former paying her bills and the latter choosing her clothes. Margaret’s empty life and feeble character leave her hopelessly vulnerable to Haddo’s attack upon her psyche. It is hard to care about a character who evinces all the witless dismay of, as Arthur himself puts it, “a rat in a trap.”

Arthur could rescue Margaret from Haddo’s intrigue by deflowering her, but this option lies beyond the bars of their moral cage. As tragedy looms, one can no more imagine this distressed, cadaverous couple resorting to the sexual act than they can. If Dr Porhoet commends the “supreme efficacy of the virginal condition,” it seems plausible that the four friends have almost conspiratorially preserved their virginity. It is not only that Haddo outsmarts them, but that their staid watercolour world lacks the colour of his sorcery. On the other hand, Haddo is too fatuous and disagreeable to be ever freely accepted by human society. At the end of the story Haddo has “discovered the secret of life” and also of death. Maugham gloats over his graphic and senseless murder.

Crowley returned from the dead in the pages of Vanity Fair, ridiculing The Magician under the name “Oliver Haddo.” He would later summarise this review in his Confessions (1929):

Maugham had taken some of the most private and personal incidents of my life, my marriage… my magical opinions, ambitions and exploits and so on. He had added a number of the many absurd legends of which I was the central figure. He had patched all these together by innumerable strips of paper clipped from the books which I had told Gerald to buy. I had never supposed that plagiarism could have been so varied, extensive and shameless.

Like Maugham’s own taunts about Crowley’s weight, this was intended to hurt. Although Maugham would later quip that he remained “in the very first row of the second-raters,” he was haunted by his failure to infiltrate the highbrow. Something of his envy can be sensed during the scene at the Chein Noir, amidst the table of throwaway characters who seem at first glance to have been invented purely for Haddo to insult. Yet it is not Haddo who is insulting them but Maugham, and Maugham here joins forces with Haddo in order to pass judgment on various Parisian friends and rivals. He assures us that the painter O’Brien (Roderic O’Conor) is “a failure, and he knows it, and the bitterness has warped his soul.” Another artist has “absolutely no talent.” Everything in this scene is taken from life and yet the envious fixation with other artists’ reputations is completely original to Maugham.

Maugham’s biographer Ted Morgan would write that, “He was extremely judgemental and extremely thin-skinned… At the same time, the slightest criticism of his work could upset his writing schedule for a week.” Crowley’s jibes were designed to knock years off him. The warlock recalls that Maugham had in Paris “suffered terribly under the lash of universal contempt” and that “his incapacity was so obvious that I am afraid we were cruel enough to make him the butt of our wit.” Maugham is here seated in Haddo’s place as the outsider around the literary table. In Vanity Fair, Crowley advises Maugham to “find a few books dealing with our subject and copy them wholesale into our books; sometimes verbatim, sometimes altering words here and there – for in the case of well-known authors it is best to make a pretense of not having copied verbatim.” In his Confessions he assumes an air of friendly pity. He concedes that, “bar his pretensions to literature, there is not an ounce of harm in Maugham.” It is hard to think of a more damning way to describe a writer than as “harmless.”

Unfortunately, Crowley’s accusations of plagiarism could not be dismissed as sour grapes. Whereas The Magician appears to borrow heavily from F. Marion Crawford’s The Witch of Prague (1891) and Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897), Crowley had caught Maugham with his fingers in five further books. Passages from MacGregor Mather’s Kabbalah Unveiled (1897) and Mabel Collins’ The Blossom and the Fruit (1888) reappeared virtually unchanged in The Magician. If Maugham warns that Haddo is not a gentleman because he eats his pudding before the main course and slips waiters bad coins, Crowley counters that Maugham is even less respectable. He is a thief!

Both men survived, but in different circumstances the encounter could have proved fatal. Crowley was already unwelcome in polite society following his antics in the Himalayas in 1905, when he was accused of abandoning some friends to die in an avalanche. Ridicule was far more dangerous than notoriety to a Satanist such as Crowley, but in 1908 Maugham was no PG Wodehouse and his novel did not leave a lasting impression. As an up-and-coming writer, Maugham had far more to lose than Crowley from the altercation, but the sudden success of his plays on the London stage in 1908 allowed him to extricate himself from Crowley’s revenge.

In 1956, Maugham’s publishers reissued the novel and Maugham added an explanatory “Fragment of Autobiography.” He pretends not to have read Crowley’s Vanity Fair review and he insists that the novel is “by no means a portrait of him.” The latest Vintage edition of The Magician should rightfully contain Crowley’s review alongside Maugham’s “Fragment,” to give the two different sides of the story. But history is written by the victors and The Magician is today remembered more as a roman à clef about Crowley than as a tissue of plagiarisms. Crowley died in squalor in 1947 whilst Maugham lived on, sunning himself in the south of France.