The Magician - W. Somerset Maugham

The Magician, 1908 [1921]

The Magician (New York: George H. Doran, 1908[1921])

Besides being a very good read that this post will discuss in more details, I will also talk about the acquisition process of this edition, which is listed very often as 1908 first edition. If you are interested in book publication history, this novel by Maugham, The Magician, presents an interesting case.

Comments on W. Somerset Maugham's The Magician

I went through the book as fast as the first time. It is true, as Aleister Crowley (whom Maugham caricatures in an especially unsavoury way as Oliver Haddo, the obese magician that gives the title to the novel) writes in his rebuke, that magic and art are topics that everyone is fascinated by but not many know much about. I am not quite sure about art for everyone but magic certainly. There is something immensely enjoyable about the novel.

The accusation of plagiarism from Crowley is quite convincing with the passages that he cites [1], but you do not really care because of the seamless way that Maugham weaves all of them together into one formidable narrative.

Set in Paris; Arthur Burdon (a very similar character as Frank Hurrell in The Merry-Go-Round (1904)) arrives to visit his fiancée Margaret Dauncey, who has gone there to study art, chaperoned by Susie Boyd, a typical Maugham character, cold and detached observing people and life in general with a heart of gold. However, she is also slightly different, because she gets emotionally involved by her passion towards her friend's fiancé Arthur. They meet Oliver Haddo, a repulsive obese big mouth who can talk well nevertheless, and somehow he seems to follow them around.

The subject is magic and necromancy, with a minor character Dr. Porhoët, researcher also in necromancy, to counter the black arts of Haddo.

After a very well-described humiliating scene in which Arthur thrashes Haddo like a dog, the latter
(Haddo, not the dog) takes his revenge by mesmerizing Margaret to yearn for him uncontrollably and thus stealing Arthur's love of his life. Then the narrative plunges into the mysterious. The ending is particularly well done that does not disappoint; tension is upheld to the very end. There are enough Trilby and Dracula in the story to guarantee pleasure and entertainment.

Although the subject of magic is attractive enough, not many novelists are capable of keeping the narrative tension and setting a series of believable events with interesting characters. For that, one has to tip one's hat to Maugham.

This is a strangely un-Maugham novel, although there are also many familiar elements at the same time. Frank Hurrell and Miss Ley from The Merry-Go-Round are mentioned. One wonders if Maugham originally plans to use his characters to link up his novels and whether his shifting his attention to dramas interrupts that plan.

Description of the often claimed first edition of The Magician

The Magician
Title Page
Now, about the edition. I bought mine when I started my collection. In catalogues it is often put as first edition published in 1908, which is not quite true. I noticed that something was not quite right when I saw the other books listed as by the same author, including Of Human Bondage (1915), The Moon and Sixpence (1919), and The Trembling of a Leaf (1921).

The Magician
Copyright Page
The first edition was published by Heinemann in 1908, and the first American edition by Duffield & Company did not come out until the following year. The Doran edition only has the information of the copyright year held by Duffield & Co. 1908. According to Stott, George H. Doran acquired the book in 1921 and reprinted it again then [2]. Thus, all the books in the catalogue with Doran as publisher should be recorded as 1921 edition instead of first edition or registering the year 1908. Something similar happens with Of Human Bondage, which I have written about in another post.

The price I paid for this 1921 edition has almost quadrupled, and the real first edition is selling from over US$100 to over US$1,000, depending on the original binding and impressions.


[1] Curtis, Anthony, and John Whitehead, ed. W. Somerset Maugham. The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1987. 44-56.

[2] Stott, Raymond Toole. A Bibliography of the Works of W. Somerset Maugham. London: Kaye & Ward, 1973. 53.