The Magician describes the relationships between two women and a man, and how these relationships are affected by their meeting with the magician of the title.
Margaret and Susie share rooms in Paris. Arthur Burdon is Margaret’s fiance. Burdon is a renowned surgeon; his mentor is the retired doctor and occult scholar Dr. Porhoët. Porhoët introduces Oliver Haddo to his friends; Haddo is an occultist, a magician — loosely based on Aleister Crowley, “the wickedest man in the world”, whom Maugham had met in Paris — and over the next few days, Haddo makes claims about the powers he can conjure. He appears to demonstrate such powers, but Burdon is a man of reason, and rejects Haddo’s claims.
Burdon finds Haddo overbearing and obnoxious, and they brawl after Haddo kicks Margaret’s dog. Burdon comes out on top, but this is the trigger for Haddo to use his powers to manipulate Margaret into leaving Burdon and eventually marrying Haddo.
Burdon is a broken man. Susie also loves Burdon, and tries to help him. She hears stories about Margaret and her marriage to Haddo that distress her. Susie sees Margaret fading, and becomes worried. Burdon returns, determined to regain Margaret’s love but reconciliation is impossible. Margaret has literally been charmed by Haddo, she is enraptured by him, and there is thus no escape, even if she wanted it.
There are hints that Haddo uses Margaret in his rituals and other occult practices, that her energy is being given up to them. What will become of Margaret; can her friends Burdon and Susie arrest her dissolution? And what can they do about Haddo?
The novel moves from a story of relationships, manners and ideas through to a climactic, gothic ending, similar to a horror-story from M R James or Algernon Blackwood. It is one of Maugham’s earlier novels, but is nonetheless well-crafted, with finely wrought sentences. My one complaint is that the novel is, perhaps, a little slow in places. Still, The Magician is an enjoyable read.