A Little Less Magical

I’m not sure what possessed the editors of the Sueddeutsche Zeitung to add Somerset Maugham’s The Magician to their list of 50 great novels of the twentieth century. In the preface to the edition that I have, the author admits that when it was republished, he had not read the book in nearly fifty years. “I had completely forgotten it,” he writes.

The book captures the atmosphere of early-twentieth-century Paris, and specifically of upper-class Britons visiting the Continent for outr? pleasures not to be had at home. As such, it’s better as a historical document than a novel. The protagonist failed to arouse my sympathy, the villain sparked no anger or horror, and the development of the plot was plain to see from about twenty pages in.

I suspect that I passed the proper age for reading this novel at least a decade ago. I had a similar problem with John Fowles’ The Magus, another book dealing with appearances of magic in our mundane world. Fowles’ story had been praised to me as life-changing; I found it wavering between silly and dishonest. (Basically, after all of the setup, The Magus does not take its conjuring seriously either as mysticism in an essentially non-magical world or as an actual manifestation of the supernatural.) Brad DeLong and his commenters have some thoughts on books and their sell-by dates.

The Maugham strikes me as an apprentice work. Maybe it’s somehow much better in German translation.

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About Doug Merrill

Freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, following stints in Atlanta, Budapest, Munich, Warsaw and Washington. Worked for a German think tank, discovered it was incompatible with repaying US student loans. Spent two years in financial markets. Bicycled from Vilnius to Tallinn. Climbed highest mountains in two Alpine countries (the easy ones, though). American center-left, with strong yellow dog tendencies. Arrived in the Caucasus two weeks before its latest war.