Dreaming With His Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera by Patrick Marnham (1998)

My father was a storyteller and he invented new episodes of his past every day.
(Diego Rivera’s daughter, Guadalupe)

This is a hugely enjoyable romp through the life of Mexico’s most famous artist, the massive, myth-making Marxist muralist Diego Rivera. In his own autobiography My Art, My Life, Rivera made up all sorts of tall stories and whopping fibs about his ancestors, childhood and young manhood. He then collaborated with his first biographer, friend and fan Bertram David Wolfe, to produce an ‘official’ biography (published in 1963) in which he continued to perpetrate all sorts of fantastical stories.

Instead of boringly trying to tell fact from fiction, Marnham enters into the spirit of Rivera’s imagination and, maybe, of Mexico more generally. The opening chapter is a wonderful description of Marnham’s own visit to Rivera’s home town during the famous Day of the Dead festival, in which he really brings out the garish, fantastical and improbable nature of Mexican culture – a far far better introduction to Rivera’s world than a simple recital of the biographical facts.

Mexico appears throughout the book in three aspects:

  • via its turbulent and violent politics
  • in its exotic landscape, brilliant sky, sharp cacti and brilliantly-coloured parrots
  • and its troubled racial heritage

As to the whoppers – where Rivera insisted that by age 11 he had devised a war machine so impressive that the Mexican Army wanted to make him a general, or that he spent the years 1910 and 1911 fighting with Zapata’s rebels, or that he began to study medicine, and after anatomy lessons he and fellow students used to cook and eat the body parts – Marnham gently points out that, aged 11, Rivera appears to have been a precocious but altogether dutiful schoolboy, while in 1910/11 he spent the winter organising a successful exhibition of his work and the spring in a small town south of Mexico City worrying about his career and longing for his Russian girlfriend back in Paris.

First half – Apprenticeships 1886-1921

The most interesting aspect of the first half of his career is the long time it took Rivera to find his voice. Born in 1886 to a minor official in the provincial city of Guanajuato, young Diego’s proficiency at drawing was noticed at school. The family moved to Mexico City and his parents got him into the prestigious San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts, when he was just 11 years old. In 1906 i.e. aged 19, he won a scholarship to study abroad and took a ship to Spain, settling in Madrid, where he met the city’s bohemian artists and studied the classics, Velasquez and El Greco, who he particularly revered.

But the real intellectual and artistic action in Spain was taking place in Barcelona (where young Picasso had only recently been studying), the only Spanish city in touch with the fast-moving art trends in northern Europe.

So it was only when Rivera went to Paris in 1909 that he was first exposed to Cézanne and the Impressionists and even then, they didn’t at first have much impact. After a trip to London where he saw Turner, his painting becomes more misty and dreamy, but it was only in 1913 that he began to ‘catch up’, for the first time grasping the importance of the Cubism, which had already been around for a few years. For the next four years Diego painted in nothing but the Cubist idiom, becoming a well-known face in the artistic quarter of Montparnasse, a friend of Picasso, and a fully paid-up member of the avant-garde – all mistresses, models and drinking late into the night.

Marnham’s account of these years is interesting for a number of reasons. It sheds light on how a gifted provincial could happily plough a traditional academic furrow right up until 1910, blithely ignorant of what we now take to be all the important trends of Modern Art. And it is a compellingly gossipy account of the artistic world of the time.

I liked the fact that, in this world of bohemian artists, whenever a ‘friend’ visited, all the artists turned their works to the wall before opening the door. The artistic community – which included not only Picasso, but Gris, Mondrian, Chagall, Derain, Vlaminck, Duchamp – was intensely competitive and also intensely plagiaristic. Picasso, in particular, was notorious for copying everything he saw, and doing it better.

Food was so cheap in the little cafés which sprang up to cater to the bohemians that the Fauvists Derain and Vlaminck invented a game which was to eat everything on the cafe menu – in one sitting! Whoever gave up, to full to carry on, had to pay the bill. On one occasion Vlaminck ate his way through every dish on a café menu, twice!

Rivera’s transition from traditional academic style to cubism can be seen in the ‘Paintings’ section of the Wikipedia gallery of his art. First half is all homely realism and landscapes, then Boom! a dozen or so hard-core cubist works.

Rivera returned to Mexico in October 1910 and stayed for 6 months, though he did not, as he later claimed, help the Mexican revolutionary bandit leader Zapata hold up trains. He simply wanted to see his family and friends again.

But upon arrival, he discovered that he was relatively famous. His study in Madrid and Paris had all been paid for by a state scholarship awarded by the government of the corrupt old dictator, Porfirio Diaz and, to justify it, Diego had had to send back regular samples of his work. These confirmed his talent and the Ministry of Culture had organised an exhibition devoted to Rivera’s work which opened on 20 November 1910, soon after his return, to quite a lot of fanfare, with positive press coverage.

As it happens, this was exactly the same day that the Liberal politician Francisco Madero crossed the Rio Grande from America into northern Mexico and called for an uprising to overthrow the Diaz government, thus beginning the ‘Mexican Revolution’.

In his autobiography Rivera would later claim that he was a rebel against the government and came back to Mexico to help Emiliano Zapata’s uprising. The truth was pretty much the opposite. His ongoing stay in Madrid and then Paris was sponsored by Diaz’s reactionary government. He never met or went anywhere near Zapata, instead supervising his art exhibition in Mexico City and spending time with his family, before going to a quiet city south of the capital to paint. He was, in Marnham’s cutting phrase, ‘a pampered favourite’ of the regime (p.77)

In the spring of 1911 Rivera returned to Paris with its cubism, its artistic squabbles, and where he had established himself with his Russian mistress. Not being a European, Rivera was able to sit out the First World War (rather like his fellow Hispanic, Picasso) while almost all their European friends were dragged into the mincing machine, many of them getting killed.

Of minor interest to most Europeans, the so-called Mexican Revolution staggered on, a combination of complicated political machinations at the centre, with a seemingly endless series of raids, skirmishes, battles and massacres in scattered areas round the country.

Earlier in the book, Marnham gives a very good description of Mexico in the last days of Diaz’ rule, ‘a system of social injustice and tyranny’. He gives a particularly harrowing summary of the out-and-out slavery practiced in the southern states, and the scale of the rural poverty, as exposed by the journalist John Kenneth Turner in his 1913 book Barbarous Mexico (pp. 36-40).

Now, as the Revolution turned into a bloody civil war between rival factions, in 1915 and 1916, Rivera began to develop an interest in it, even as his sophisticated European friends dismissed it. Marnham himself gives a jokey summary of the apparently endless sequence of coups and putsches:

Diaz was exiled by Modera who was murdered by Huerta who was exiled by Carranza who murdered Zapata before being himself murdered by Obregón. (p.122)

Obregón himself being murdered a few years later…

Rivera’s Russian communist friend, Ilya Ehrenburg, dismissed the whole thing as ‘the childish anarchism of Mexican shepherds’ – but to the Mexicans it mattered immensely and resonates to this day.

Rivera spent a long time in Europe, 1907 to 1921, 14 years, during which he progressed from being a talented traditionalist and established himself at the heart of the modern movement with his distinctive and powerful brand of cubism. Some of the cubist works showcased in the Wikipedia gallery are really brilliant.

But all good things come to an end. Partly because of personal fallings-out, partly because it was ceasing to sell so well, Rivera dropped cubism abruptly in 1918, reverting to a smudgy realist style derived from Cézanne.

Then he met the intellectual art critic and historian Elie Faure who insisted that the era of the individual artist was over, and that a new era of public art was beginning. Faure’s arguments seemed to be backed up by history. Both the First World War and the Russian Revolution had brought the whole meaning and purpose of art into question and the latter, especially, had given a huge boost to the notion of Art for the People.

It was with these radical new thoughts in mind that Diego finally got round to completing the Grand Tour of Europe which his grant from the Mexican government had been intended to fund. off he went to Italy, slowly crawling from one hilltop town to the next, painstakingly copying and studying the frescos of the Quattrocento masters. Here was art for the people, public art in chapels and churches, art which any peasant could relate to, clear, forceful depictions of the lives of Jesus and the apostles and the saints. Messages on walls.

Second half – Murals 1921-33

The Mexican Revolution was declared over in 1920, with the flight and murder of President Carranza and the inauguration of his successor President Obregón. A new Minister of Culture, José Vasconcelos, was convinced that Mexico needed to be rebuilt and modernised, starting with new schools, colleges and universities. These buildings needed to be decorated with inspiring and uplifting murals. As Mexico’s most famous living artist, Diego had been contacted by Vasconcelos in 1919, and his talk of murals came at just the same time that Elie Faure was talking to Diego about public art and just as Diego concluded his painstaking studies of Renaissance frescos in Italy.

In 1921 Rivera returned to Mexico and was straightaway given two of the most important mural commissions he was ever to receive, at the National Preparatory School (la Escuela Prepatorio), and then a huge series at the new Ministry of Education.

At the same time Diego evinced a new-found political consciousness. He not only joined the Mexican Communist Party but set up a Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors. From now on there are three main strands in his life:

  1. the murals
  2. the Communist Party
  3. his many women

Diego’s women

Rivera was a Mexican man. The patriarchal spirit of machismo was as natural as the air he breathed. Frank McLynn, in his book about the Mexican Revolution, gives lengthy descriptions of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata’s complex love lives (basically, they both kept extraordinary strings of women, lovers, mistresses and multiple wives). Diego was a man in the same mould, albeit without the horses and guns. More or less every model that came near him seems to have been propositioned, with the result that he left a trail of mistresses, ‘wives’ and children in his turbulent wake.

EUROPE
1911 ‘married’ to Angelina Beloff, mother of a son, also named Diego (1916–1918)
1918 affair with Maria Vorobieff-Stebelska, aka ‘Marevna’, mother of a daughter named Marika in 1919, whom he never saw or supported

MEXICO
1922-26 Diego married Guadalupe Marin, who was to be the mother of his two daughters, Ruth and Guadalupe; she modelled for some of the nudes in his early murals
– affair with a Cuban woman
– possible affair with Guadalupe’s sister
– affair with Tina Modotti, who modelled for five nudes in the Chapingo murals including ‘Earth enslaved’, ‘Germination’, ‘Virgin earth’ 1926-7
1928 – seduced ‘a stream of young women’
1929 marries Frida Kahlo, who goes on to have a string of miscarriages and abortions
– three-year affair with Frida’s sister, Cristina, 1934-7
1940 divorces Frida – starts affair with Charlie Chaplin’s wife, Paulette Goddard
– affair with painter Irene Bohus
December 1940 remarries Frida in San Francisco
1954 marries Emma Hurtado
– affair with Dolores Olmedo

Diego’s murals

Making frescos is a tricky business, as Marnham explains in some detail – and Rivera’s early work was marred by technical and compositional shortcomings. But he had always worked hard and dedicatedly and now he set out to practice, study and learn.

Vasconcelos was convinced that post-revolutionary Mexico required ‘modernisation’, which meant big new infrastructure projects – railways with big stations, factories, schools, universities – and that all these needed to be filled with inspiring, uplifting, patriotic ‘art for the people’.

The National Preparatory School, and then a huge series at the new Ministry of Education, took several years to complete from 1922 to 1926 and beyond. He was convinced – as Marnham reductively puts it – that he could change the world by painting walls.

There was a hiatus while he went to Moscow 1927-8.

There is an unavoidable paradox, much commented on at the time and ever since, that some of Diego’s greatest socialist murals were painted in America, land of the capitalists.

In 1929 he received a commission to decorate the walls of a hacienda at Cuernevaca (in Mexico) from the U.S. Ambassador, Dwight Morrow. Following this, Diego went to San Francisco to paint murals at the San Francisco Stock Exchange (!) and the San Francisco School of Arts.

His argument in his own defence was always that he was bringing the Communist message to the capitalist masses – but there’s no doubt that these commissions also meant money money money. Fame and money.

In 1931 Diego helped organise a one-man retrospective at New York’s new Museum of Modern Art (founded in 1929) which was a great popular success. Marnham is amusingly sarcastic about this event, listing the names of the umpteen super-rich, American multi-millionaires who flocked to the show and wanted to be photographed with the ‘notorious Mexican Communist’. ‘Twas ever thus. Radical chic. Champagne socialism.

As a result of all this publicity, Diego was then invited by Edsel Ford, son of the famous Henry, to do some murals at the company’s massive car factory in Michigan. Diego put in a vast amount of time studying the plant and all its processes with the result that the two massive murals painted on opposite sides of a big, skylit hall are arguably among the greatest murals ever painted, anywhere. Stunningly dynamic and exciting and beautifully composed.

North wall of Diego Rivera's Detroit Murals (1933)

North wall of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Murals (1933)

Everything was going swimmingly until the next commission – to do a mural in the foyer of the enormous new Rockefeller Building in New York – went badly wrong.

Diego changed the design several times, to the annoyance of the strict and demanding architects, but when he painted the face of Lenin, not in the original sketches, into the mural the architects reacted promptly and ejected him from the building.

A great furore was stirred up by the press with pro and anti Rivera factions interviewed at length, but it marked the abrupt end of commissions (and money) in America. What was to have been his next commission, to paint murals for General Motors at the Chicago World Fair, was cancelled.

Diego was forced, very reluctantly, to go back to Mexico in 1934, back to ‘the landscape of nightmares’ as he called it. Marnham makes clear that he loved America, its size, inventiveness, openness, freedom and wealth – and was angry at having to go back to the land of peasants and murderous politicians.

Diego was ill for much of 1934, and started an affair with Frida Kahlo’s sister. Towards the end of the year he felt well enough to do a mural for the Palacio de Bellas Artes. In 1935 he resumed work on new rooms of the National Palace, a project he had abandoned when he set off for America. He made the decision to depict current Mexican politicians and portray the current mood of corruption. That was a bad idea. They caused so much offence to the powers that be that, once the murals were finished, the Mexican government didn’t give him another commission for six years and he was replaced as official government muralist by José Clemente Orosco.

He did a set of four panels for the Hotel Reforma in Mexico City, but the owner was offended by their blatant anti-Americanism (given that most of his guests were rich Americans) so he took them down and they were never again displayed in Diego’s lifetime.

Thus he found himself being more or less forced out of mural painting – and forced back into painting the kind of oil canvases which, paradoxically, were always far more profitable than his murals. They were relatively quick and easy to do (compared to the back-breaking effort of the murals) and so for the next five years Diego concentrated on politics.

Diego’s politics

Diego’s politics seem to be strangely intangible and were certainly changeable. He lived in a fantasy world, was a great storyteller, and Lenin and Marx seem to have entered his huge imaginarium as yet another set of characters alongside Montezuma, Cortes and Zapata.

Having joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1922 but left it in 1925. He went on an ill-fated trip to Moscow in 1927-8, arriving just as Stalin was beginning to exert his power and the campaign against Trotsky was getting into full swing. During his visit he made some tactless criticisms of the Party and so was asked by the Soviet authorities to leave.

Enter Trotsky

A decade later, stymied in his artistic career, Diego joined the International Communist League, a separate organisation from the Communist Party, which was affiliated to Trotsky’s Fourth International. He wanted to be a Communist, but not a Stalinist.

Trotsky had been exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929. For the next 8 years he wandered as an exile, with spells in Turkey, France and Norway. As this last refuge became increasingly difficult, Diego gave his support to a suggestion by Mexican intellectuals that Trotsky be given refuge in Mexico. They persuaded the reluctant Mexican government to give him safe haven at Diego’s home in Mexico City.

Trotsky lived with Diego and Frida for two years, Diego providing him with every help and resource, taking him on long tours of the country (at one point in the company of the godfather of Surrealism, André Breton, who also stayed at the Casa Azula).

Diego wasn’t a political thinker. In Russia in 1927 he had begun to realise the dictatorial turn which Soviet communism was taking, and the point was rammed home for even the most simple-minded by the simultaneous collapse of the Communist Left in the Spanish Civil War (where Stalin’s commissars, secret police and assassins spent more time torturing and killing the other left-wing forces than combating the common enemy, Franco) and then by the outrageous Moscow Show Trials of 1936-38.

Marnham’s account of all this is very interesting; he writes in a wonderfully clear, sensible, entertaining style, with a persistent dry humour.

Anyway, the idyll with Trotsky came to a grinding halt when Diego discovered that Frida had been having an affair with him. She was 30, Trotsky was 58. (One of the revelations of this book is the number of affairs Frida Kahlo had, with both men and women. She had affairs with at least 11 men between summer 1935 and autumn 1940.)

In fact Diego had put himself in some danger by hosting Trotsky. We now know that Stalin commissioned no fewer than three NKVD hit squads to track Trotsky down and kill him. After Diego kicked Trotsky out of the Blue House (the home he shared with Kahlo), the ailing Communist, along with wife and bodyguards, were fixed up in a house only a few hundred yards away.

It was here that Trotsky was subject to a horrifying attack by an armed gang led by – bizarrely – one of Mexico’s other leading mural painters – David Alfaro Siqueiros – who burst into the villa and fired 173 shots into the bedroom. Amazingly, the gunmen managed to miss Trotsky who took shelter under the bed with his wife. Siqueiros went on the run.

Having read 400 pages of Frank McLynn’s biography of the endlessly violent Mexican Revolution, I was not at all surprised: McLynn shows that this was the routine method for handling political disagreements in Mexico.

A second assassination attempt was made in August, when Ramón Mercader, also hired by the NKVD, inveigled his way past Trotsky’s security men and, as the great man leaned down to read a letter Mercader had handed him, attacked Trotsky with a small ice-pick he had smuggled into the house. Amazingly, this failed to kill Trotsky who fought back, and his guards burst in to find the two men rolling round on the floor. The guards nearly killed Mercader but Trotsky told them to spare him. Then the great man was taken off to hospital where he died a day later.

After Trotsky

Deeply wounded by Frida’s affair with the old Bolshevik, Trotsky’s murder led Diego a) to forgive her b) to flee to America, specifically  toSan Francisco where he’d received a commission to do a big mural on the theme of Pan America.

Also, a new president had taken office in Mexico with the result that the unofficial ban on Rivera was lifted. He returned to his home country and, in 1940, began a series of murals at the National Palace. There were eleven panels in all, running around the first floor gallery of the central courtyard. They took Rivera, off and on, nine years to complete and weren’t finished till 1951. They bring to the fore his lifelong engagement with a central issue of Mexican identity? Are Mexicans Aztec Indians? Or Spanish? Or half-breeds? Who are the Mexicans? What is the nation and its true heritage?

Diego and Frida

Surprisingly, Marnham deals with the last 15 or so years of Diego’s life (he died in 1957) very scantily. Rivera painted numerous more murals but Marnham barely mentions them.  Instead Marnham devotes his final pages to developing a theory about the psycho-sexual relationship between Frida and Diego, trying to tease sense out of their complicated mutual mythomania.

He starts from the fact that Frida’s illness limited her mobility and made her a world-class invalid. This she dramatised in a wide range of paintings depicting her various miscarriages, abortions, corsets, operations, prosthetic legs and other physical ailments.

But overlaid on almost all of Frida’s paintings was her unhappiness about Diego’s infidelity, especially with her own sister… In reality she seems to have had scads of affairs with lots of men and quite a few women but this doesn’t come over from her art, which presents her as a a pure victim.

And yet she was a powerful victim. Biographical accounts and some of the paintings strongly suggest that, although he boasted and bragged of his own countless affairs and ‘conquests’, in the privacy of their relationship, Diego could become the reverse of the macho Mexican male – he became Frida’s ‘baby’, the baby she was never able to have. Apparently, Frida often gave Diego baths, and maybe powdered and diapered him. Many women dismiss men as big babies: it can be a consolation for their (women’s) powerlessness. But it can also be true. Men can be big babies.

Then again Marnham quotes a startling occasion when Diego said he loved women so much that sometimes he thought he was a lesbian. And Frida apparently poked fun at his massive, woman-sized breasts.

Marnham shows how their early childhoods had much in common: both had close siblings who died young and haunted their imaginations; both fantasised about belonging to peasant Indian parents, not to their boring white European ones. And so both egged each other on to mythologise their very mixed feelings for their vexing country.

I was particularly struck to discover that, during their various separations, Frida completely abandoned her ornate ‘look’, the carefully constructed colourful dresses, and earrings and head-dresses which she largely copied from the native women of the Tehuana peninsula. According to Marnham, when the couple divorced in 1940, Frida promptly cut her hair, wore Western clothes and flew to New York to stay with friends, looking like a crop-haired, European lesbian.

The conclusion seems to be that her self-fashioning into a kind of mythological creature incorporating native dress and symbolism – and his murals, which obsess about the native inheritance of Mexico – were both ingredients in a psychological-sexual-artistic nexus/vortex/chamber of wonders which they jointly created.

Their mutual infidelities upset the other, but they also found that they just couldn’t live apart. Sex between them may have stopped but the intensity of the psychological and artistic world they had created together couldn’t be even faintly recreated with other partners.

It was obviously very complicated but in its complexity prompted the core of the artworks, in particular the endless reworking of her own image which have made Frida more and more famous, probably better known these days than her obese husband.

Looking for one narrative through all this – especially a white, western, feminist narrative – strikes me as striving for a spurious clarity, where the whole point was the hazy, messy, creativity of very non-academic, non-Western, non-judgmental, very Mexican myth-making.

Same with the politics. In her last years Frida became a zealous Stalinist. This despite the Moscow Show Trials, Stalin’s alliance with Hitler and everything Trotsky had told them from his unparalleled first-hand experience of the corrupt dictatorship Stalin was creating. None of that mattered.

Because Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin were part of her personal and artistic mythology. Just as Diego – more objective, more interested in the external world than Frida – experimented endlessly with the theme of the Spanish conquest, fascinated by his Aztec forbears, and endlessly tormented by the meaning of being Mexican. Is being Mexican to value the European heritage, or despise it? Should you side with the defeated Indians, or leap forwards to a future of factories and communist state ownership? Even when – as Diego knew only too well – most of the Indian peasants he claimed to be speaking for, and ‘liberating’ in his murals, in fact clung to village traditions and above all to their Roman Catholic faith, were, in other words, among the most reactionary elements in Mexican society.

Neither of them wrote clear, logical works of politics and philosophy. They both created fantasias into which their devotees and critics can read what they will. That, in my opinion, is how art works. It opens up spaces and possibilities for the imagination.

Two deaths

On 13 July 1954 Frida died, probably from an overdose of painkillers. A few months later, one of Diego’s repeated attempts to rejoin the Mexican Communist Party was successful.

He embarked on his last set of murals. In 1954 he married his art dealer, Emma Hurtado. Everyone says that after Frida’s death, he aged suddenly and dramatically. Before the year was out he was having an affair with Dolores Olmedo who had been friends with Frida, was her executrix, and was also the principal collector of Diego’s easel paintings.

So, as Marnham summarises the situation in his customarily intelligent, amused and dry style – Diego was married his deceased wife’s art dealer while simultaneously having an affair with her principal customer.

In September 1957 Diego had a stroke and in December of the same year died of heart failure. He left an autobiography, My Life, My Art, full of scandalous lies and tall tales, and a world of wonder in his intoxicating, myth-making, strange and inspiring murals.

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park by Diego Rivera (1947)

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park by Diego Rivera (1947)


Related links

Related reviews – Diego and Frida

Related reviews – Mexico

The Magician by William Somerset Maugham (1908)

‘It was the face of a fiend of wickedness.’ (Susie describing Oliver Haddo)

This is, surprisingly from Maugham, a horror story.

The set-up

The book begins as a fairly run-of-the-mill love story. Young English surgeon Arthur Burdon knew Margaret Dauncey’s parents. When they died he was named the girl’s executor and guardian, a duty he faithfully performed. When Margaret turned 17 she expressed a wish to go to Paris to study art, which Arthur supported and enabled. It was during her studies in Paris that Margaret discovered her father had died penniless and that Arthur had paid for her entire education and living expenses out of his own pocket.

During the tearful conversation where Margaret asks if this is true and Arthur admits it, they both also admit that they’re deeply in love with each other.

‘Don’t you know that I’d do anything in the world for you?’ she cried.

And the upshot of these tearful confessions is that agree on the spot that they would like to get married. Nonetheless, Arthur insists that she goes off to Paris to study, see life and so on, before they get wed. He is a thoroughly decent chap.

In Paris Margaret stays in the studio of Susie Boyd (at 30, a lot older and more experienced than Margaret), located in Montparnasse, and becomes a regular at the local bar, Le Chien Noir, much frequented by poets, writers and artists.

It is at this point that the story proper begins, with Arthur arriving in Paris to meet Margaret and finalise plans for their wedding (all the preceding is told as exposition).

Commenting on the action is a much older man, Dr Porhoët, who was friends with Arthur’s parents and has known him ever since he was born. Dr Porhoët is a wise and bookish old man. He spent most of life working as a doctor in Egypt and is now retired, thus conveniently available to the characters for tea, conversation and advice as required.

Porhoët candidly tells Arthur he is surprised that he and Margaret are in love because Arthur is such an extremely unimaginative, prosaic, practical man who, by dint of working hard, has made himself into a leading surgeon – whereas Margaret is young and fanciful, not only beautiful but highly imaginative.

The magician

So far, so standard. The novel looks like settling down to become another of Maugham’s stories about the trials and tribulations of another mismatched couple. Except that into this fairly run-of-the-mill setup Maugham throws a bomb, in the shape of the tall, monstrously obese, absurdly flamboyant and utterly sinister, self-proclaimed magician and master of the dark arts, Oliver Haddo.

In the introduction to The Magician which Maugham wrote years later, he freely admits to basing the character of Haddo on the notorious black magician, writer, poet and self-publicist Aleister Crowley, who he met in Paris in the early-1900s, when Maugham was living with the painter Gerald Kelly.

In fact not only Haddo-Crowley but many of the other characters and settings are borrowed directly from life. Margaret’s studio is modelled on Kelly’s. Maugham and Kelly were regulars at a bar in Montparnasse called Le Chat Blanc, where local poets and artists congregated almost every evening. In the book this café becomes Le Chien Noir and many of its real-life habitués are coped into Maugham’s book with only slightly altered names. Maugham was notoriously sloppy about this, writing many of his stories almost directly from life and sometimes not even bothering to change people’s names – a habit which got him into trouble, particularly in the classic short stories from south-east Asia a generation later.

The main characters

I enjoy the old-fashioned way Maugham gives detailed, physical and psychological descriptions of his characters – unlike the modern style for fleeting, brief flashes, or having character revealed by dialogue. In Maugham every character is sat down, given a cup of tea, and thoroughly introduced to the reader.

I like the way they appear stiflingly conventional but often have unexpected aspects. We’re so culturally conditioned by Hollywood and advertising stereotypes to expect protagonists of dramas to beyoung, physically fit and good-looking protagonists that it’s a pleasure to go back before the domination of American advertising to be presented with characters who are far more diverse in age and quality. Who, en masse, bespeak an entirely different set of values. Here’s the hero, Arthur:

He was very tall and very thin. His frame had a Yorkshireman’s solidity, and his bones were massive. He missed being ungainly only through the serenity of his self-reliance. He had high cheek-bones and a long, lean face. His nose and mouth were large, and his skin was sallow. But there were two characteristics which fascinated her, an imposing strength of purpose and a singular capacity for suffering.

Margaret is the most stereotypical of the characters, being young and beautiful. But I still enjoyed the way the longest description of her occurs while she and Arthur are looking at a statue of a perfect young woman in the Louvre:

In Arthur’s eyes Margaret had all the exquisite grace of the statue, and the same unconscious composure; and in her also breathed the spring odours of ineffable purity. Her features were chiselled with the clear and divine perfection of this Greek girl’s; her ears were as delicate and as finely wrought. The colour of her skin was so tender that it reminded you vaguely of all beautiful soft things, the radiance of sunset and the darkness of the night, the heart of roses and the depth of running water. The goddess’s hand was raised to her right shoulder, and Margaret’s hand was as small, as dainty, and as white.

Whereas here is Maugham’s meticulous description of the older Susie:

She was one of those plain women whose plainness does not matter. A gallant Frenchman had to her face called her a belle laide, and, far from denying the justness of his observation, she had been almost flattered. Her mouth was large, and she had little round bright eyes. Her skin was colourless and much disfigured by freckles. Her nose was long and thin. But her face was so kindly, her vivacity so attractive, that no one after ten minutes thought of her ugliness. You noticed then that her hair, though sprinkled with white, was pretty, and that her figure was exceedingly neat. She had good hands, very white and admirably formed, which she waved continually in the fervour of her gesticulation. Now that her means were adequate she took great pains with her dress, and her clothes, though they cost much more than she could afford, were always beautiful. Her taste was so great, her tact so sure, that she was able to make the most of herself. She was determined that if people called her ugly they should be forced in the same breath to confess that she was perfectly gowned.

And, a passage to make feminists explode with outrage pithily sums up the (cramped patriarchal) expectations of the era:

Susie could not prevent the pang that wrung her heart; for she too was capable of love. There was in her a wealth of passionate affection that none had sought to find. None had ever whispered in her ears the charming nonsense that she read in books. She recognised that she had no beauty to help her, but once she had at least the charm of vivacious youth. That was gone now, and the freedom to go into the world had come too late; yet her instinct told her that she was made to be a decent man’s wife and the mother of children.

It is fascinating, chilling, informative, amazing, that at age 30, Susie considers herself an old maid, a spinster, over the hill and on the shelf. It is a vivid insight into social history.

Anyway, Susie plays the well-worn role of friend and confidante to the heroine and secret admirer of the hero. It’s a similar role to that played by Miss Ley in Maugham’s second novel Mrs Craddock, and in just the same way that Miss Ley comments sardonically and insightfully into the story of Bertha and Jim in that marriage, so Susie, at least initially, finds everything in the earnest love affair of Arthur and Margaret funny and mockable.

(In a tiny grace not, a ‘Miss Ley’ is mentioned in the letter written to Arthur from a friend who knew Haddo at Oxford: the letter describes the dark rumours which described the man even as a student, but it is this casual reference to a ‘Miss Ley’ which makes the Maugham fan’s ears prick up and wonder whether, at one stage, he was going to create an overlapping universe of characters appearing across all his novels. Intriguing thought. Instead of a Marvel Comic Universe, a Maugham Character Universe. To some extent he did do this, with the character of ‘William Ashenden’ narrating both the novel Cakes and Ale and figuring as the protagonist of the spy short stories, Ashenden. Similarly, several of the novels are set in north Kent (where Maugham himself grew up), town of Whitstable appearing in several novels renamed ‘Blackstable.’)

Anyway, alongside these good character, there is the villain, Haddo, whose main characteristic is his gross fatness:

He was a man of great size, two or three inches more than six feet high; but the most noticeable thing about him was a vast obesity. His paunch was of imposing dimensions. His face was large and fleshy. He had thrown himself into the arrogant attitude of Velasquez’s portrait of Del Borro in the Museum of Berlin; and his countenance bore of set purpose the same contemptuous smile.

And:

He was clearly not old, though his corpulence added to his apparent age. His features were good, his ears small, and his nose delicately shaped. He had big teeth, but they were white and even. His mouth was large, with heavy moist lips. He had the neck of a bullock. His dark, curling hair had retreated from the forehead and temples in such a way as to give his clean-shaven face a disconcerting nudity. The baldness of his crown was vaguely like a tonsure. He had the look of a very wicked, sensual priest.

Big, fat and evil, Haddo is designed to send shivers of horror through the reader and, as the book proceeds, does so very effectively.

Having created and described these characters in great detail, what does Maugham do with them?

The plot

Through a series of carefully orchestrated events, Haddo becomes an increasing and insidious presence in the lives of the young couple. It is on Arthur’s very first night in Paris that Margaret and Susie take him to Le Chien Noir where he is introduced to the gallery of bohemians, and into which Haddo erupts, fat and grandiloquent and ridiculous and spooky.

At first, as Haddo tells a series of preposterous stories about what a wonderful big game hunter and mountain climber he is to the audience of poets and painters at Le Chien Noir, he is met with mockery and scorn.

But it isn’t long before the theme of magic is raised and Haddo prompted to tell at length the lives of the famous magicians and alchemists of old – Paracelsus, Raymon Lull et al. (Contemporary critics of the novel drew attention to these factual passages, pointing out that they felt like they had been cut and pasted out of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Maugham candidly admits in his introduction to spending weeks in the British Museum researching the background. I like medieval history and the voodoo feel of the medieval and early Renaissance intellectual world, its domination by powers and thrones and hugely complex theological models, so I enjoyed the atmosphere of flickering candles in darkened cellars, and mystic shapes drawn on the floor and ritual incantations.)

Haddo intersperses stories about the alchemists with tales of his own encounters with strange men and women who possess second sight, the ability to control animals and to conjure spirits. Helping to reinforce all this, Dr Porhoët chips in, mostly sceptical but admitting that, during his time in Egypt, he also witnessed strange and unaccountable events.

‘I have seen many things in the East which are inexplicable by the known processes of science.’

The same night, after eating at the bar, Haddo ends up tagging along with Susie, Arthur and Margaret to a fair ‘held at the Lion de Belfort’ in Montparnasse. There then follow a sequence of spooky events. Haddo lays his hands on the mane of the horse which pulls the cab they go to the fair in, and the horse starts whinnying and shivering in fear. As soon as he removes his hand, the horse stops. At the fair they visit a scruffy booth presided over by an oriental woman who has a weird control over the snakes she tends.

The role of Dr Porhoët

Throughout these scenes the core trio of Arthur, Margaret and Susie are generally accompanied by Dr Porhoët. It becomes clear that his function in the book is to provide a plausible support for Haddo’s supernatural stories. If Haddo had been the only one talking about the Zohar and the Clavicula Salomonis and the Pseudomonarchia Daemonorum of Wierus and the Grimoire of Honorius and the Hexameron of Torquemada and the Tableau de l’Inconstance des Démons, by Delancre and Delrio’s Disquisitiones Magicae he would have been isolated and much less believable. But Maugham has given Dr Porhoët a career in Egypt so that he can have him witness umpteen weird oriental scenes, have Porhoët backing up and reinforcing many of Haddo’s claims.

A few days later, when the trio visit Dr Porhoët’s apartment, they discover it to be lined from floor to ceiling with leather-bound ancient volumes by all the great masters of the dark arts. While Porhoët isn’t himself a magician and is drily ironic about most of the ‘learning’ contained in his books, he does have one or two stories of weird and inexplicable events he saw occur during his time in Egypt…

So Dr Porhoët is like a straight man to Haddo’s dark magician, not quite believing in magic but helping to establish the fact that there is a vast body of writings on the subject, and that, maybe, you know, there’s something to it… Thus he and Haddo are shown having learned conversations about the old magicians, alchemists and their texts. This dramatic to and fro, spiced with Porhoët’s scepticism, is much more persuasive than if Maugham had had Haddo just give long monologues covering the same material.

Dr Porhoët is Haddo’s enabler. He is the door which lets Haddo in. Dr Porhoët’s testimony makes Haddo’s belief in ancient magic much more believable. If a man of science who is basically a sceptic believes some of these stories, then maybe…

The crisis of the plot

Out of politeness, after the fair outing, Margaret invites Haddo a few days later to come to tea.

Part one of this tea party is another long disquisition between Haddo and Dr Porhoët, touching on the lives and works of Paracelsus, Hermes Trismegistus and Albertus Magnus. It builds up to the long and vivid story of how Paracelsus created and nurtured ten little homunculi or spirits in jars. Silly though it sounds, the telling, amid plenty of detail, and horror-stricken intensity, creates a real atmosphere.

The story ended, Dr Porhoët rises to leave the little party and disaster strikes. Margaret’s little pet dog, which had started whining and gone to hide in a corner when Haddo first arrived, now inexplicably springs at him and bites Haddo in the hand. Without thinking, Haddo brutally kicks the dog right across the room at which Margaret screams and Arthur – who has met all of Haddo’s stories with mockery and disbelief – punches him full in the face then, while he is on the ground, kicks him again and again.

For the usually sedate and restrained Maugham, this is a shocking scene. While they all turn their attention to the dog, Haddo staggers to his feet, where he makes a dignified apology for his behaviour, bows and leaves the apartment. But not before Susie has seen a look of implacable demonic hatred on his face!

Haddo’s campaign of seduction

Next day Margaret encounters Haddo in the street. The fat man promptly stumbles and collapses. Passersby say he is having a heart attack. Margaret is forced to take him into her apartment, despite her misgivings, to rest, give him a glass of water etc. She is full of dislike but her good manners prevail.

This is a bad mistake because Haddo proceeds to seduce Margaret, but not in a sexual sense, something far worse. He entrances her somehow. He is meek and apologetic, he begs forgiveness, she finds herself touched by the tears in his eyes, she finds herself noticing the beauty of his lips and face. He recites Walter Pater’s famous description of the Mona Lisa and then goes on to spin flowery prose poetry about other paintings, paintings characterised by dark atmosphere and unknown sins… the whole thing sounding very much like the purple prose used by Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray – paintings, art, strange moods, rare emotions, unknown pleasures and so on…

When he commands her to listen to him playing the piano she follows and sits meekly, aware that she can do no other. He has somehow hypnotised her into admiration and submission. He doesn’t take advantage of her body. Much more insidiously, she finds him entering her heart and affections.

Haddo performs magic. He scatters a pinch of blue powder onto a bowl of water and, behold! the water burns up and disappears. Haddo elaborates a fantasy in which he scatters enough blue powder over the world to burn up the oceans!

He then scatters dried leaves over the fire to produce a pungent smoke which he tells Margaret to inhale deeply. He takes her hand and suddenly they are transported to a barren cross-roads in a bleak landscape of burnt heather where Margaret sees a sort of witches’ sabbath.

Margaret’s gaze was riveted upon a great, ruined tree that stood in that waste place, alone, in ghastly desolation; and though a dead thing, it seemed to suffer a more than human pain. The lightning had torn it asunder, but the wind of centuries had sought in vain to drag up its roots. The tortured branches, bare of any twig, were like a Titan’s arms, convulsed with intolerable anguish. And in a moment she grew sick with fear, for a change came into the tree, and the tremulousness of life was in it; the rough bark was changed into brutish flesh and the twisted branches into human arms. It became a monstrous, goat-legged thing, more vast than the creatures of nightmare. She saw the horns and the long beard, the great hairy legs with their hoofs, and the man’s rapacious hands. The face was horrible with lust and cruelty, and yet it was divine. It was Pan, playing on his pipes, and the lecherous eyes caressed her with a hideous tenderness. But even while she looked, as the mist of early day, rising, discloses a fair country, the animal part of that ghoulish creature seemed to fall away, and she saw a lovely youth, titanic but sublime, leaning against a massive rock. He was more beautiful than the Adam of Michelangelo who wakes into life at the call of the Almighty; and, like him freshly created, he had the adorable languor of one who feels still in his limbs the soft rain on the loose brown earth. Naked and full of majesty he lay, the outcast son of the morning; and she dared not look upon his face, for she knew it was impossible to bear the undying pain that darkened it with ruthless shadows. Impelled by a great curiosity, she sought to come nearer, but the vast figure seemed strangely to dissolve into a cloud; and immediately she felt herself again surrounded by a hurrying throng. Then came all legendary monsters and foul beasts of a madman’s fancy; in the darkness she saw enormous toads, with paws pressed to their flanks, and huge limping scarabs, shelled creatures the like of which she had never seen, and noisome brutes with horny scales and round crabs’ eyes, uncouth primeval things, and winged serpents, and creeping animals begotten of the slime. She heard shrill cries and peals of laughter and the terrifying rattle of men at the point of death. Haggard women, dishevelled and lewd, carried wine; and when they spilt it there were stains like the stains of blood. And it seemed to Margaret that a fire burned in her veins, and her soul fled from her body; but a new soul came in its place, and suddenly she knew all that was obscene. She took part in some festival of hideous lust, and the wickedness of the world was patent to her eyes. She saw things so vile that she screamed in terror, and she heard Oliver laugh in derision by her side. It was a scene of indescribable horror, and she put her hands to her eyes so that she might not see.

It is preposterous like all horror stories but, if you give yourself permission, if you read sympathetically and let your imagination go, many passages of the book are genuinely visionary and creepy.

All this has taken place on this one visit to her flat prompted when she saw him stumble and collapse in the street. Now Haddo finally leaves, and Margaret comes back to herself. But over the following days she finds herself thinking of him more and more. Haddo had scribbled down his address before he departed and now Margaret finds herself drawn to go and see him, despite her better judgement.

Susie returns from the studio. Arthur arrives and takes Margaret in his arms – but she is changed utterly, and walks and talks as in a daze.

The wrong marriage

Long story short – Margaret makes excuses to Susie and lies to Arthur and starts to visit Haddo every afternoon. He shows her more of the Dark Side, explaining more foul mysteries and mysterious sins.

If this was a modern movie I might have expected them to have sex, the camera lingering on the sight of the enormous repulsive slug-like magician ravishing the slender beautiful Margaret in a variety of pornographic postures.

However, two things appear to have restrained Maugham from going down this route. One was the censorship of his day, which was smothering. A whole raft of publishers refused to publish Mrs Craddock simply because it merely depicts feelings of arousal and lust. Any hint of actual physical sex would have gotten it banned. (It was a real eye-opener to me to learn just how much Maugham, generally portrayed as a reactionary and second-rate writer, in fact played a progressive role in pushing at the limits of censorship. Nonetheless, there was a definite line he could not cross.)

But reason two is that it will become important to the plot that Margaret remain a virgin.

Thus, all the time that ‘sensible’ Margaret is making plans for her wedding to Arthur, naming the day, choosing the dress, the cake and so on – ‘possessed’ Margaret is secretly seeing Haddo and, to the reader’s horror and amazement, agreeing to marry him! She is overcome with horror and revulsion but unable to stop herself.

On the day that she and Arthur were due to catch the boat train from Paris back to London to get married, Margaret sends a note to Susie to say that she has married Haddo and left town.

Flabbergasted, Susie spends a day visiting Margaret’s dressmaker, Haddo’s apartment and the British Embassy, establishing the truth of the story – before she tells Arthur, who is, as you might expect, absolutely devastated.

Thus Haddo wreaks the revenge on Arthur that Susie had read on his face, on that fateful day when Haddo had kicked the dog, and Arthur knocked him to the ground. Revenge!

Haddo and Margaret’s peregrinations

Arthur returns to London where he throws himself into his work, taking two jobs, delivering lectures and editing a big book of surgery in order to try and blot out his intense emotional pain.

Susie takes up an invitation from a friend to go and stay in Italy for the winter. In the spring she passes on to the Riviera. In both places she discovers Haddo and Margaret have been staying, behaving scandalously. Haddo gambles intensely, getting Margaret to lay the bets at the tables. They have high society parties but these tend to be ruined by Haddo’s caddish behaviour – he cheats at cards, he tries to pass forged money – and he is blackballed and cold shouldered by Society.

In Monte Carlo, Susie witnesses Margaret gambling and then shudders with horror as she sees the once-innocent and pure Margaret smile acquaintance with a notorious courtesan. Into what depths of sin has Haddo dragged her!!

Susie returns to London, and meets with Arthur a few times. What Arthur doesn’t realise is that Susie is passionately in love with him. It gives an added intensity to the story that Susie loves Arthur with a pure disinterested love which she knows can never be returned because of Arthur’s total commitment to Margaret.

They go to the opera (music, Susie realises, is a drug Arthur uses to help transport him away from his pain at Margaret’s desertion) and bump into an acquaintance of Arthur’s who invites them to make up a dinner at the Savoy.

Here they are horrified to discover that two of the other dinner guests are Haddo and Margaret. Margaret behaves coldly and disdainfully to Arthur, while Haddo politely but cruelly mocks Arthur at every opportunity in the conversation. And Susie has to sit watching her beloved suffer, wincing at every one of Haddo’s cruel jibes.

They abduct Margaret

Convinced that Margaret is not happy but somehow hypnotised by the obese bully, Arthur goes to the Savoy the next day and, after a long pleading conversation in which Margaret reveals that she is unhappy, abducts her – marching her out of the room, into a hansom cab, directing it to Euston and fleeing to the country.

There then follows a chapter where Arthur tries, with Susie’s help, to detoxify Margaret. Maugham explains the type of late Victorian divorce which they will arrange for her. But when Arthur returns to London to resume his work and organise the divorce, Margaret becomes more and more restless, and one day Susie goes into her room to find she’s left. She has returned to Haddo.

Arthur goes to Haddo’s country house

Susie, by now convinced that Haddo’s hold over Margaret really is irrational and magical, travels back to Paris to see Dr Porhoët. This is an opportunity for Maugham to give us more learned tales of how ancient magicians exerted power and control over their victims (designed to reinforce the plausibility of the situation).

A few weeks later, Arthur turns up in Paris and tells Susie a long story about how he has visited Haddo’s country seat. (Apart from everything else, Haddo is posh; he went to Eton and Oxford and is heir to a big estate in Staffordshire, named Skene.)

Arthur stayed at the local inn and then walked through the bleak and blasted countryside to Skene, to discover that it is a spooky old Gothic house. It is protected by a fence surrounding the grounds. Arthur finds a loose plank, wriggles it loose and and – in an effectively chilling sequence – stumbles through a dark wood to a clearing with a bench.

After a while (in a spectacularly convenient coincidence) Margaret comes and sits at this very bench. When Arthur walks out in front of her, she initially thinks Arthur is a phantom and explains to Arthur that she knows Haddo is carrying out all kinds of black magic in the house.

She quite calmly tells Arthur that she thinks Haddo is going to kill her, using her in some black magic ritual. Terrified, Arthur pleads for her to come with him but she wriggles free and says No, Haddo will punish her if he knew she was speaking to Arthur, she must go she must go now — and runs off into the pitch blackness of the woods.

Arthur searches through the grounds for her but fail, gives up, then retraces his footsteps to the hole in the fence, walks back to the local inn, gets a cab ride the next day to the station, catches the train to London, catches to boat train to Paris and is now standing in front of Susie and Porhoët telling them this narrative.

As it happens, Susie and Dr Porhoët had just been having another one of those conversations about black magic and speculating on Haddo’s motives. Now Susie remembers one of the many black rumours about Haddo that she had heard in Monte Carlo.

‘They said there that he was attempting to make living creatures by a magical operation.’ She glanced at the doctor, but spoke to Arthur. ‘Just before you came in, our friend was talking of that book of Paracelsus in which he speaks of feeding the monsters he has made on human blood.’
Arthur gave a horrified cry. (Chapter 13)

Susie persuades the by-now distraught Arthur to accompany her for a few days to Chartres to calm his nerves. But one day he rushes into her room convinced that something has happened to Margaret. How? Why? He can’t explain it. Even staid, boring, unimaginative Arthur is now caught up in the atmosphere of magic and irrationality.

Back to England, back to Skene

They rush back to Paris, co-opt Dr Porhoët (what a hectic retirement he’s turning out to have!), catch the next boat train to London (‘Susie never forgot the horror of that journey to England’), catch a cab to Euston, catch the train to Staffordshire, catch a cab to the local inn at the village of Venning, and hear from the innkeeper’s nosy wife that, Yes, Mr Haddo’s beautiful wife passed away earlier that week. The funeral had taken place the previous day.

Arthur is even more distraught. He takes the others to confront the local doctor, slow-minded provincial Dr Richardson, who blandly claims that Margaret died of heart disease. Infuriated at the man’s obtuseness, Arthur lets fly a stream of insults and abuse before storming out. He tells Susie he has a plan. (For a moment I thought he might have been planning to dig up Margaret’s coffin – which would have made for a grim and compelling scene. But no…)

Instead, he plans to break into Haddo’s house. Arthur drags Susie and Dr Porhoët along with him to the gates of Skene House, pushes past the outraged gatekeeper, bangs on the front door, and loudly demands admission from the stroppy doorkeeper. While they’re bickering on the doorstep, Haddo himself appears, more physically repulsive than ever.

Dr Porhoët, who had not seen him for some time, was astounded at the change which had taken place in him. The corpulence which had been his before was become now a positive disease. He was enormous. His chin was a mass of heavy folds distended with fat, and his cheeks were puffed up so that his eyes were preternaturally small. He peered at you from between the swollen lids. All his features had sunk into that hideous obesity. His ears were horribly bloated, and the lobes were large and swelled. He had apparently a difficulty in breathing, for his large mouth, with its scarlet, shining lips, was constantly open. He had grown much balder and now there was only a crescent of long hair stretching across the back of his head from ear to ear. There was something terrible about that great shining scalp. His paunch was huge; he was a very tall man and held himself erect, so that it protruded like a vast barrel. His hands were infinitely repulsive; they were red and soft and moist. He was sweating freely, and beads of perspiration stood on his forehead and on his shaven lip. (Chapter 14)

Haddo simply brushes off their concerns and accusations. Margaret died of a heart attack, the local doctor says so. If Arthur attacks him, Haddo, now, in the doorway of his house in front of witnesses, he will be compelled to report it to the village constable.

Incensed with frustration Arthur turns on his heel and marches back down the drive with the other two lamely following in his wake.

And now there comes a genuinely unexpected plot development: Arthur – cool, phlegmatic, Anglo-Saxon, rational scientist Arthur – asks Dr Porhoët to raise Margaret’s ghost from the dead!

Without his books, and relying on memory, given just a day to buy the basic ingredients from the local store, Porhoët, against all expectations, but in accordance with the book’s by-now dream logic, manages to do this.

Out on the blasted heath which surrounds Skene House, miles from any other people, at night, Porhoët arranges bowls, burns incense and commences reciting magic spells.

Inexplicably, a sudden terror seized Susie. She felt that the hairs of her head stood up, and a cold sweat broke out on her body. Her limbs had grown on an instant inconceivably heavy so that she could not move. A panic such as she had never known came upon her, and, except that her legs would not carry her, she would have fled blindly. She began to tremble. She tried to speak, but her tongue clave to her throat.

Margaret doesn’t appear like the ghost of Hamlet’s father – in the same shape as in life, and clearly commanding revenge. Instead, much more piteously, they at first only hear her, hear the sound of a woman weeping uncontrollably.

And then, seeming to come out of nothingness, extraordinarily, they heard with a curious distinctness the sound of a woman weeping. Susie’s heart stood still. They heard the sound of a woman weeping, and they recognized the voice of Margaret. A groan of anguish burst from Arthur’s lips, and he was on the point of starting forward. But quickly Dr Porhoët put out his hand to prevent him. The sound was heartrending, the sobbing of a woman who had lost all hope, the sobbing of a woman terrified. If Susie had been able to stir, she would have put her hands to her ears to shut out the ghastly agony of it.

And in a moment, notwithstanding the heavy darkness of the starless night, Arthur saw her. She was seated on the stone bench as when last he had spoken with her. In her anguish she sought not to hide her face. She looked at the ground, and the tears fell down her cheeks. Her bosom heaved with the pain of her weeping.

Then Arthur knew that all his suspicions were justified.

Fiery climax

The die is cast. In the long final chapter two things happen: the fight and the storming of the old house.

Several days go by while Arthur goes for long walks in the countryside and Susie and Dr Porhoët worry about him. One afternoon the sultry air is growing heavy with a storm when Arthur returns to the inn. It is getting dark as Susie and Dr Porhoët beg Arthur to tell them what his plan is. He tells them. He is going to kill Haddo.

As he utters these words, the wind in the darkness outside rises to a howl and then the lamp in the room they’re in is suddenly extinguished. In the darkness they all realise that someone else is in the room with them. Reading this at night I found it genuinely scary. A huge black shape fills a corner and without a word Arthur flings himself on it, identifying arms and head and neck, rolling over, struggling, fighting for a grip.

Arthur seized the huge bullock throat and dug his fingers into it, and they sunk into the heavy rolls of fat; and he flung the whole weight of his body into them.

Arthur fights to the death in the pitch blackness, breaking the thing’s arm and then strangling it to death. He staggers to his feet. ‘I’ve killed him,’ he says hoarsely. Except that, when Susie lights a candle with the rasp of a match… the room is empty. There is nothing there!

When so much of the dialogue and behaviour is polite, restrained and civilised – these scenes of sudden bestial violence are all the more striking.

Arthur insists that they must go, go now, go immediately to Skene. And so he force marches Susie and Dr Porhoët  the three or so miles from the inn to the fence of the old Gothic pile. He breaks in through the broken fence. He bangs on the door but there is no answer. They know from the gossipy landlady of the inn that the servants are sent away at night so, confident that the house is empty save for Haddo, Arthur breaks into a ground floor window then comes to the front door to unlock it and let the other two in.

Room by room they then search the house, finding half of it abandoned and cold. They search two floors then are stymied about how to get up to the upper floor, the only rooms which they saw lit up from the outside. Arthur finds a secret passage concealed behind the wood panelling.

Up they go and discover – chambers of horrors! Three long rooms which are a) dazzlingly lit b) immensely hot, warmed by open furnaces. There is a lengthy description of all the alchemical equipment Haddo had gathered and was using, but the climax of the entire novel comes with the revelation of a series of glass bowls in which Haddo had been experimenting… to create humans, to create human life. This goes far beyond the tales of the homunculi created by Paracelsus and into a world of creating and moulding human beings which is reminiscent of H.G. Wells’s horrifying fantasy of a decade earlier, The Island of Dr Moreau.

All of Maugham’s habitual taste and decorum is thrown to the winds as he describes, at nauseating length, a series of half-human abortions and monstrous lumps which are kept in the glass basins, palpitating, or writhing or scuttling on deformed limbs.

As a modern reader, who has read about (and seen in umpteen movies) inventive descriptions of disgusting things – I still found the descriptions sickening. God knows what contemporary Edwardian readers must have made of them.

In another [bowl] the trunk was almost like that of a human child, except that it was patched strangely with red and grey. But the terror of it was that at the neck it branched hideously, and there were two distinct heads, monstrously large, but duly provided with all their features. The features were a caricature of humanity so shameful that one could hardly bear to look. And as the light fell on it, the eyes of each head opened slowly. They had no pigment in them, but were pink, like the eyes of white rabbits; and they stared for a moment with an odd, unseeing glance. Then they were shut again, and what was curiously terrifying was that the movements were not quite simultaneous; the eyelids of one head fell slowly just before those of the other.

And then, over in a corner, they see the vast body of Haddo, lying dead, strangled with protruding eyes and tongue. His arm is broken, as Arthur broke the fat body he fought with in the blackout at the hotel. Somehow, by some magic which we are now totally prepared to believe, Haddo transported his body, or a version of himself, to the hotel room, and Arthur, killing the phantasm there, also killed the host body back here.

‘Out, out,’ cries Arthur, ‘We must leave now,’ and hustles them out of the rooms and down the stairs. Aren’t you coming? cries Susie. ‘In a moment,’ he replies. Moments later he rejoins them at the front door. They run down the drive, then detour into the dark wood, find the hole in the fence and walk the long way back towards the inn.

Dawn comes as they approach the inn. Susie feels an enormous sense of life and colour returning to the landscape. And then she realises there is red in the west too. Arthur had set Skene alight. Now it is blazing out of control. The old Gothic ruin, along with the body of its black magician master and the horror of the creatures he made, will all be wiped from the face of the earth.

Arthur puts his arm around Susie to support her and she suddenly feels safe and protected. The warm sun rises over the rejuvenated landscape. All will be well.


The pleasures of the text

Entertainment

Although it’s a preposterous story told in often lurid and over-wrought prose, it is still, like most of Maugham, immensely entertaining and readable.

Escapism

There’s the obvious escape any story offers, namely of escaping your present-day concerns into a world where you are able to understand all the characters and what is going on – where the stories have neat beginnings, middles and ends – all so very unlike the experience of messy, complicated and often inexplicable life that most of us experience.

There’s also the pleasure of escape into another era, the Downton Abbey syndrome. There are different clothes (for women an amazing array of rich costumes, gowns, cloaks, dresses, and hats – lots of hats – and fine jewellery). There is the way the streets of London, Paris or the towns they visit are not clogged and poisoned by cars, lorries, buses, taxis and other sources of poisonous toxic fumes.

And, something I noticed in Maugham’s novel Mrs Craddock as well as here – all the characters take it for granted that they can just swan off abroad whenever they feel like it. We are told that Arthur is a busy surgeon at a leading hospital but he can not only pop over to Paris for weeks at a time, but go gallivanting off to Chartres, or spend the latter part of the novel running off to Staffordshire, at will. I wish I had that kind of job.

Even more I wish I led the life of Susie. On the one hand the modern feminist reader might be horrified at the way she – and presumably the society around her – consider her an old maid on the shelf at age 30, and might object to the rather harsh way in which Maugham repeatedly emphasises the plainness of her looks, verging on ugliness.

But on the upside – she doesn’t have to work! As far as I can tell she has no job because she enjoys a modest allowance. This means she spends all day strolling round Paris, visiting galleries, having little tea parties and, when Margaret goes off with Haddo, she simply accepts an invitation from a friend to go and stay in Rome for the winter, where she visits the opera, goes out for dinner, strolls round the galleries. When she gets bored of that, she moves on to the Riviera for spring. Some oppression!

Manners

Everyone is so polite. It is lovely to dip for a while into the decorum and manners of a long lost era. Sure, it acted as a terrible restraint on people’s feelings – for example, it is made very clear that Arthur suffers immensely because he feels he cannot speak openly to anyone about his anguish over Margaret – but the general level of exquisite politeness at almost every level of society is wonderfully remote from the everyday rudeness and curtness of our own times.

And you have to enter into this world of exquisite manners in order to understand, and enjoy, when they are being deliberately manipulated by the characters. For example, it is one of Haddo’s entertaining (shocking) traits that he combines wicked heartlessness with the most polished manners, twisting the emotional knife into Arthur with the politest words and most refined diction.

Take the scene where our trio barge their way up to the front door of Skene House to find the truth about Margaret’s death. When Haddo appears he behaves with provocative good manners, the soul of politesse.

‘I have come about Margaret’s death,’ said Arthur.
Haddo, as was his habit, did not immediately answer. He looked slowly from Arthur to Dr Porhoët, and from Dr Porhoët to Susie. His eyes rested on her hat, and she felt uncomfortably that he was inventing some gibe about it.
‘I should have thought this hardly the moment to intrude upon my sorrow,’ he said at last. ‘If you have condolences to offer, I venture to suggest that you might conveniently send them by means of the penny post.’

In the midst of all the horror, Maugham makes Haddo the source of wonderfully cynical jibes, clothed in his immensely lofty Eton-Oxford-aristocratic refinement. Here is Arthur shouting at Haddo, and Haddo fending him off with unimpeachable civility.

‘I saw Margaret three weeks ago, and she told me that she went in terror of her life.’
‘Poor Margaret! She had always the romantic temperament. I think it was that which first brought us together.’
‘You damned scoundrel!’ cried Arthur.
‘My dear fellow, pray moderate your language. This is surely not an occasion when you should give way to your lamentable taste for abuse. You outrage all Miss Boyd’s susceptibilities.’ He turned to her with an airy wave of his fat hand. ‘You must forgive me if I do not offer you the hospitality of Skene, but the loss I have so lately sustained does not permit me to indulge in the levity of entertaining.’

Well, if you’re going to be a black magician confronted by the fiancé of the woman you stole from him and subsequently murdered as part of your fiendish experiments – this is the style to do it in.

The movie

The Magician was made into a fabulously melodramatic black-and-white silent film in 1926, directed by Rex Ingram.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1902 Mrs Craddock
1908 The Magician
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner (novel)
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before The Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

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