Tuesday, April 23, 2019

John Fowles' The Magus (#1965Club)

"...in every way except that of mere publishing date, it is a first novel."
What a strange thing this novel is. I really wanted to dislike it more than I did. The blurb on the cover, from the New York Review of Books, says, "Brilliant and colossal...Impossible to stop reading." Brilliant and colossal? Hmm. I have my doubts. Impossible to stop reading? I did rather find that to be true.

I actually read the second edition, that of 1977, but Fowles in his introduction says it was not substantially changed in either theme or narrative from the 1965 version. He expresses doubts about its merits: "The Magus remained essentially where a tyro taught himself to write novels..." Still, it is the one Fowles novel that shows up on the Random House/Modern Library greatest novels of the 20th Century in English. Go figure.

Here's the story: Nicholas Urfe has recently graduated from Oxford and is knocking about a bit in England, needing a job, wishing to go abroad. He's orphaned and has literary ambitions. He takes a job as English master at a school on the (imaginary) Greek island Phraxos, leaving behind one girl, Alison, and finding there another girl, Lily. But most importantly he finds the Greek/English gazillionaire, Maurice Conchis, who invites him to stay weekends at his villa. And he goes, even after he'd been explicitly warned not to.

Maurice Conchis is the titular magus.

Mysterious things start happening to Urfe. Dead puritans and Edwardian girls appear. Pan-figures and Nazis. Are they ghosts? Are they actors? Are they illusions, post-hypnotic suggestions? Conchis is a hypnotist and a Jungian. For a while he claims he's running an experiment in psychology. Who of these exactly are under Conchis' control and to what extent? Maybe that Edwardian girl likes Urfe or maybe she's acting. Or maybe both.

Conchis tells Urfe at one point he prefers his name pronounced with an un-Greek soft 'ch' so he's actually Conscious? A character de Deukans appears in an embedded story; he may be Conchis in disguise. De Deukans = Latin deducens, meaning leading out? And Urfe, we're told in the introduction, is Fowles' childhood mispronunciation of the word Earth. It's that sort of book.
"I have cordially detested allegory ever since I was old enough to detect its presence."
-J. R. R. Tolkien (though I didn't look it up to get the quote right)

And while it's not exactly Everyman, episodes of Nazi retributions and interracial sex are there largely to make philosophical points. This risks becoming merely an emotional bludgeon. And yet, and yet. It is pretty readable stuff.

I did anticipate the twist at the end, though, which made the final part feel a bit draggy.

I do think it's a book best read young. From Fowles' introduction:
"I now know the generation whose mind it most attracts, and that it must always substantially remain a novel of adolescence written by a retarded adolescent."
Ouch! Fowles is a little harsh on himself, but I can't say he's fundamentally wrong. However, to Fowles' credit, there is some of that same sardonic humor in the novel itself.

Anyway, I guess the book was a hit when it came out in 1965. I feel like it was of its time. If it had come out in the fifties, corresponding to when Fowles wrote it, it would have had to wait until that moment its natural peers, Steppenwolf and The Doors of Perception, also became popular. I feel like there ought to have been a band called Magus.

And for another view Ruthiella also read it for this week.


  1. Impossible to stop reading, as in impossible to stop looking at a car wreck? ;-) I've always wanted to read this one and I don't know why. After your most excellent review, I'm even more anxious to give it a try. A good choice when wanting to read something strange, huh?

    1. Thanks!

      Nicholas Urfe's life is a bit car-wreck-y, but the book's not really. I liked it, but it's pretty clear it's best read when you're egghead-y, twenty, and probably a boy. ;-)

  2. Excellent review! And thank you for the link to my review. That's very kind.

    I love the “conscious” link to Conchis’ name and Deukans…that’s good stuff.

    I wanted the book to be more speculative than it was. The masques seemed too difficult to pull off otherwise. Do you think that Nicholas ever really wises up? I am afraid he doesn’t, but I clearly it is open to interpretation.

    1. Thanks for reading this one!

      I kind of think he doesn't wise up. You probably had the same introduction by Fowles I read, where he says he made it clearer. Hmmf! Nicholas gets the girl, deserved or not, in the end, but I'd take that quote from the Pervigilium Veneris as saying that Nicholas will still be ready to run off with the next girl to come along...

  3. It wasn't a riveting read for me, but I was not necessarily expecting it to be the kind of book that it is, so instead I dragged through it for weeks - it just felt endless. And I remember reading through chunks of it aloud, not because I loved the rhythm of the prose, but so I wouldn't be tempted to skip anything. (Do you ever do that?) I should check my reading log to see what else I was reading at that time - if it wasn't my mood, it could have also been just poor timing based on what else was in my stack. Nonetheless, I enjoyed your post about it!

    1. Oh, I do skim, depending on the book, but it's usually not a good sign for the book. But there's also deeper & shallower reads, and that may be the issue. I decided pretty quickly--Fowles' deprecating introduction may have helped--that I didn't need to take the philosophy all that seriously in this. I read it almost as a romance--does Nicholas get the girl? Does Nicholas deserve the girl? (Probably not, but still...) That made it more readable. ;-)

      That said there were one or two moments when Nicholas did something sufficiently stupid or a**hat-ish, that I was going to take Dorothy Parker's advice to not toss the book aside lightly...

    2. Hah. Yes, that would do that trick. I can't think of an example off-hand, but I know I've deliberately chosen to focus on the romantic plot element in a classic or two, simply to sail through the rest of the story more comfortably. (I wasn't actually asking if you skipped parts of the book, but if you ever read aloud to make sure that you don't. Which is also, as you've said, probably not a good sign. When I'm reading aloud just to keep my focus, I should probably be picking up another book in that mood instead!)

    3. Usually if I'm reading it out loud, it's because I'm really liking it, poetry I want to get in my head, or sentences with real pizzazz to them. I guess I have done it for some philosophical things (Wittgenstein?) to better understand them, but not to force myself to not skip. I could see where that would work...but I'm not that disciplined...

  4. Egghead, 20 and a boy - yes, that would explain why all the young men back in my university days were all enamoured with this book (that and the fact that it was hard to find in Communist Romania).

  5. Interesting! The fact that it was rare I'm sure added to its appeal.

    I don't recall Fowles when I was an egghead undergraduate (early 80s, US) and if I was aware of him at all, it would have been for French Lieutenant's Woman, because of the movie. Our equivalent was Pynchon or Philip K. Dick, with the occasional Ayn Rand fanatic. I will admit to still sometimes enjoying the first two of those...

  6. In 1969, The French Lieutenant's Woman was a monster best-seller that anybody that was awake had heard of – even dumb schoolboys like me - but I didn’t read it or his two previous best-sellers, The Collector and The Magus, until I was I college in the mid-1970s. I read them all for a course in modern literature and have not re-read any of them since. I do recall though they all had confused males. Charles Smithson is all muddled, unable to trust himself and fearing what people think of him. Nicolas Urfe doesn’t much know what he wants so Conscious Conchis is able to reach into his life and manipulate him. As for the incel Clegg he is so weak that he lets an obsession get a foothold, doesn’t get any help to beat it back and so he reaches into Miranda’s life and destroys it. Bastard. In Fowles' stories, smart 20-something guys not knowing who they are, what they value, do alotta damage to themselves and others.

    1. It's the only Fowles I've read, and it really does seem like he's faded a bit since his former renown. I can't imagine an undergraduate modern lit course doing three Fowles novels now. (Assuming they even read anything, of course...)

      Smart but socially destructive 20 year-old males are definitely a type in life, and while they're rather over-represented in literature, there's room for it still, I guess. Fowles does it well enough in the case of Urfe, with some sympathy, but without whitewashing the damage he does.

      Thanks for looking in!