A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Sunday, 29 September 2013

The Magus (1)

The Magus from the Tarot
In my late teens and early twenties I had a complete crush on the fiction of John Fowles, and frenziedly read my way through The Collector, The Magus, The French Lieutenant's Woman, The Ebony Tower and Daniel Martin. Fowles was very popular with the 1960s' generation: a generation on a hippie search for freedom, self-knowledge and spiritual enlightenment. The book which became its totem was The Magus — though Fowles himself considered it one of his least successful works. He called it a novel of adolescence written by a retarded adolescent, by someone callow-green in the hope of becoming fertile-green. Alhough he then went on to state that the tyranny of the younger self rules the whole of one's creative life, and that The Magus was an acceptance and celebration of this. Recently I revisited The Magus, but not without some slight hesitancy and trepidation. Often the novels of one's youth — shining like beacons through a stormy and confused adolescence — can disappoint in later life. This one, however, I still loved, and found unputdownable once more.

The novel is a quest novel which concerns its narrator, Nicholas Urfe, and his journey of self-discovery. Nicholas is intellectual, well-read and intelligent, self-absorbed, unable to love satisfactorily or give himself totally, unable to accept others as they are. He sees the world through a lens of art and literature (he has illusions about becoming a poet), and is cynical about 'real life' and its hollow promises. Girls he sees as conquests, and he's proud of the fact he can let go of relationships with minimal emotional damage. He's a little aloof and priggish, a product of his bourgeois background. (In fact, there's an uncomfortable amount of myself in this portrait, at a certain period of my youth.) There's a girl in his life, Alison, who loves him, and they live together for while, until she leaves to become an air hostess and he takes up a teaching post on the Greek island of Phraxos.

On Phraxos, after a brief flirtation with suicide and the prostitutes of Athens, he embarks upon his proper 'education' — a rather different experience from his privileged Oxford career. He enters the mysterious domain of the villa Bourani, home to the charismatic and enigmatic millionaire, Maurice Colchis — the Magus. Colchis subjects Urfe to the 'godgame', a series of ever more elaborate deceptions, illusions, manipulations, theatrical re-enactments from history and myth, psychological mazes, labyrinthine masques — all of which obliquely serve to throw light on Urfe's own life and on life itself. Central to the plot are the twin sisters Julie and June, also known as Lily and Rose, who lead Urfe a merry, tantalising dance of seduction and betrayal. These figures may symbolise the complete woman, a marriage of idealism and reality, of innocence and carnality. A marriage already present in Alison, had he but realised it. But Urfe always strives for the impossible ideal, a striving bound to fail. He also tries to give a rational explanation to all the apparently irrational events happening to him — as we all would, no doubt. How much of our own selves can we see in Urfe: the egotist, the idealist, the rationalist, the pragmatist, the would-be poet, the pseudo-intellectual?

The novel is a vehicle for Fowles's take on existentialism — he was profoundly interested in Sartre and Camus — and it has all the trademarks of the knowing postmodernist writer. A meta-text, if you like. Colchis could represent the manipulative novelist himself. Or he could represent various aspects of God which we humans believe are aspects of God. Or he could represent a member of the privileged and powerful millionaire art-collecting, disciple-collecting class of people who quietly rule the world. Sometimes he appears sympathetic, humanitarian, supremely moral; at other times he seems cruel, distant, scheming. All these mysteries and paradoxes and shades of grey are intended by Fowles, of course. He's hinted that the 'meaning' of the book is whatever the reader thinks it means. A disingenuous remark by a quintessentially postmodernist author, naturally. Fowles is playing games with us, the readers, just as Maurice Colchis is playing games with Nicholas Urfe.

Ultimately the book has much to say about illusion and reality, sex and real love, chance and predestination, the choices we have to make in a godless universe, and the moral responsibilities behind these choices. It's an exposition of existentialist freedom, in fact. And Fowles is a master storyteller. He leads you on, through dark tunnels and down blind alleys, with a verbal style that's both readable and beautiful, both functional and poetic. The book races away, and the reader with it. I enjoyed so much reading this book again.

14 comments:

Sabine said...

It was one of the first novels I read in English, about 35 years ago while living on a communal farm in Wiltshire, milking goats in the early hours and trying to get my head around Fowles's concepts. I remember being totally captivated and endless discussions during dinner in an Aga heated kitchen.
I have tried to read it again but no luck, something stalls.
Have you ever seen the film with Michael Caine and Anthony Quinn? I'd love to see it.

The Solitary Walker said...

You give a vivid snapshot of an earlier life, Sabine. I haven't seen that film, though I'm aware of it. In fact, I've avoided it on purpose, as I didn't want it to cloud or spoil my experience of the novel.

Dominic Rivron said...

Never got into JF. I've always ground to a halt by page 2 I think authors can affect us like that - and quite randomly, irrespective of quality (music is the same, I think, as we've said in the past). That being said, one can pick such a writer up years later and hey presto! You enjoy reading them. You have inspired me to try again.

dritanje said...

I've never read this book, or anything by J Fowles, but I think I will now have to add it to my list, after your excellent description of it. Yet I think he may be right in a sense, that the meaning is what the reader makes of it. Because when writing narrative prose, I've found, I don't have a (conscious) plan or meaning in mind, and wonder sometimes just who is writing this!

The Solitary Walker said...

Do you know, Dominic, I could have sworn you would have loved this book! Mysterious, isn't it, what we fasten on to or don't, at different times of our lives.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for this, Dritanje. Yes, I think Fowles also said something similar. I understand very well. The reader is just as important as the writer in interpreting. Art, like life, is not mechanistic; it is manifold. Multi-layered meanings, subtle connections, open-ended conclusions are the very stuff of both life and art. I can live with this, I love this, and feel very happy about it.

To be more exact, I think Fowles was being ingenuous and disingenuous at the same time, if that makes sense (very postmodern!).

The Solitary Walker said...

PS Dritanje — otherwise everything, both life and art, would be just like an Agatha Christie: logical, soluble (if not by us, then by some Richard Dawkins or Miss Marple figure)... and boring. A sort of literary Rubik's cube.

George said...

In the early seventies, I spent a month traveling alone by boat throughout the Greek archipelago, and it was there that I first read "The Magus." I loved every word of it; found it both insightful and highly entertaining. Stung by Fowles' intellect and writing style, I went on to read most of his other books, but, on reflection, I don't think I ever found myself so delighted and entertained as I was with "The Magus."

The Weaver of Grass said...

Authors, Robert - such an individual things. Dominic and I never ever like the same kind of book. I can guarantee if I like it, he will turn his nose up at it.
Fowles is not really my cup of tea though I must admit. I have just started reading Paul Torday (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen etc.) and am really enjoying those.

Amanda said...

The Magus is my favorite novel, hands down, and how lovely it is to read your exquisite review. As a die—hard Hellenophile, Fowles' book encapsulates the ethos of Greece in a way second to none. I can only think of Durrell's expat writings or Miller's The Colossus of Maroussi. The final words of the novel stay with me. I prefer this translation of the Latin: "Let those love now who've never loved; let those who've loved, love yet again."

The Solitary Walker said...

I agree, George — that novel was the memorable one.

It's a Marmite book: some love it, some hate it. I've read adverse criticism of it, but a lot of the criticism is misguided, I think. Eg. some critics remark how artificial it is. Well, yes — that's the point! It's a treatise on reality and artificiality, amongst many other things. The theatricality and pretentiousness of some of the scenes are there for a purpose — all to do with that meta-stuff about authorship and creative storytelling, as well as trying to teach Urfe what's myth and what's actualitity, what's real life and what's a plotted game.

'All the world's a stage'!

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, novels are such a personal taste, Pat.

The Solitary Walker said...

Hey, Amanda, another fan!

You are so right when you say how the book 'encapsulates the ethos of Greece'. It's clear Fowles knew the language, the culture, the landscape, the people. I know he lived there for a while; I think he taught there. Some of his descriptions of the landscape of Phraxos — its ridges and coves, the sky, the sea — are beautifully done, and never overplayed so that they hold up the flow of the story. The story keeps you hooked all the way through — and it's not a short book.

The Solitary Walker said...

PS I once saw Fowles in the Lyme Regis Museum, of which he was curator throughout the 1980s, but he was talking about fossils to someone, and I hesitated to approach him.