|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.