John Fowles (1926-2005) was an English novelist fortunate enough to sell the screen rights of his first three novels: The Collector (book 1963, film 1965); The Magus (book 1966 and again 1977, film 1968); and The French Lieutenant’s Woman (book 1969, film 1981). Fowles became the doyen of academic literary criticism, and made a lot of money as well. I’ve read most of Fowles’ fiction work. For me, The Magus stands apart from everything else he wrote, even from most other fiction.
At first consideration this is a surprising opinion, at least it surprised me. The story (I feel a little tentative in using the word ‘plot’ in connection with the book, as will become clear) is a romance between a maladjusted poet/teacher Nicholas Urfe, and an Australian air hostess Alison Kelly. They meet, fall in love, part, and may perhaps come together again. The romance takes place in an overwhelmingly imagined and powerfully evocative Greece of god given landscapes and glorious triumphs in all the arts. So far, good, but pretty usual.
There is a magus, magician, at the heart of things, and as magicians do he blurs the line between reality and fantasy, real characters and events and imaginary ones. Even between himself, the narrator Urfe and the author Fowles. This serves to enable meanings in mythology, philosophy and psychoanalysis to be investigated and made palatable by being wrapped up in a mystery plot of considerable suspense; which keeps most readers glued to the book even if they haven’t the faintest idea of what is going on.
The word ‘magus’ is more familiar to us in the plural, ‘magi’, three wise men who played a part in a very great illusion indeed. Fowles’ book is full to overflowing with such allusions. The Magus is also a very commercial work aside from its main purpose, appealing to academics for its stylish techniques, the general reader for its central love story, and to film producers for its settings. All this is an amazing achievement for a first novel.
I first read the book in the 1970s, probably the revised edition of 1977 in which the ending had been altered by request of millions of readers. What made me think the book a work apart from any other novel was the growing conviction, as I read, that it was just as much about myself as it was about Nicholas Urfe, a kind of psychoanalysis in which I fared as well, or as ill, as Nicholas did.
Now, 2016, I’ve reread the book. Compulsively. I still feel that Fowles knows a damn lot about me he shouldn’t. And I also feel sad that I’ve developed so little in 40 years, that early traumas have had such an inhibiting effect that my growth has been slowed, fatally. This identification, I believe, comes about because Fowles in the book was exploring, and trying to exorcise, elements in his own nature he didn’t feel comfortable about. He wrote it for 12 years before publishing it, and it contains some explicitly autobiographical details as well as some parallels he would probably have stoutly denied if asked about them. Apparently Fowles didn’t particularly like the book and was a bit exasperated it was so popular. Jung would have murmured delightedly about persona and anima, the collective unconscious and individuation. And Frazer, of Golden Bough fame, would have annotated the book heavily.
The central character Nicholas Urfe drives The Magus, as he is its narrator. Nicholas is intelligent, self aware, subtle and observant, and easy to identify with. He honestly admits his faults, makes mistakes and is at times unlikeable, but still we have no problem identifying with him. At least male readers don’t, I’m not sure about the ladies, as he’s a version of Alfie. As a Shakespeare character he’s an Othello, though he sees himself a Malvolio.
But soon Nicholas has to face some pretty difficult questions, the first being, are there other people in the world? Are others just projections we manipulate for our own benefit? Nicholas fights strenuously against any other view than pleasure at what’s to his advantage and anger at what’s to his disadvantage.
Then another question is forced on him. Why is he so attracted to playing a part in a drama? Is his real self one he needs to escape from? This role of drama in life also involves the readers, and the author, all of whom wear masks, with some delight. Why? Readers who don’t like attention being focused on their role in the drama of reading will find the book pretentious. It is pretentious, overwhelmingly so, and also full of pretences. Fowles manipulates the reader unashamedly, creating suspense, defying disbelief, catering to fantasies and comforting beliefs only to whip them away, and ending the book like a conventional detective story (which the reader, again, gets involved in), only to…
Nicholas is obsessed with sex, as we all are as a species because it’s the biggest drama we know. But is sex a coming together of two individuals to form a random gene pool that ensures healthy offspring? Or the combining of two parts of a larger whole, more able to survive because the parts are complementary, and extend the range of awareness possible to the creature? Is the way forward that of Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker, where larger and larger entities of beings in a symbiotic relationship become capable of comprehending the universe, its maker, and beyond?
The key is Nicholas Urfe. Only he can ask these questions, prompted by the magus. Nicholas’ reality is the foundation of the book, as I mentioned above, and here Fowles never falters. This is a great act of character realisation, even though simultaneously we realise he is the Tarot’s Fool.
Fowles has Nicholas ask, is there a way in which the ancient myths might be literally true? Did Orpheus actually go to Hades to find Eurydice, and lose her again? In the course of the novel has he become Orpheus, the singer of songs? Not just a womanising indifferent poet?
Standing behind all this, and dangerously exposed, is the author Fowles. His book reveals his intimate emotional processes (why he didn’t like it I suppose), but also reveals he is a philosopher, one who had published a book based on Heraclitus’ fragments, The Aristos, in 1964, just prior to this book’s release.
But what of the magus, the Greek Conchis, who might actually be dead (he has a tomb in a cemetery in Athens). Here Fowles doesn’t, or couldn’t, reveal more. He is random, his purposes inscrutable. Why Nicholas? why the elaborate masques? how did he secure the allegiance of his collaborators? The magus is an enigma, a reminder of what enigma lies behind the world we inhabit and the lives we lead.
So The Magus is a book of questions, not of answers. It is impossible to answer the question, what is the meaning of John Fowles’ The Magus? That’s an extraordinary accomplishment. Enjoy the detection, enjoy the romance, enjoy the confessions, but for god’s sake ask the questions. You’ll never stop.
Life: you learn the rules as you play the game.
And: learn from your mistakes – or repeat them.
It might be helpful to look at the film of The Magus, more famous for Woody Allen’s quip about it than for anything it accomplished. Somebody should mention to Woody that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. I liked the film of The Magus, even though Michael Caine’s cockney accent was even more out of place than usual. The plot (?) was only present in fragmentary form, but how could it be otherwise, so viewers should first read the book. Greece on film was as overwhelming as it is, and Anthony Quinn a believable magus. Michael Caine’s presence reminds me of other films of his, notably Sleuth, in which Sir Laurence Olivier plays a demented magus. And some of The Magus’ masques are done very well indeed, such as the WWII one. I would say it’s as good a film of the book as Lord of the Flies was of William Golding’s book. Golding is another writer of so called metafiction hard to put in a film, which shows some of the limitations of the media we are most in love with.
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