The Magus

by JDP

More unpredictable and frustratingly ambiguous than can be imagined a priori, this novel’s disturbing plot doubles as an incisive exploration of the human psyche; the quicker you read it, the sooner you’ll be able to return to your old sleep habits. Maybe.

John Fowles / British / 1966 / 656 pages

This novel caught me almost completely unawares. It first landed on my radar when I walked into my office one morning and found a fellow graduate student friend of mine staring at the ceiling and shaking his head in awe. I asked him about his situation and he mentioned that he’d just finished reading The Magus by the British author John Fowles. My friend said that it was “absolutely incredible” and suggested that I read it as soon as possible. Shortly thereafter, while perusing Time Magazine’s, list of the top 100 English language novels since 1923, I again saw The Magus listed as recommended reading. Without looking into the plot, length, or style of the novel, I picked up a copy and added it to my queue. At the time, I could not have imagined that this is exactly the type of book that one best reads without beforehand paying any attention to its content, structure, or themes. It is a book packed with surprises and these explode all the more violently when the reader has very few preconceived notions about what he will find.

So, obviously, I’m between a rock and a hard place when it comes to drafting this review. It’s difficult to sell someone on a book — especially one this long — when one hesitates to share too much about its contents. I will settle for selling you on the idea of the book and I’ll keep my plot-related comments to the barest minimum.

To begin, magus is a strange word that I had not heretofore seen in print. I eventually realized that it was, by virtue of being untranslated from the Latin original, the singular form of the plural magi which, as we all know, was a word made famous in O. Henry’s short story The Gift of the Magi. But whereas Henry was invoking the term in its priestly, benevolent connotation, Fowles uses it to mean something quite different: the tarot card magician, the conjuring wizard, the deceptive illusionist. Indeed, a character along these lines factors prominently in the novel and part of the bizarre fun of reading the narrative is witnessing the incredible deceptions wrought at the hands of the magus. The original title of the novel was Godgame and it, too, would have been descriptively accurate: much more than the magus himself, the novel focuses instead on the unwilling protagonist — Nicholas Urfe — who is drug into the magician’s complex game. This game is at times so all-encompassing and so powerful that it would appear to have been derived legitimately from the deity himself.

The narration on a page-to-page basis is similarly spellbinding. Although at times a bit overwrought and pedantic, Fowles’ writing is generally skilled and engrossing; no where is this more apparent than in the short, punchy section that opens the novel. There are three distinct sections and the first, which I read as a prologue of sorts, introduces Nicholas as a recent Oxford graduate with little ambition or direction in his life. We meet him in the first person and explore the beginnings of his over-sexualized relationship with a young Australian woman. This first section of the novel concludes by Nicholas breaking things off with the Australian (much to her chagrin) and moving to a remote Greek island to serve as an English instructor in an exclusive boarding school for young boys. The second section of the novel (several hundred pages in length) chronicles Nicholas’ time on the island and his extensive interactions with the magus, a wealthy European entrepreneur / psychologist / actor named Maurice Conchis (which I believe is pronounced like “conscious” and the pun is intended). The third, again, very short, section of the novel brings the action to a close, but I cannot say anything more without giving away too much.

Throughout, you want to turn the pages more quickly than your eyes can follow. This is a plot-driven novel, which is something that I typically dislike, but Fowles is fairly adept at using concrete situations to explore deeper psychological and social issues. He’s obviously an ardent student of the classics and The Magus is something of a philologist’s playground. As a healthy consumer of ancient Greek tragedies, myself, I certainly enjoyed all of the mythological references. Plus, I like the idea of writing a gargantuan novel that is intended to be consumed at high speed. It seems like I oftentimes run into deceptively short novels that take a long time to digest. If you pick up a slim Woolf or Bernhard novel, for instance, you’re going to be at it longer than you would have guessed. But it’s rarer, I think, that one comes across a lengthy novel that moves along with such forward momentum that it ends up being a relatively quick read. To this end, The Magus is one of the more engaging books I’ve read in quite some time.

It’s also the first book I’ve read in a very long while that compelled me to turn to academic journals as a way of learning more about the story and its presentation of ideas. The book relies very heavily on discussions of psychology, specifically the methods and ideas employed by Carl Jung, and a little bit of academic help in this respect goes a long way. Another interesting component of the novel (and I don’t believe that I’m giving away anything by saying this) is that it’s highly ambiguous, open to interpretation. To that end, many scholars of literature have partially made their careers arguing over different readings of the story’s conclusion. It is, if nothing else, a fantastic conversation piece. It is the sort of novel that, despite its length, I would gladly make use of if I were ever tasked with teaching a college class on literature. Like Catch-22 or Hopscotch, it was one of those books that I finished by mumbling “well, bloody hell, I really need to talk to someone about this.”

All this by way of saying that I don’t have too much to say about this book to you, the person who has not read this book. Reading it is a bizarre experience and I have to admit that there were more than a few evenings where I found myself dreaming, specifically and vividly, about different parts of The Magus. I had previously hoped that, upon finishing the novel, I’d be able to sleep a bit better; now that I have actually done so, however, I’m beginning to have my doubts.

Rating: 9 / 10

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