The Magus

The urge to read The Magus came upon me suddenly. I have not ready any other of John Fowles’s books, so I wasn’t driven by fandom to read it. Sometimes a book just stands up in my brain and announces itself, and it just keeps yelling at me until I take it down off the shelf or go to the library and reserve a copy.

The Magus tells the story of a young man, Nicholas Urfe, who is somewhat adrift after finishing school and an initial teaching job. He goes to the British Council in search of a job that will take him away from England, and eventually he accepts a teaching position at The Lord Byron School on the island of Phraxos, in Greece. Before he leaves for Phraxos, Nicholas meets and has an affair with an Australian girl named Alison. Their affair is brief, but intense in the way of the young, and it will literally come to haunt him as the story progresses.

Before he leaves for the island, Nicholas meets with a teacher named Mitford, who previously held the position Nicholas has taken at the school and gives him the mysterious warning, “Beware of the waiting room.” It seems that Mitford’s warning will amount to next to nothing: Nicholas passes his first term at the school in utter boredom that even the beauty of the Greek island cannot penetrate, exchanging letters with Alison. He goes to a brothel with a fellow school master, and later finds himself with syphilis. Despondent, he decides to take his own life, but in the end he is too much of a coward (or really, has too much common sense). He resigns himself instead to a life of quiet misery and celibacy, at least for the remainder of his time on the island.

One day, months later, hiking the paths around the island, he comes to a private beach. There he finds a towel, a set of rubber fins,  and an English poetry anthology with several of the poems flagged with white pieces of paper. One of the poems is T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding,” with a passage marked in red ink:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

The poem echoes what is to happen to Nicholas during the course of the story, the places his journey will lead him eventually. Amused, interest somewhat piqued–he is convinced the book belongs to a girl–he continues his hike. He hears the sound of a bell. He continues walking, when suddenly he sees it:

It was two or three trees in, barely legible, roughly nailed high up the trunk of a pine, in the sort of position one sees Trespassers will be prosecuted notices in England. But this notice said, in dull red letters on a white background SALLE D’ATTANTE. It looked as if years ago it had been taken from some French railway station; some ancient student joke. Enamel had come off and cancerous patches of rusty metal showed through. At one end were three or four of what looked like old bullet holes. It was Mitford’s warning: Beware of the waiting room.

Nicholas begins to ask questions around the school and the island about the mysterious sign and the house, called Bourani, that stands near it. He learns that the home and surrounding land is owned by a man named Maurice Conchis, a controversial figure on the island. Some say he was sympathetic to the Nazis who invaded the island during the war; he was also known to have had a falling out with some of the school masters. As these things go, the more people are reluctant to talk about Maurice—or when they do, the more strange the stories get—the more curious Nicholas becomes, so that one day, he decides to walk right up the house, and when he does, he finds the man himself waiting for him, as though he had known all along that Nicholas would arrive.

And so the adventure, the mystery begins. Nicholas finds himself …well, let’s say trapped in someone else’s play, quite literally. Nothing at Bourani is what it appears to be, and the more he believes he has figured things out, the more lost he gets. He is much like Alice gone down the rabbit hole, an allusion Nicholas makes himself. The twists and turns are fun for the first half of the book, but to be honest, the longer things draw out on the island, the slower it gets. The action picks up again when Nicholas returns to England, somewhat humiliated but also determined to find the reasons for what took place on the island.

Several things surprised me about this book. The first thing was that both the language and the story were so accessible. I’m not sure why I had the impression that Fowles’s work would be dense reading, and I suppose because of the mysteries and  the references and the clues, in a way it is, but one can certainly also just read along as though peeking over Nicholas’s shoulder, as blind as he is to where the road might lead him, or us. But the prose itself is quite clear, and even sometimes clunky: “My resignation, I would see the school year out, was accepted with resignation.”

The second thing was that I had no idea what gratitude I owe John Fowles, for it’s clear to me after reading this book that it paved the way for some of my very favorite novels: Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Tana French’s The Likeness, and Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics. (Is it interesting that these are all female writers?) All of these works have something in common: someone who travels to an unfamiliar place and finds himself (or herself) intrigued by a mysterious person (or group of people), and then subsequently drawn into a narrative over which—they learn slowly, painfully—they have no control. Nicholas has Conchis and his players; Richard Papen (who shares much personality-wise with Nicholas) has Julian and the Classics students; Cassie Maddox (or Lexie Madison) has the inhabitants of Whitethorn House; and Blue van Meer has Hannah Schneider and her groupies. All of them are transformed in some fundamental way by what they encounter; they learn not to trust the world as they know it, and will always be slightly skewed by what has happened.

I admit that although I liked this book, I liked it less than the other three listed above. I wonder if a second reading might not bear more fruit, as it has for those other three. Still, I am happy to have read it, and I was intrigued by what Fowles himself had to say about the book, in the 1998 introduction included in the Modern Library edition I read, because I think it speaks not only to The Magus, but to all these novels (with the exception perhaps of the observation about the writing itself):

It was, in essence, the story of a young European’s growing-up. To grow up always means that curious and often painful way in which one slowly shucks off so many redundant aspects of education and personality; both of what one’s been wrongly taught, often by fools, and how one’s been brutally formed by nature…

I can see it is very far from being universally well written…Yet something in it has evidently called, perhaps especially to the younger. Its very imperfections, its really not quite knowing where it is going, explains in part why it works. Most young people know they don’t know; and the not knowing in this ephemeral, uncertain world is generally the nearest we shall ever get to truth.

I look forward to reading more of Fowles’s work, especially The Collector (his first published novel, but not the first novel he wrote—that was The Magus, as he explains in the introduction) and The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

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6 comments

  1. It’s been years since I read this book but I remember being just “wowed” by it. Perhaps I loved it so much at the time because I also had the opportunity to discuss it with my book group and I remember we had a very lively discussion and it probably just made a bigger impact on me at the time. Unfortunately I haven’t read anything else by him but I do have The Collector in my stacks so one day!

  2. I’ve never read this, though I’ve been meaning to for years. I’m glad you enjoyed it! I haven’t read the other books it reminded you of, but a comparison to The Secret History is enough to convince me 😛

    Also, I highly recommend The French Lieutenant’s Woman!

  3. Iliana, I think I too would have been wowed if I had read this A) when I was in my twenties, and B) before I read those other books I mentioned. I think it would have had the same effect The Secret History had one me, and I read that when I was 23. I’m excited to read more of his work.

    Nymeth, there are such echoes, especially in the first chapters, that I meant to see if I could find some interviews with Tartt or any other information that would bear this out. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this if you pick it up…I do think you’ll enjoy it. 🙂

  4. This sounds fascinating. Like you, I adored The Secret History and how the main character gets caught up with a seemingly mysterious crowd. I’ve read The Collector and while it was a good and provocative read, I was somewhat disappointed by it. Thinking about the story now, it has some quite terrifying parallels to some current day situations. I remember I discovered John Fowles while I was overseas and read about his death in the local newspaper. They wrote a fantastic piece because obviously it got me intrigued enough to seek out his books!

  5. Hmm… I also adored The Secret History, but couldn’t even finish The Magus. Your comparison of the two is intriguing enough that I think I might just go back and give it another try. The French Lieutenant’s Woman is fantastic, btw.

  6. Mae, the situation in The Magus is definitely more extreme that the situation in The Secret History, but I sensed enough echoes that I really wondered if Tartt was paying homage somehow. That’s interesting how you came across his work…I love finding new (to me) authors that way!

    Freddie, thanks for visiting. I admit, I felt The Magus start to drag a bit in the middle, so I understand why you set it down. I really felt the greatest similarities, in my mind, were the narrators–not what happens to them, but their way of standing outside things.

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