Thursday, 24 February 2000

John Fowles: The Magus (1966/1977)

Edition: Vintage, 1997
Review number: 444

This strange and compelling novel was one that Fowles only felt that he could pass to his publisher after he had already gained a measure of success as a writer. Even then, it was revised before its reissue just over a decade later, and the introduction to the new edition is still apologetic about its self indulgence and what it describes as its adolescent nature.

The story is about Nicholas Urfe, teaching English for a year in the Byron School on the Greek island of Phraxos, an imitation of a British public school based on one in which Fowles taught on Spetsai. There he meets reclusive millionaire Maurice Conchis, and becomes involved in a strange psychological game; nothing is quite what it seems, each new revelation by Conchis turning out to be another stimulus to his experimental subject Urfe.

The major strengths of The Magus are its sense of atmosphere, and the background, as strong and understated as the best of Lawrence Durrell. (The feeling of the books is decidedly reminiscent of the Avignon Quintet.) The Greek setting and an interest in the esoteric are part of the reason for this, but the style itself is also similar.

Each revelation about Conchis' activities is interesting, for all the ingenious ways in which it unsettles our earlier ideas about the truth behind what he is doing. As well as being the point of the novel (leading us to question both the reality of our own lives and the relationship between a work of fiction and reality), it ends up being its major weakness. It goes beyond the unsettling and trivialises itself. The constant pulling out of the rug from under the reader's feet is the principal way in which Fowles' self-indulgence is manifested.

Connected with this is a lack of motivation for the way in which Conchis behaves. As we can never be sure we know the truth about what he is trying to do, it is quite difficult to impute any specific reason for it. However, Fowles doesn't even make a serious attempt to provide one, and this contributes another important flaw.

Yet the novel draws you in, and you want to try to see what is really going on. It is immensely clever and it is easy to see both why Fowles wanted to publish it and why he didn't do so until he already had some measure of success.

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