They don’t write books like this anymore.
The Magus was published in 1965, after the success of John Fowle’s The Collector. However, The Magus was written first. As a writer – especially as a novelist who has placed his first novel on a shelf so that he can focus on new work – I can empathize. The Magus is big, ambitious, and in many ways (especially for its time) controversial – this in spite of the fact that it largely takes place on a Greek island and features only a handful of characters.
Meet Nicholas Urfe, an English Oxford-educated drifter whose parents died when he was young. It’s 1953, and with nothing holding him to the ground (neither a sense of mortality nor morality), he spends his time hooking up with women and moving without direction. Needing a job, he happens upon a teacher’s position on an obscure Greek island, called Phraxos. He takes to it as any man in his mid-20’s would: with abandon and a sense of escape from duty. But there’s something to take care of first – the girl he just met, Alison. Despite feeling closer to her than anyone previous, he tells her he’s off and thus ends a relationship whose occasional torridness masked a begrudging love.
In Phraxos, Nicholas learns quickly – due to the desolate environment, the stale classroom, and the lack of female comfort on the island – that he’s made a huge mistake and feels he’s reached a virtual and philosophical cul de sac. It’s at this point when he happens upon Maurice Conchis, a shadowy European millionaire who lives on the far side of the island. What at first begins as a budding acquaintance based on Nicholas’ curiosity of the old man’s life, slowly turns into a devilish (and dangerous) game.
Enter Lily – a mysterious young guest of Conchis who at first appears to Nicholas like an erotic Siren projected from his host’s nostalgia. He becomes obsessed with her, first sexually and then emotionally, and begins to spend his free weekends with Conchis as the old man relates, bit by bit, the fascinating and sometimes horrific story of his life. Conchis soon reveals an elaborate live theatre which he has put on for Nicholas’ benefit. All is comfortable (in the most guiltily voyeuristic way) until he discovers that the theatre doesn’t end on the weekends, and every calculated move he makes to thwart Conchis’ control over his life on the island and his attraction to Lily, he finds himself pulled deeper into an intellectual and emotional labyrinth.
The Magus deals very specifically with the raw rebellion of youth – in this case, a generation of post-war well-educated British men – and those who disingenuously eschew the seeming hangman’s noose of middle-class responsibility in favour of an existential aloofness. The book is beautifully written, blackly funny in the right places, and – considering it exceeds 650 pages – makes for the one of the fastest and most voracious reads I’ve had. There is so much going for this book: a story that slowly wraps around you, characters you can clearly visualize, a sumptuous eroticism, and plot twists which don’t feel tacked-on or pretentious. Sprinkle with a dash of the occult for good measure.
The Magus, by John Fowles (ISBN-13: 978-0316296199) is available at a friendly independent bookstore near you. Or online at any number of vendors
One last note: this review concerns the 1977 revised version. Yes, it was first printed in 1965, but the author wanted to clear up a number of elements that he felt were either ambiguous or, well, messy. First novels, eh?