Book Review: The Magus, by John Fowles

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?


5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Magus, by John Fowles

  1. I loved this book, and it’s been a long time since I read it, but I am really glad it still holds up. It’s so exotic and some of the settings might have dated…but I am glad to hear of you enjoying it. I really went through a phase of reading Fowles, actually i guess I do that with any writer I like, read everything I can. Fowles has a “short” story called Poor Koko which I read every couple of years because it is so insightful about class, and mentoring and violence.I really loved The French Leuitenants Woman as well. Great post!!!!

    Have you read Great Expectations, with it’s own Nic? And Fowles said, the Magus was kind of his version. Plus, the movie The Game by Fincher starring Sean Penn and Michael Douglas always reminded me of this novels premise with a “teacher”.

  2. Hey candy – I look forward to going back and reading other works by the likes of Fowles, Hesse, etc.. I seem to leap from one author to another these days.

    Thanks for the suggestion of Poor Koko – I’ll look for that.
    I haven’t read Great Expectations…it’s one of “those” books (ie thick, long, old), even though it’s one of the hallmarks of Western fiction. Reading Fowles’ introduction to The Magus, I caught his reference to GE – I will read it soon.

    Interesting you mention “The Game” – someone told me that Fowles’ estate tried sueing David Fincher. Rather bizarre as the movie has only a passing technical resemblance to the book.

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. I’m about to delve into The Magus, it having sat in my oh too opulent libray these 2 years past, an impulse buy. Having been recommended it heartily by no less a man than Timothy Leary in his “Politics of Ecstasy”, whilst I recently lounged on a Greek Island, of all places! The synchronicity lives. Thanks for the pointers.JB.Ireland>>

  4. What an insightful review – thanks for sharing it. I read this book for a bookclub a few weeks back and found it incredibly stimulating – it was a book you wanted to talk about with others, poring over the minutiae in excrutiating detail and trying out different readings. It demanded such rigour intellectually. All those allusions – I almost felt I had to go back and reread it from dozens of different vantage points – as if the protagonist were Ferdinand, then the tormented Caliban, then Iago then the cuckolded Othello – and each one yielded up a different meaning… It was relief to finally realise that we were actually supposed to abandon all these narratives as sources of truth – at least I think we were. This strikes me as a book that would be absolutely awful as a film – didn't Woody Allen say something about how if he could live his life over again, he would do nothing differently – except he wouldn't see The Magus?

  5. Leonie,

    Thanks for the comment. I was surprised to see that, yes, Allen did have that to say about the film. When you look at the cast list, it must look like a no-brainer, a must-see. I suppose it's better to live without knowing how potentially bad the film is.


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