Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Review: The Magus by John Fowles

Having read The French Lieutenant's Woman last year, I have since been interested in reading more books by John Fowles, which is why I picked up The Magus several weeks ago. When I finally sat down to read it, it was very different that I expected it to be, but it sucked me in and I read all 500+ pages in less than one week. It is an intense, engrossing novel, each chapter providing a new "twist" on the storyline.

The Magus is a story of a young unhappy man who considers himself a poet and a philosopher. Nicholas is blessed with, as one character puts it, a "charm with women," but he uses sex in place of any kind of meaningful relationships. When a young woman with whom he is involved falls in love with him, he takes a job at an English boarding school on a Greek island to escape what could become a more complicated situation.

On this Greek island, he meets a millionaire named "Conchis" who tells Nicholas stories of his life. To Nicholas' surprise, the characters in the stories begin to appear on the estate in what Fowles (in the prologue to the revised edition) describes as a kind of magical realism. While the novel seems to explore the ideas of conflict in mythology and philosophy, it rapidly turns into a kind of psychological mystery as Nicholas becomes more and more enmeshed in Conchis' mind games and it becomes more difficult for him--and the reader--to tell the difference between reality and fiction.

While, in my opinion, the novel's So What? factor seems to be about the idea of "freedom" in a 20th-Century, post-WWII world, it also explores the definition of meaningful experiences, both inter-personal and intra-personal. The book ends unresolved with two possible endings, leaving it up to the reader to determine the ultimate conclusion, both in terms of story arc and meaning.

While the book explores ideas that are, arguably, important to think about, it was the twisting plot and ever-evolving storyline that hooked me in and would not let me go. I would highly recommend this book, if only because reading it is an experience I won't soon forget.

Previous post on John Fowles: A Victorian in Vegas

19 comments:

Jason Marc Harris said...

Fowles did a revised ending and an original ending--have you read both? I only have the "revised version" as the title page states. I've been looking
online tonight to know what the differences are. Just finished the book tonight. I don't like the idea that the godgame's amorality may be somehow justified simply because Urfe and Alison perhaps profit from it. There's a lot of obfuscation pretending to be wisdom. It had more the feel of S&M dress-up therapy a la "Eyes Wide Shut" while aiming to have the mystique of Jungian archetypes, but ultimately cheap and too emptied out of real feeling amid all the lies.

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

I read a revised edition, but from a cursory search on-line, I'm not sure too much changed expect in the explicity of the sex scenes and the final ending. Apparently it was too ambiguous originally.

I also tend to agree with you about the emptiness of the godgames. Though the story initially had a magical realism aspect to it, the fact that Conchis and his cronies orchestrated the whole thing which ended with a huge trial left me a little ambivalent about the morality of the entire experiment--especially considering the fact that the entire trial at the end was to expose Nicholas' weak morals.

Jason Marc Harris said...

Helo Lindsay, thanks for responding. Isn't the changed ending also supposed to be ambiguous in terms of what may or may not happen with the relationship?
Also, I can't help but feel that perhaps Fowles couldn't (and perhaps just didn't chose to) come up
with a fully satisfactory explanation for how Alison was involved in the god-game group, though I actually suspected her as a character when we're first introduced to her. I knew the book involved some sort of conspiracy before I read it, and I assumed that she was probably part of it. Also, we can't know how much of her rapport with Nick was really just acting and a further "long con" (to use Lost speak :) )
So, are you doing some of your own writing Lindsay?

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

I agree that most of the ambiguity is probably due to a general inability on Fowles' part to tie the ending up with a neat bow.

To be honest, I had never considered the possibility that Alison may have been involved with the godgame group from the very beginning, simply because I've always considered her the one emotionally honest character in the entire novel. I'm not sure I'm comfortable with the idea that EVERY SINGLE CHARACTER is lying all the time.

I was also less concerned with the eventual outcome of the relationship between Nick and Alison than I was just confused by the trial in general. I wouldn't think that humiliating a womanizer would really change the way he views women. If anything, the revelation that both Alison and Lily/Rose have been conspiring behind his back would reinforce his warped views of relationships while also allowing him to view himself as a misunderstood victim, so I don't think that Nicholas has finally seen the light at the end of the novel.

As far as my own writing goes, I'm writing a novel--but what English major isn't? :) I unfortunately haven't worked on it much in recent months, so blogging is just about the only creative outlet I've got right now.

Jason Marc Harris said...

Ultimately I don't see how we can really conclude much optimistically about Alison's authenticity because look at the facts:
1. She agrees that Nick will be lied to about her suicide--who much more manipulative can you get?
2. She's a dear "friend" of the mother of "Julie" an "June"--shows up in their various pictures.
3. From the very beginning she does NOT display emotional honesty. Look when Nick first meets her: "Her smile was very thin, very insincere, and very curt" (25). Establishing this appearance of an insincere smile, and perhaps a cryptic one, already aligns her with the playacting and perpetual of faux-enlightened smirking we get from Conchis's crowd later (including June, Julie, and their mother).
4. "She had candid grey eyes, the only innocent things in a corrupt face" (26)--of course this is Nick's perspective, since we never get out of it, and yet he thought Julie had become "candid" with him later too, and she hadn't. It was perpetual playacting in a framework where sexuality is a tool of manipulation and "not an important thing" as her mother says, "sex is for us, for all of us who help Maurice, not an important thing. Or not the thing it is in most people's lives. We have more important things to do"(614). So, this might in fact include Alison: "all of us who help Maurice."
5. The naming patterns. We know that Lily and Rose are symbolically chosen names in the novel, and it is suggested that the name Alison also might be merely chosen for the godgame because of her status as a false refuge for Nick but suggested as a true one: the etymology of "without madness" for the flower. This is revealed on the same page as Nick puzzles over the godgame message "Termination by July for all except nucleus. Nucleus, Ashtaroth the Unseen, was Alison" (576).
6. "Alison and I are good friends" (608). For Alison to hide this relationship with the chief trainer of the actors of the godgame (Julie and June's mother), we are stuck with a world of deceit that Alison is involved with, and she NEVER
clears the air.
7. Alison shifts from "no" to "I don't know" when accuse the god-game team is there watching (661).
8. Her dialogue recalls the scripted dialogue that Nick was inflicted with earlier "I hate you. I hate you"(667). Is that emotional honesty? "I hate you, too" (when Julie hurls the tea at him 297).

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

Oh, great, now you're bringing quotations in! I'd better dig out my copy before I stick my foot any further in my mouth...

Jason Marc Harris said...

Ha, no worries. Just wanted to share the impression I had. Hey, go on my site and send me an email sometime to keep in touch.

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

Coincidentally enough, Tor has a pretty good review of THE MAGUS up today: http://www.tor.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=blog&id=58264

I'm still gathering evidence for my argument. :)

villabourani said...

Wow! you guys really love 'The Magus'...I have to join you on that, I think it would be worth getting hold of the original version (easy enough on ebay) just to see what is different and what he revised. I enjoyed re-reading it too and looking for clues of alison's involvement etc
Have you read any of fowles's other novels?

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

I read The French Lieutenant’s Woman before I read The Magus and LOVED it. While I enjoyed The Magus well enough, I absolutely adored The French Lieutenant’s Woman and would probably list it as one of my favorite books.

I also read part of The Collector, but I haven't yet gotten around to finishing that one yet. It's in the pile of books next to my bed. (As is The Magus, which is still waiting to be re-read.)

SocrMom78 said...

I have to agree with Jason. It was my impression that Alison had questionable morals and could not be trusted either. She told Nicholas she was going back to her old boyfriend when he left for Greece. What a great person. I didn't quite understand why he leaves, goes away to Greece and gets punished for trying to go on with his life, and she runs back to her old boyfriend and gets off scot-free. The fact that she becomes part of Conchis and his gang (to me) ruled out any chance of her being honest and able to be taken seriously on any level! I was glad Fowles left the ending of the book open, because I had Nicholas running away from her as fast as possible!

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

Actually, I agree as well, I just forgot to post a new comment on here.

The problem I have with this is that it (a) makes Nick out to be more a victim than I think he really deserves, and (b) completely eliminates the ambiguity of the ending. There is NO WAY Allison and Nick will ever end up together if he's merely been a pawn to her the entire time they've known each other.

I think it would have been much more compelling to have all of this brought upon him after his abominal treatment of an innocent rather than after he accidentally meets one of the members of the godgame at a party.

Jason said...

Perhaps it wasn't an accident he met her at a party . . . Lost starts tomorrow night, and that series
seems to owe something to the Magus, and we know there "everything happens for a reason" ha, ha. Also, I suppose one could argue that despite all the manipulations and dubious morality that part of what romantic love allows for is to have the approach of another try despite everything, and yet with that sort of idealism, we're treading too much of the same territory as codependent dysfunction. A tangled web :)

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

"Fatalistic Codependent Dysfunction" could be the alternate title of The Magus, actually. :)

Anonymous said...

The problem I've always had with "The Magus" is why would Conchis go to such trouble to upset a dreary, common-a-garden bedpost-notcher like Nicholas ?

The Ebony Tower by Fowles is particularly good, as are some of his essays in 'Wormholes'.

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

While I agree that I certainly wouldn't have bothered with someone like Nicholas, there are some people who just really like to "stick it" to people. Same thing with arguing politics--my view is, why argue when neither party is EVER going to change his/her mind? Yet some people really enjoy the feeling of "proving themselves right."

Thanks for the recommendations, I'll have to check them out. I'd have to say Fowles is definitely a favorite.

Eric Montany said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom C said...

As is well known, "The Magus" was immensely popular with many readers when it came out in the 1960's. When I first read it, I was probably about 20, in college, and the story of Nicholas Urfe served pretty well as my story -- an intellectual searcher, significantly divorced from real feelings, but concerned about being a good person. Fowles's superior storytelling ability was put in service of providing a sort of cook's tour of 20th century history (WW I; WW II; psychoanalysis, etc), in a narrative very common in the 1960's. For many people, including me, the effect was irrestistible, and to this day, I find myself rereading it periodically. (The effect of reading it when you are 20, and 40, and 60 is quite a striking thing).

Allopatrik said...

I have both versions. To be honest, the original ending was just fine and not as ambiguous as many people seem to think. And you have to translate the latin quotation at the very end-- Fowles himself said not giving enough weight to that quotation would make the ending more ambiguous.

The latin is this:

cras amet qui numquam amavit quique amavit cras amet

There are several translations, but this one resonates with me the most:

Let those love now who've never loved; let those who've loved, love yet again.

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