I think it is essentially a novel best read for the first time in curious, impressionable, early adulthood. it definately helps to have a strong imaginative streak and your head more than a little in the clouds - I've recommended it to diehard pragmatists over the years who just don't get it at all.
Like most young people who liked the book it has turned into something of a landmark in my life - the first book which I genuinely felt opened up key areas of myself and got me thinking along more abstract lines. It let me fly, basically.
The last time I read it I had just turned 40 and realised for the first time that I could no longer really identify with Nicholas as a peer-group figure, which slightly saddened me, despite the fact that I have never particularly liked him.
It also drove home to me that it really is a book aimed directly at young people, about the whole process of growing up and realising that the world, and everything in it, is a limitless but mysterious place, beyond control and all the more intoxicating for it.
I also found myself, for the first time, being a bit annoyed by Fowles's rather irritating assumption of his readers background in classical mythology, French and Shakesperian tragedy; but I try to tell myself this only reflects the cultural and educational time in which it was written.
The Magus is, quite appropriately, many things: a coming of age story; an adventure; a mystery; a romance; an historical kalidiscope; an enlightenment; an enigma; a Pandora's Box. It is, most of all, a marvellous entertainment and an affirmation of the wonder and thrill of being young with everything to look forward to and everything to discover.
The next time I read it I will probably be middle-aged and identifying more with Conchis than with the bright young things. And maybe, like the old wizard, I too will start to take pleasure in watching youth in action, and how it can dance and take flight from the strings of others.
The story follows a young teacher by the name of Nicholas Urfe. Deciding he wishes to get away from dreary London, Nicholas takes a job on the sparsely populated Greek island of Phraxos. As his departure date draws nearer, the young Mr Urfe becomes reluctant to leave his Australian girlfriend Alison (a character who, although rarely making an appearance, becomes more and more significant as the book progresses). He does leave however, and although captivated by the island’s majestic scenery and untouched landscape, he finds he is incredibly lonely with only one of his fellow schoolmasters to easily converse with. Out walking one day, Nicholas spots a charming villa and decides to go for a closer look. This, as he puts it himself, is ‘when the mysteries began.’
The other main character of the book is a rather eccentric elderly gentleman by the name of Maurice Conchis. Conchis, it is revealed later in the book, is the Magus (being the magician figure in the Tarot pack), and he takes great pleasure in bringing said mysteries before Nicholas. Conchis introduces his new friend to a young lady he calls Lily. This may seem perfectly normal, but it is only when you take into account that the previous evening Conchis informed the young teacher that his former fiancé – Lily – was killed many years previously that it becomes rather eerie. This is one of many bizarre experiences the old man has in store for Nicholas, and although Conchis does all in his power to lead Nicholas to believe all the strange events are ESP-related, the young man is having none of it, and soon finds himself confronting Conchis and in the process falling for the beautiful Lily.
I have never read a book quite like The Magus, and I don’t expect I ever will. There were times when making my journey through the six-hundred plus pages that I thought, ‘I really don’t want to read on.’ Fowles’ narration is incredibly rich, and although the story itself is nothing short of genius, I frequently found the author’s storytelling somewhat difficult to follow; the regular exchanges in Greek and French for example, as well as the conversations between the two primary characters, which was often a fierce battle of intellect.
However, the parallels between the relationships of Conchis and Nicholas, and the author and reader are apparent: Conchis entices the young schoolmaster into his ‘godgame,’ all too aware that Nicholas will not be able to walk away – he will be forced to keep going back for more in his desperation to find the truth behind the old man’s games. The same is true of the reader – by the second half of the book I literally couldn’t put it down, even though the ‘mysteries’ became more and more frequent, and Conchis told more and more lies. I find it difficult to convey the level of imagination the author has put into the book, you need to read it in order to understand the mystical quality of The Magus. It really is unlike any other book.
I've commented before on my general views of this book and the considerable effect it has had on me over the years. Rather than go over old ground in my reflections of it, I'd like to encapsulate my reactions to it as a reader in summer 2003, at the age of 47; about 25 years after I first read it.
Several things stand out:
For the first time it reads as a period novel. Not surprising given that it was published close on 40 years ago and takes place exactly 50 years ago. I say this not as a criticism; it is in fact all the better for it.
Reading it this time, I realised forcibly how the influence of political correctness has really taken hold of writing and thinking over the last decade. There are parts of The Magus that you know would simply not have been written as they are if first published today. This is no bad thing; I'm not entirely in favour of all aspects of PC (to quote Conchis, it needs to 'learn to smile'); but Nicholas's reactions to race and women in particular now brand him so much a creature of his time in ways that hadn't fully struck me before. His constant references to Joe as the 'Negro', his frequent intimidation and even violence towards women; these aspects for the first time conjure up a culturally far-away world - making The Magus now very much a novel of its time, despite the undoubted timelessness and universality of most of its themes. (And yes, I know that the book is, ultimately, a riposte to sexism and racism, and in many ways heralds an era of racial and sexual enlightenment long before it ever actually came about.)
I was also aware of how the book needs the literal remoteness of its time for Chonchis's 'godgame' to feasibly work. Can you imagine Nicholas being so successfully duped in this modern era of high-tech information technology; how he could possibly have had all his lines of enquiry stifled if he had a PC, internet access, e-mail and mobile phone so easily to hand? Not to mention thousands of tourists charging around his timeless island retreat! In the global village that we now live in the 1950s stands as the last era of genuine physical remoteness in the world (John Fowles briefly reflects on this in his 1976 revised edition).
I realise now that many of Conchis's philosophical musings are so much hot air and deliberate obfuscation. In the past I took his sayings seriously, now I think they're funny - and meant to be funny! He's just playing with gullible, pretentious young Nicholas.
The Magus remains a wonderfully engaging and thought provoking read. The ability to pick it up at after many years and either get new things from it or react to it in different ways is one of its great joys. These reactions tell you a lot about yourself, and the world we live in, and how both have changed over the years. It really is a book for life, which should be first encountered young and then taken out and enjoyed sparingly but profoundly.