on 7 April 2003
Like a lot of reviwers here, I've been re-reading the Magus at odd points throughout my life, probably about once every 10 years on average. I've always admired and enjoyed it, though not entirely uncritically, and have been fascinated at my own various reactions to it over the years, reflecting my own life experiences at given times.
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.
on 23 February 2004
Upon learning that The Magus had won a place in the BBC’s Top One-Hundred Books list, I decided to give it a read. It is often – quite rightly – referred to as a cult classic, and it is only around two hundred pages into the book that it becomes clear why.
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.
on 30 June 2013
For my latest read of The Magus I went back to the original edition, which I hadn't read since picking the book up for the very first time at 22. I'm 57 now (same age as Conchis) and have been reading the revised edition ever since. The revision was never significantly different, but I did feel intrigued to be going back to the original after so many years. My old copy looks a bit rough round the edges, and probably so do I.
To be honest apart from in a few obvious places its difficult to tell the difference without reading one version immediately after the other. Once I had finished I did compare the endings again. The revision is still rightly enigmatic, but a little more conciliatory, with a key moment of sudden violence now - crucially - made out to be instinctive rather than cold-bloodedly deliberate. To me both work fine, but I would probably have to narrowly give the edge to the original ending: it's so youthfully uncompromising, just like the rest of the book.
Overall I still enjoyed it as much as I've ever done. It's a good ten years since I've read it and between that and going back to the original it had a quality of freshness and I found myself being buoyed along, as always, by the sheer scale and ambition of the storytelling. Only a young, inexperienced writer could be this bold, this unafraid, this ridiculously enquiring. At my age I don't expect the book to leave me as intellectually awestruck as it did when I was younger - and it didn't; but it made no difference to my enjoyment. It has the momentum of an intellectual mystery-thriller, and is so well written, with such wonderful descriptive passages and such clever parallels of dialogue between the naturalism of Nicholas and Alison compared to the self-conscious archness of Nicholas and the Bourani Set that you just revel in the sheer imagination and technical ability of the writer.
In such a philosophically ambitious book it must have been terribly hard for a young writer like Fowles to get inside the head of an older man like Conchis, and for a reader of my age the old wizard's many existentialist epigrams can now appear a trifle immature. But I prefer to cut Fowles a bit of slack on this: this book is not meant for people my age - its meant to be a profound read for the guy I was 35 years ago. The fact that I can still enjoy it while recognising this is a big bonus.
I must have read The Magus at least seven times by now and every time I finish it I always feel a sense of loss. It's not a perfect book and never was. Its often pompous and self-consciously intellectual, especially in its Classicist allusions: but how can you not be impressed by something this challenging, this ambitious, this provocative, this much fun? Personally I can't wait until my next read.
on 30 September 2003
I have just read the Magus again, for the first time in about 7-8 years. It's the fourth time I've read the book now and I enjoy the different perspectives I get from it in relation to my own life experiences and how the book, its characters, incidents and themes now plays against the world we currently live in.
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.
on 4 March 2013
I read this for two reasons. I was forced to study The French Lieutenant's Woman at college and ended up loving it - especially its play with language, sympathies and endings - despite my best intentions. And I'd heard that the excellent 1997 film The Game was taken in part from The Magus. In fact, Fowles' working title for it was The Godgame. Both book and film pivot around an over-privileged, under enlightened man called Nicholas (as does the BBC's excellent 1988 mini-series The One Game).
There's a film version of The Magus, staring Michael Caine in the lead role. Not a lot of people know that. The word on the street is that it's dire. I think The Magus would make a magnificent short series for TV, maybe over five or six hour-long episodes. You'd need at least this amount of screen time and chew-over time to get your head around it.
I usually don't like books of the what-the-heck-is going-on variety. Neither do I appreciate the art-for art's-sake genre, nor its close cousin, the look-how-smart-I-am. But I loved this. I just don't really know what its all about, that's all. Now, I only finished it after a marathon stint last week, but here are my first reactions.
I liked the central character, Nicholas Urfe. I'm not sure you're supposed to like him; he's a bit of a classist cad. But Fowles so well describes his history, thought-processes and torments that you can't help but empatise. And Fowles takes his time with Nicholas. In many novels, I wonder why the protagonist doesn't think or act in ways that are obvious to me. Here, every time I wondered why Nicholas doesn't do a certain thing, he then goes on to do it.
As my estimation, yea affection, for Nicholas grew, so my aversion to his mentor-figure, the magus of title, grew too. At first, enigmatic. Then remarkable. Then mezmerizing. (Pardon the in-joke.) Then terrifying. Then, finally, repellent. I have often wished that some Merlin-type figure would come and initiate me into the deeper mysteries of life, the universe and everything. Now, after reading this, I think I would tell him to stick it.
The book is one long puzzle. There is action and interaction, twists within twists, and blind alleys aplenty. It's a detective novel. It's a conspiracy theory, Dan Brown for grown-ups. It's a romance, a rite-of-passage with a vengeance, a literal psycho-drama, a multiple Greek drama. It has philosophical aspects and occultist shades. It's as funny as tartarus. It's what Consumer Recreation Services would do if run by Jung, de Sade and Wagner.
It's a literary game. How it ends is up to you.
All I know for sure is that I want to play it again.
No higher recommendation from me than that.
on 1 October 2001
I first read The Magus when I was 19, and it shook my world immeasurably. I was given a copy of the original version by my father and it took over my life at the time. I remember coming off the train and reading it over dinner and then on into the early hours. On finishing it I immediately bought a copy of the revised version, and some years later re-read the original again. I envy people who embark on this literary journey for the first time, and would urge anyone who has not yet read this book to do so. It must be said however that this book is most suited for young men with a romantic nature, and not hardened cynics who prefer kitchen sink realism. This novel sparked in me a lifelong love of Greece, and encouraged me to search for and read other great novels. I particularly like Frank Delayney's The Amethysts and Pearl, Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, anything by Milan Kundera and other Fowles novels Daniel Martin and The Collector. The Magus is the greatest of them all though...just close your eyes and imagine a deserted beach on a small Island in 1950's Greece, and the sense of anticipation when you return from your swim to find a book of poety left for you with a passage marked... 'We shall not cease from exploration'.
The novelist Kingsley Amis was once asked what he would do differently if he could live his whole life over again. He paused for a few seconds before replying 'well I wouldn't read The Magus by John Fowles'. It's a clever answer to a tired question but, in Kingsley's situation, I'd have to disagree - I've already read The Magus a couple of times and I can see myself reading it again in the near future - but it does put across the point that The Magus is not a book that appeals to everyone. Wilfully perverse in places, and with a plot that twists and bends like a mountain road, this is a novel that requires a certain suspension of belief. It has it's own internal logic, and yet it exists a long way outside of everyday experience. If you like gritty realism this most definitely is not the book for you, but if you like the sinister and surreal - Shakespeare's The Tempest viewed through a dark and distorting mirror perhaps - then The Magus will leave a lasting and positive impression.
Nicholas Urfe, highly educated but callow and self-important, takes a job as a school teacher on the Greek island of Phraxos. Here he becomes enthralled by one of the island's residents, Conchis, and the twins June and Julie, who, so it gradually appears, live with him. As the weeks pass Nicholas becomes ever more entwined in the spell Conchis weaves, losing track of what is real and what is fantasy, and finding himself increasingly unsure of who he can trust. Even Nicholas's former girlfriend Alison, whom he meets once again at the mid-point of the book, appears to be something quite other from what he first believed.
There is a definite hard edge to the novel. Nicholas isn't a likeable character, being rather humourless and, in paricular, rather unpleasant to the loyal Alison. Some of the situations in which he finds himself are so fantastic that they become implausible, and yet there is a great deal of imagination on display here and, through some truly superb writing, Fowles manages to hold the whole thing together and deliver a truly original and meaningful novel: a modern day discourse on the nature and meaning of love, loyalty, trust, identity and friendship. It probably is fair to say that The Magus is a young person's book - I first read it at the age of seventeen and it opened up whole new ideas about the power of literature for me, as well as giving me a sense of adventure and wonder that very few novels since have ever matched - but on each subsequent reading, while some of the more fantastical elements of the plot now strike me as a little over done, I have found new details and twists that had previously escaped me.
The Magus is a long novel, and it does make demands on one's concentration (as indeed, does any good book), but it is a true original. Well worth a look if you want to give your imagination a good workout.
on 5 October 2014
I read this because someone very dear to me recommended it as one of his favourite books, having read it 20 years ago. I would hope that if he re-read it now, it would have lost most of its magic. I will not repeat the basic storyline which is well described by other reviewers. Instead, I will tell you that I simply did not believe that a person, no matter how wealthy, would go to such great lengths to prove the same point to himself over and over again. If he was as clever as he claimed, he would have got bored and found a new sport. I like a lot of magical realism and literary sci-fi, but found myself constantly outside this story, looking in with disdain. I also found the two main reactions of Nicholas towards women - to want to have sex with them, or strike them - depressing. I was depressed by this man, too depressed to care what happened to him, good or bad. Given some of the actions of Fowles' female characters participating in the god game, I even started to wonder if the author was a mysogynist and a voyeur, half Nicholas, half Conchis. The assumed knowledge of the classics and foreign languages is pretentious and pompous, although I did enjoy some of the turns of phrase: "(He) was as wholesome, and green, as a lettuce." I will be avoiding Fowles for a long time now.
I couldn't put this book down as I journeyed from one plot twist to the next, wondering where it was going and what the mystery was all about. However, when all was revealed - what a disappointment. There was no really mystery just a rather silly and unbelievable charade. What was the point of it all? Does the author really believe the reader is likely to be convinced by this? A whole gang of people trying to administer a moral lesson to someone they've never met before, involving what must be wild expenditure and about 6 months of time! Totally ridiculous. However, the shear suspense and the writing in many ways mitigate what is a deeply ridiculous and unconvincing plot. The changes in modes of behaviour since the book was written in the 60's means it has not aged well either.
on 12 November 2004
It wasn't until about half way through this book that I realised that as the main character's sense of reality is being mainpulated by others around him, so are you, the reader, having your sense of what is happening manipulated by the author. Having re-read it a couple of times I am constantly amazed by the deftness of Fowles' touch in this regard and the searing realism of the world he presents to you.
This is the sort of book that leaves you profoundly impressed by both it's virtuosity and it sheer narrative power. Literature, not writing.