Book Review: “The Magus” by John Fowles

themagus_coverJohn Fowles is to novels what Ridley Scott is to films. Both craft consistently slick, well-put-together work which quite often doesn’t stand up to much intellectual scrutiny. – Review of “The Ebony Tower”, A Customer,, 2001

When you commit to a 600+ page book, there’s a hope that by the time you reach that final page, you’re “satiated”, and ready to perform the mental belt unbuckling like you just housed a turkey dinner. Instead, The Magus felt the literary equivalent of corner store Chinese food. Yeah, the General Tso’s chicken was cooked right, the pork fried rice hit the spot for a time, but 30 minutes of analysis later and I’m wondering why I’m hungry again. 

I found the above quote while cruising’s reviews, and the comparison clicked for me. Scott, like Fowles, is an English storyteller carved from the post-war ’50s. Scott’s craftsmanship is excellent, his structure sound. I watched his Russell Crowe vehicle ‘A Good Year’ -about a smarmy Brit trader who finds his soul while staying at an old family chateau in the French countryside-  over a dozen times on HBO because it was so well put together (Scott also cast women with big breast is every role, another Fowles’ trait.)

But what core message resonated from say ‘Gladiator’ or ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ or any of his movies not titled ‘Bladerunner’ or ‘Alien’? Strength in Honor? Really?

Fowles, too, carries Scott’s strengths and suffers his same weaknesses.

The Magus, Fowles’ first attempted novel (he published The Collector first) follows Nicholas Urfe, a young, educated English malcontent, who like most guys in his mid-twenties, is self-absorbed, overcompensates for his low self-esteem by leaning on his booksmarts and sarcasm, and uses women to make himself feel better.

Urfe lives in London, where he meets Alison, an Australian, who, while a good souls, has her arms full of emotional baggage. Not wanting to attach himself in a long-term relationship, Urfe looks for the next gig out of country, and settles on teaching ESL at the Lord Byron School on the Greek island of Phraxos. He arrives,  battles depression and makes a vein attempted at suicide.

In the throws of his darkness, he meets Maurice Conchis, an older gentleman of vague ethnic origin who lives in a villa on the far side of the island. Conchis is a practitioner of the godgame, a series of psychological manipulations -human tablaeus, hypnosis, enhanced story telling, sexual manipulation, high-stress live action role-playing are among his tools- to test Urfe during his stay on the island.

Urfe is receptive to the games at first, but then Conchis start to carve away at his core neurosis. The young Englishman attempts to turn the tables and extract the reasoning behind Conchis’ experiment, but only has the rug pulled out from under his feet again and again. The old man’s trickery forces Urfe to make tough decisions at heated moments, decisions driven by his inherit psychology and enhanced by his godgame experiences.

I read the revised edition, and am not about to pick up the original at this point. Maybe in a decade or two. There’s fervent debate as to how much Fowles’ actually enjoyed this book, and why he felt a need to tweak it over the years. A quote from this biography: “The Magus is a traditional quest story made complex by the incorporation of dilemmas involving freedom, hazard and a variety of existential uncertainties. Fowles compared it to a detective story because of the way it teases the reader: ‘You mislead them ideally to lead them into a greater truth…it’s a trap which I hope will hook the reader,’ he says.

Fowles succeeds in his personal misssion. The Magus reads as a high-end Hollywood thriller, with the protagonist peeling away layers of reality like onion slices. And like an onion, the core of this mystery is hallow.

The quest to find the heart of the unanswerable mystery keeps the pages turning, thankfully, since Urfe as character is a prick to follow. Unlike some reviews I’ve read, I didn’t need Urfe to grow in his understanding and be older and wiser for his experience. I lean to the David Chase/Tony Soprano life view;  we can attempt to change, and want to change, but we tend to have a core self that will never budge.

But unlike Tony S., who’s exploits made for quality HBO entertainment, Urfe is consistently unlikable, from page 1 to past the 600 page mark. When I picked up the gist of where the plot was leading to, I began to sympathize with every character but Urfe, and secretly enjoyed his failures. Maybe that’s Fowles’ intent? Or maybe that just says more about my inner core.

This book force me, in a delightful way, to pick up my copy of Bullfinch’s Mythology and catch up on my Greek and Roman mythology. Urfe’s character uses piles of alusions to Circe, Demeter, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, as well as old and 1950s’ contempory artists, and a secret joy was to google who or what he was refering to. My cup of literary reference and poetic knowledge is a little more full for it.

A Customer, my above quoted reviewer, succinctly captured the overarching themes of Fowles’ literature in another part of his review:

So there’s the usual bit of thought, the usual bit of female nudity (well, quite a lot, actually), the usual rumination on the human condition, and the usual episode featuring a bearded middle-aged writer whose alluring intellect very young women find so attractive they overlook his bandy white legs and paunch and leap enthusiastically into his bed. If you’ve read his Daniel Martin, you’ll know exactly what I mean. If you actually *are* a bearded middle-aged writer with said bandy white legs and paunch, you won’t.

Change ‘bearded middle-aged writer’ with ’20-something malcontent’ and you have “The Magus.”


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