The Magus by John Fowles
There was an adaptation of this on Radio 4 recently and in the run up to it the BBC publicity machine pumped out the phrase “this book will change your life!”. “Change your life?” I thought, “I can get on board with that”. And, a few months later, I took the plunge and bought myself a copy.
First things first, this novel is fairly lengthy and is up there with Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night for the longest book I’ve read this year. As a result, it took me a month to get through it, not helped by the fact it was a little plodding in places. The Magus is best described as Shakespeare’s The Tempest meets the film The Truman Show, as both the protagonist, Nicholas Urfe, and the reader’s perception of the world and the truth becomes ever more warped.
The Magus is all based around the idea of adventure and escaping the ennui, as a recent unfulfilled university graduate looks for life’s next big step. Urfe takes up a post teaching English at a boarding school on a Greek island and there the adventure begins as he becomes involved with a mysterious character called Conchis. Urfe’s an interesting character which is starkly apparent in the way he presents his relationship with his (now dead) parents in the opening chapters. As the book develops, it becomes clear that he is deeply flawed but I’d argue that he is no more flawed in terms of characteristics than the average person. There’s a comment made towards the end that he’d make a dreadful husband which I found unnecessarily harsh. For some reason that struck me as one of the worst insults you could ever give someone – you are undeserving of a loving relationship.
It took me a while to get into the first half of the book. Not because it was incredibly dull but it hadn’t yet captured me. There’s so many layers to this novel and they are stripped back incredibly slowly to begin with. The second half, however, I relatively raced through as more and more layers were stripped back and the reveal of the truth become ever near. Every single notion that you think to be true about the island and the characters during this novel will be turned on its head as you continue reading, and within the space of a few pages, turned again. In essence, you can’t trust anybody. The weird thing about this is that it didn’t give a sense of listlessness to the novel. As a reader you’re very aware that everything you’re reading in the middle of the book (and everything previously) is probably untrue and no longer relevant, and are also aware that the next few chapters will be the same, but you keep on going. With a murder mystery broadly a lot of what you read going through it may be untrue or irrelevant and it’s the little details from across the book that come together at the end to form the satisfying conclusion. The Magus isn’t like that, the clues to the truth aren’t presented throughout but it doesn’t feel any less worthy as a result.
The ending is an interesting one because, having read the whole novel, there’s no way you can’t place yourself in Urfe’s shoes and make the final decision for him. It’s not a matter of life and death but after everything he’s gone through, has he got anything left to lose? Should he protect himself from more pain? What’s the endgame? Is the game still being played? Could, looking back on everything that has been revealed, the entire process be viewed as abject cruelty? Will Urfe in some way be permanently mentally affected as a result of his experiences? Can he ever trust anyone again?
The Magus isn’t poorly written; Fowles has a real way with description throughout (some sections are very heavy on it though) and some lines just leap out at you. The one that stuck with me was the description of a noise heard during the night, and is as follows:
There was a strange call from the dark trees to the east of the house. I had heard it in the evenings at school, and at first thought it made by some moronic village boy. It was very high-pitched, repeated at intervals: Kew, Kew, Kew. Like a melancholy, trans-migrated bus conductor.
The novel is set and written post WWII so as you’d imagine this does feature, particularly in the second half. It isn’t done gratuitously though; it does seem relevant to the book’s themes.
Enjoyable? Vaguely. It certainly felt colossus but I’d still recommend it to people. And based on Woody Allen’s famous quotation I think I’ll give the film adaptation a miss.
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