Monday, January 16, 2012

#93 - The Magus

John Fowles (1926-2005) was born into the interwar English upper-middle class. He was educated at the Bedford School (appropriately, the same school attended some seventy years prior by Samuel L. MacGregor Mathers, the Golden Dawn occultist) and New College, Oxford. He had the good fortune to graduate from a preparatory course for the Royal Marines the very day that Germany surrendered in World War II, and subsequently spent his twenties teaching English at, among other places, a private school on a Greek island, before becoming a full time writer.
He was, by all accounts and the testimony of his own journals, a thoroughly irritable and grouchy man, full of hatred for his publishers, his considerable success, his readers, and the human race in general. His other novels include The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Collector, and Daniel Martin. The Magus was the first written but the second to see print, being published in 1966 and revised a decade later. (I read the revised edition for this review.)

The Magus is a story by Nicholas Urfe[1], who shares a class and an education with his author. Having been suddenly and violently orphaned as a young adult (plane crash), he spends his early twenties womanizing and reading English at Oxford. At last, to escape his malaise, he signs up to teach English at the Lord Byron School for Boys, an academy run for Greek children on the (fictional) island of Phraxos in the Aegean.
Here is where (I hope, for Fowles’ sake) the book stops being autobiographical. In the course of his year teaching on Phraxos, he learns of an eccentric old Greek, Maurice Conchis, who lives in a private estate called Bourani on the far side of the island. Entranced by stories he has heard of the place, he comes to Bourani and meets the old man. He finds a welcoming and willing host, and Nicholas begins to spend his weekends at the school.
So begins Nicholas’s journey through “the godgame”, as Conchis unfolds a philosophy and a psychology to his new initiate through stories, pamphlets, and carefully staged ‘scenes’ with other guests at Bourani. What starts as a fairly bucolic exploration of classical myth and pagan spirituality quickly darkens, as the wretched impulses of the human soul – sexual jealousy, dishonesty, madness, and even the cruelty of the Nazi occupation creep into Conchis’s game. Gradually, as the masques, scenes and fabrications multiply, Nicholas loses his grasp on what is real and what is illusory.

Our narrator is Nick, and nothing in the whole book is sketched quite so richly as he is. We get a very clear sketch, warts and all. He is overly fond of himself, narcissistic, a little racist, a little more misogynistic (or at least, opportunistic where women are concerned.) He is a serial liar, viewing every conversation as an act in which he is playing a part, with elements of truth and elements of falsehood. This bit we see even on the last pages of the novel, when in theory he is supposed to have learned something and changed somehow. We catch him telling lies to Conchis, loved ones, and himself.
Because he also reports his own perceptions to us as if they were reality, he is (quite deliberately) an extremely uncertain narrator. When he suddenly comes to a new understanding of a person or situation, we readers can see the novel’s reality shifting on the page. Sometimes this can be distracting (he refers to the same characters by different names as he works out for himself which are the real names and which are the pseudonyms) but the general disorienting effect adds to the book’s aesthetic.

Two things are absolutely critical for the effect that Fowles is attempting to achieve in The Magus. The first is that the audience not be allowed to pierce the veil and see through the illusions before they are revealed to the narrator. In this, Fowles genuinely succeeds. I had been spoiled on one late plot element by some too-careless preliminary reading; nonetheless, two-thirds of the way through the book, he had succeeded in pulling the rug out from under me, had me doubting that things were going to turn out the way that I had been told that they would. Fowles times his reversals of previously established knowledge extremely well, with the effect that I was just as uncertain as (or more than ) Nicholas what was real and what was not. A few of the revelations and twists I could (vaguely) see coming, but most caught me genuinely by surprise, even when I could tell that something was amiss.
The second critical thing is a satisfactory resolution. This does not mean necessarily that it needs to be a resolution in which every phantasm is unmasked and every mystery is meticulously explained – and indeed, we do not get that here. However, the ending should at least ‘fit’ with the depth and intensity of the masques that Nick has gone through. Here, Fowles fumbles a bit. Without revealing the ending, I will say that I was left partially unsatisfied by what was revealed of the ‘purpose’ of the godgame. It did not seem to sustain the intensity and importance of the earlier parts, and I would rather have had more left unanswered than be given the answers provided.

Aside from these structural issues, Fowles is a very skilled writer. To be honest, I found his prose more compelling when he was describing the mundane and the natural, and he lost me a bit when he veered towards the occult and the mystical. When he described the tentative dance of Nick and one of his lovers in a London flat, the emotional charge was palpable on the page. The glum of a London sky for a Brit freshly returned from the Mediterranean infected his last chapters. When he tries to describe mystical experiences and altered psychological states, the sharpness of his descriptive technique fails him and he relies a bit more on stale, stock phrases and ideas.
Among the best of these descriptiosn are those that involve Greece itself. Athens and the isle of Phraxos come alive on these pages – each season and each vista in its turn. When Nick and an old girlfriend from London climb Parnassus, I could see virtually match the view from the top to a photograph I have. Every description of a Greek meal made me lick my lips instinctively. His (frequent) evocations of the Greek sea convey the wide range of moods of the Aegean.

The book is richly allusive. Among the most skillfully deployed is a constant invocation of Shakespeare. Nicholas and the principal inhabitants of Bourani are by turns explicitly cast as Prospero, Ferdinand and Miranda; Maria, Olivia and Malvolio; Iago, Othello and Desdemona; and Hamlet and Ophelia. Not explicitly announced, but no less present in the margins, are evocations of Macbeth. A sequence of de Sade epigraphs to the book’s three ‘sections’ also highlight another overt allusion. The evocations of pagan, occult, and Jungian symbology are no less rich, though Fowles disappointed me in the last stage of the book with a passage where he ‘gave the game away’ a bit too quickly, having Nick perform research that reveals his mythological sources a bit too explicitly for my taste. Make the reader do some legwork!

A novel of 668 pages can be justified, but requires a good reason for each scene that is included. Some of the passages of The Magus did not seem to me to pass this threshold. It is not a story that could have been told in 350 or 400 pages, but a judicious editor probably could have removed about a hundred pages and produced a book just as good and a little tighter.

The potential reader should note that Fowles gets pretty sadistic with Nick (and his audience) in some of the godgame’s darkest chapters. I keep a fairly stiff critical distance from the books I read, and nonetheless I found certain passages difficult to endure.
It should also be noted for potential readers that The Magus contains snippets of other languages that are occasionally left untranslated. A reader who does not command French will not appreciate the de Sade epigraphs and will miss some dialog. A reader without modern Greek will miss a handful of scattered words in Nick’s conversations with islanders. And a reader without Latin will (potentially most maddeningly) be at a loss with the novel’s very last line (drawn from an obscure Late Antique Latin poem.)

Does The Magus belong here on our list? Though I found myself initially ambivalent, ultimately I came down on the side of ‘yes’. Fowles’ prose is sparkling, and his book is highly ambitious for what is, after all, a first novel. If he fails to quite hit his mark, it is in no small part because he shot so high in the first place. Some of the psychoanalytical material is badly dated, and the central themes of the book are by no means clear, but once the mysteries fade away and the book's message is digested, what it says along the way about human free will, human responsibility, and the nature of human relationships is both valuable and timeless.

[1] I have no idea how this name is supposed to be pronounced. A Greek man is represented phonetically as saying it “Oof” at one point, but since he is not portrayed as a fluent English speaker, I’m not sure how far this deviates from reality.

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