As this 1966 novel was chosen as the latest offering in our book club, one of our members exclaimed, “I’ll talk about it but I’m not reading that again!”. This didn’t bode well for the The Magus, by John Fowles. But I was willing to give it a go and to get to the end. It isn’t often I don’t finish books and this one was no exception, but 656 pages later I was more than a little frustrated.
It follows the story of Nicholas Urfe, an Oxford educated public school teacher in his early twenties. After a year teaching at an English public school and a short but intense affair with a young Australian air hostess in London, he decides to travel to Greece to take up the post of English Master at an exclusive boarding school on the tiny island of Phraxos. Initially bored, due to the lack of company of his own age, he soon finds himself in the company of a wealthy elderly gentleman, Conchis, one of the few English speaking people on the island. He is invited to visit most weekends, during which he begins to hear the story of Conchis’ own personal history. Soon though, he realises that he is caught in an intricate psychological, mythological, and emotionally perverse game – the godgame. Over the course of the year, he is introduced to a bizarre cast of characters, including beautiful English twins, also in their early twenties. He begins to fall for one of them. Questioning everything he is told and experiences, caught inside an ever increasingly bizarre situation, he is overcome with curiosity, anger and the search for truth and cannot bring himself simply to walk away and has to see this macabre game out until the end.
Immediately after finishing the book I tweeted this:
656 pages and then you don’t tell us what happened? John Fowles, that is a very mean trick to play.
— Andrew Dunlop (@tallandrew) March 23, 2014
Some spoilers follow from this point
That is the level of frustration that this book left me with. Whilst it is undoubtedly well-written, and the description of the Greek island is beautiful and idyllic, at no point do we get a reason or explanation for the weird sequence of events that Urfe endures. There is a meanness to the game that his played. Urfe’s letters are intercepted. Things are made up and evidence fabricated to make him believe that certain things are happening outside of the island in order to guarantee his participation in the game on it. Conchis and his friends even, somehow, persuade the Australian ex-girlfriend to be a part of it (although we are never told how they persuade her) and they convince him that she has committed suicide, just at the moment that he realises his true and deep feelings for her. He is distraught but the effect of this is simply to entice him further into the trap.
The final straw for me was the ending. Urfe returns to London to try and piece together parts of the story he has been told, and finds even more people who are in on it. When he eventually discovers that his Australian friend is alive, he realises he simply has to wait. He will not find her until they allow him to. The last section is written very well and, in the spirit of a detective novel, leaves you wanting to turn to pages to find out the resolution. you want Urfe and the air hostess to get back together. Sadly you never find out. The book ends with them meeting and arguing, both quite justified in the hurt and confusion that has preceded. Both want answers, as does the reader, but Fowles doesn’t give them. He simple ends the book before it is really finished.
I imagine this is the type of book that lots of people start but never finish. One of those that looks intelligent but sits on lots of bookshelves unread. Six hundred pages, albeit of well-written prose, but culminating in no clear ending or message is severely disappointing. I can’t say I understood it, but it seems that Fowles doesn’t really want us to, and no other reviews I’ve seen can shed much more light than that.
I did come across this letter, reportedly from the author himself shortly after the novel was first published. It seems that he is being deliberately baffling, trying to deconstruct freedom which, he says, results in the rejection of everything except human reason.
Whilst I cannot disagree with the conclusion of the letter – acting humanely to all humans is simple a rephrasing of Jesus’ commandment to love others as we love ourselves – however, “reason alone” is an argument that the new atheists still try to peddle today, and it is flawed. I think that modernism has shown that reason alone cannot help us in everything, and leaves vast areas of life untouched. The Christian would argue that true freedom is only found in God – growing into the people that he has created us to be.
Credit to Fowles for his writing – The Magus certainly leaves plenty to ponder on, but I can’t say I recommend this. It is simple too random, unexplained, and frustrating. And it doesn’t have a proper ending.