The Magus

The Magus - John Fowles I find myself caught between rant and rave. More rave, which is why I rated it so high, but enough wish to rant to withhold that fifth star. This is a strange book. In the Foreword to the 1978 Revised edition, Fowles said one title he considered was "The Godgame." A young Englishman, Nicholas Urfe, comes in 1953 to the isolated Greek island of Phraxos (modeled on the real island of Spetsai) to teach at an elite boarding school. He's our narrator, our focus through 656 pages, and he's callow, a cad, and more than a bit of a snob. He encounters a mysterious man calling himself Maurice Conchis living in a villa who takes on God-like qualities. Not the God of Christians or Jews or Muslims mind you. More of the Pagan kind that enjoys playing with mortals like toys. Half-way through the novel I was completely enraptured by the plot's twists and turns. By two-thirds in though, not unlike Nicholas himself, I was more than a bit exasperated by the intricacies, reversals and cruelties of the game, with the sense that not only Nicholas but I the reader was being toyed with. Fowles in the Foreward admitted reviews of the book had "justified criticisms of excess, over-complexity, artificiality" and I agree the novel is guilty on all fronts. I both liked and was repelled by how Fowles played with the connections between life and fiction--how he never let you forget you were reading fiction--in many senses of the word. With this novel the "truth" keeps shifting under your feet, and I wasn't left feeling satisfied at the end--and suspect Fowles didn't want me to be. Yet I was never tempted to bail--and this read incredibly fast. The book is beautifully, compellingly written. I couldn't put it down with the mystery of Conchis and what he was up to unresolved. In a BBC interview included in the back of my edition, Fowles said he loved "pure narrative" and he felt very few writers can make up for a lack of storytelling ability in other ways--that he valued "readability." And you can see that in the novel--it's shamelessly plot-filled--in good and bad ways. Engrossing, eventful, but sometimes stagey--yet despite its literary sensibility definitely accessible. About the only thing I could complain about is Fowles' habit of sprinkling bits of Latin, Greek and French untranslated. The Magus is both on the "1001 Books to Read Before You Die" list and Playboy's list of "The 25 Sexiest Novels Ever Written." This isn't pornography, there's not much sexual content in terms of number of pages--but it's not only present, it's well-written (rather than, as is almost always the case even in so-called literature, embarrassingly awful.) So many lines were quotable and resonant and there's enough that's twisty in it I could see it repaying more readings. So, interesting writer, interesting book--but rather unsettling.