The Magus

The MagusMagus2
John Fowles
Probably the most intriguiging
book I ever read…

The Magus tells the story of a young British graduate, Nicholas Urfe, who goes to Greece to teach English in a private boy-school on a small island. He encounters a local millionaire, Conchis, who lives as a recluse on the island. Nicholas is gradually drawn into Conchis’s psychological games, his paradoxical views on life, his mysterious persona, and his eccentric masques. At first, Nicholas takes these posturings of Conchis, what the novel terms the “godgame,” to be a joke, but they grow more and more elaborate and sinister.

The first time I read the novel in one sitting. I just couldn’t put it down. When I came to the shocking end, I was flabbergasted. What had I missed? I immediatly started reading it from page 1 again.
What is this book about? It seems to touch the whole spectrum of human experience–love, pain, loss, failure, elation, depression, hatred, fatalism… But I can’t classify it! Is it about initiation, growing up? Is it a book about romance, war, about life itself or about attempts of humans to impose meaning upon the chaos of their own lives and the universe?

And Nicholas flounders around as helplessly. The game is a labyrinth of allusions, symbols, and parables;  but is there  any underlying meaning? The Magus intentionally fills it with references to Homer, Shakespeare, and Dickens, but using any of those references to impose a structure on the game only leads to dead ends. Once Nicholas thinks he has a mental construct that makes sense of events, a new facet is revealed that destroys the construct and plunges events back into confusion. By the end, it is apparent there will be no easy answers: meaning must be created, not served on a platter.

John Fowles wrote:
”If The Magus has any ’real significance’, it is no more than that of the Rorschach Test in psychology. Its meaning is whatever reaction it provokes in the reader.”

The first time I read this novel was 37 years ago. Since then I have reread it now and then, and indeed, as the years have passed by, I have interpreted it differently each time.

John Fowles was always unwilling to discuss ”the meaning of the book”, but he made an exception in a letter to a high school student . Here he discusses a possible interpretation of his novel.
”I haven’t much spare time and even if I had I wouldn’t spend it explaning my own creation. What one writes is one’s explanation, you see, and if it’s baffling, then perhaps the explanation is baffling. But two approaches—the Magus is trying to suggest to Nicholas that reality, human existence is infinitely baffling. One gets one explanation . The Christian, the psychological, the scientific… but always it gets burnt off like summer mist and a new landscape-explanation appears. He suggests that the one valid reality or principle lies in eleutheria—freedom. Accept that man has the possibility of a limited freedom and that if this so, he must be responsible for his actions. To be free (which means rejecting all the gods and political creeds and the rest) leaves one no choice but to act according to reason: that is humanely to all humans.”


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