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Wednesday, 21 March 2012

The Magic of John Fowles

Books we love we read more than once or twice
In 2009 I was asked by superweblogger Norman Geras to write a piece about a novel that had affected me. Recently Norman contributed a piece to this page (Go back four posts...)  so it made me look at this one again. I thought it would fit very well with this new love affair blog of mine.  I wrote the piece for him and because at that moment I was thinking about time and shape-shifting for An Englishwoman in 
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Some thoughts on John Fowles’ novel ‘The Magus’.*
‘… it must substantially remain a novel of adolescence written by a retarded adolescent. My only plea is that all artists have to range the full extent of their private lives freely. The rest of the world can censor and bury their private past. We cannot…’ John Fowles, in his introduction to the revised 1977 edition of The Magus.

Of the hundreds – even thousands – of novels I have read in the last forty years The Magus is one of only two novels - the other is Alan Garner's Owl Service - which I read to the end and then turned straight back to the beginning to read it again to find out what the heck it was about.

My bafflement is not unique: many people emerge from reading this long novel with a feeling of floundering, of not-quite-knowing. John Fowles wrote to one schoolgirl, ‘What one writes is one’s own explanation, you see, and if it’s baffling then the explanation is baffling…The Magus is trying to suggest that reality, human experience is infinitely baffling…’

The Magus tells us the story of Nicholas Urfe, a kind of mid-century intellectual everyman touched by post-world-war-blues and the edges of existentialism, shot through with heavily-worn learning and the cynical naiveté of personal, sexual and political inexperience. Nicholas is a fool rushing in where only magicians and shapeshifters tread.

Fowles tells us elsewhere that as a child, being short-tongued, he used to call the ‘earth’ ‘urf’ and perhaps that’s where Nicholas’s surname comes from. Occasionally, as I re-read the novel to write this piece, I wondered whether Nicholas Oaf might provide a better clue to this intriguing character.
The young, intelligent, self absorbed Nicholas goes to the Greek island of Phraxos to teach in a high school, just as John Fowles himself did as a young man on the real island of Spetsai.
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On Phraxos, bored with the school and the teaching, Nicholas falls in love with the light, the landscape and the natural environment of the island – as did Fowles in his diary:
I walked through a small brake, and a woodcock flew off from under my feet. A lizard scuttled away. It was very warm, airy; I struck off the road and came to a cliff facing westwards. I sat on the edge of it, on a rock, and the world was at my feet. I have never had so vividly the sense of standing on the world; the world below me.’

Fowles obsesses about the light, writing again in his diary - ‘It and its absence are life and death. It reveals everything and spares nothing. It can be both achingly beautiful and consoling; it can be terrifyingly ugly.’ – and simply all of this is all reflected in the novel in the way the Island weaves its spell on the young Englishman Nicholas Urfe.
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The spell is personified in Conchis, a millionaire resident who lives in an exquisite villa on a headland. Using beautiful identical twins as bate, he lures Nicholas into his world in which nothing is what it seems and reality changes according to Conchis’s whim and will. To unleash this magic, Conchis tells Nicholas fantastic stories which change form and meaning; he uses masques and staged scenarios masterminded by himself, playing mind games with Nicholas – and of course with the reader, who is driven to identify with Nicholas’ fear and angry bewilderment, in order to hang onto the crazy course of the novel.

It strikes me that The Magus is a narrative of mind and meaning that can only exist in novel form. There was a disastrous – even laughable - attempt at a film which focused ridiculously on sado-masochistic sequences which are only one illusory element in the series of games which Conchis plays on Nicholas Urfe. The more successful filming of his novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman had a screenplay by Harold Pinter who cleverly tackled the job by treating the screenplay as a kind of metaphor for the novel.

But we need no esoteric knowledge to relish this novel. It works on so many levels – it works as a quest novel; a novel of adolescent rites of passage; a novel of place and the natural world; a novel shot through magic realism, (meeting Matthew Strecher’s definition - what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something 'too strange to believe.
This novel can be all things to each reader. Perhaps it is this all-encompassing nature – so full of adolescent energy, firing on all cylinders – which is baffling for the kind of reader who wants a safe journey, a sure narrative and a distinct - more or less predictable – ending. She or her needs this to take him or her through a novel.

I read The Magus twice: in its first edition in 1967; then I read his revised edition in 1977. How odd, you would think, to revise your novel and put it out there again! At the very least this showed that The Magus, for John Fowles, was clearly unfinished, highly personal, business. (There is another discussion there…)

But for me there is no doubt that The Magus is John Fowles’ masterpiece. It is an historic novel of the mid twentieth century - trailing the smoke of D H Lawrence, Alain-Fournier, James Joyce, Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre, but marked by its own distinctive signature of intensity, its sense of magic, its confusions, its challenges to the reader, all of which are entirely unique to John Fowles.

Rereading the novel yet again I was worried in case I would find less in The Magus to relish. But in fact there is more. Since I last read it I've written a good number of novels myself. So now, as well as still appreciating all the other elements, I am reflecting on the courage, the originality, the riskiness of the writing and the structure of the novel. And, strangely, I am now in the middle of writing a novel myself which is set in an ancient magical place and involves unexplainable time illusions that may baffle the reader.
This has been a bit of a risky departure for me, but re-reading The Magus has been inspiring. It is as though John Fowles (who tends to scatter Frenchisms in his prose) is shouting across the ether. ‘Courage mon brave!’
If you liked it then, you will like it now. Worth a second or third or FOURTH read (2012)  for anybody ...

Is anyone else out there still reading John Fowles


  1. I still read John Fowles, Wendy - maybe because Lyme Regis, with all its JF associations, is not that far from me. A close friend (another admirer of John Fowles) and I often used to meet at Lyme, walk out along the Cobb, and discuss his books, all of which we had read and reread several times.

    The one which always remains with me (not least the scenes in Egypt and at Palmyra) is Daniel Martin.

  2. Dear Boots
    yet again, our tastes converge! I envy you living in that evocative part of the very complex English landscape. Now I must go back to Daniel Martin...

    This reading and re-reading is such a special treat and a genuine tribute to the writer.

    Keep well