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By John Fowles
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A young Englishman, Nicholas Urfe, accepts a teaching post on a remote Greek island in order to escape an unsatisfactory love affair. There, his friendship with a reclusive millionaire evolves into a mysterious–and deadly–game of violence, seduction, and betrayal. As he is drawn deeper into the trickster’s psychological traps, Nicholas finds it increasingly difficult to distinguish past from present, fantasy from reality. He becomes a desperate man fighting for his sanity and his very survival.
John Fowles expertly unfolds a spellbinding exploration of the complexities of the human mind. By turns disturbing, thrilling and seductive, The Magus is a masterwork of contemporary literature.
Table of Contents
Reading Group Guide
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Though this is not, in any major thematic or narrative sense, a fresh version of The Magus, it is rather more than a stylistic revision. A number of scenes have been largely rewritten, and one or two new ones invented. I have taken this somewhat unusual course not least because—if letters are any test—the book has aroused more interest than anything else I have written. I have long learnt to accept that the fiction that professionally always pleased me least (a dissatisfaction strongly endorsed by many of its original reviewers) persists in attracting a majority of my readers most.
The story appeared in 1965, after two other books, but in every way except that of mere publishing date, it is a first novel. I began writing it in the early 1950s, and both narrative and mood went through countless transformations. In its original form there was a clear supernatural element—an attempt at something along the lines of Henry James's masterpiece, The Turn of the Screw. But I had no coherent idea at all of where I was going, in life as in the book. A more objective side of me did not then believe I should ever become a publishable writer; a subjective one could not abandon the myth it was trying, clumsily and laboriously, to bring into the world; and my strongest memory is of constantly having to abandon drafts because of an inability to describe what I wanted. Both technique and that bizarre face of the imagination that seems to be more like a failure to remember the already existent than what it really is—a failure to evoke the non-existent—kept me miserably aground. Yet when the success of The Collector in 1963 gave me some literary confidence, it was this endlessly tortured and recast cripple that demanded precedence over various other novels I had attempted in the 1950s… and at least two of which were, I suspect, more presentable and might have done my name, at least in my own country, more good.
In 1964 I went to work and collated and rewrote all the previous drafts. But The Magus remained essentially where a tyro taught himself to write novels—beneath its narrative, a notebook of an exploration, often erring and misconceived, into an unknown land. Even in its final published form it was a far more haphazard and naïvely instinctive work than the more intellectual reader can easily imagine; the hardest blows I had to bear from critics were those which condemned the book as a coldly calculated exercise in fantasy, a cerebral game. But then one of the (incurable) faults of the book was the attempt to conceal the real state of endless flux in which it was written.
Besides the obvious influence of Jung, whose theories deeply interested me at the time, three other novels were of importance in the writing. The model I was most conscious of was Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes, indeed so conscious that in the course of revision I suppressed a number of too overt references. The parallels may not be very striking to the literal-minded analyst, but The Magus would have been a profoundly different book if it were not for its French forebear. The capacity of Le Grand Meaulnes (for some of us, at any rate) to provide an experience beyond the literary was precisely what I wanted to instil in my own story. Another failure in The Magus, which again I can't now remedy, was my inability to see that this is a characteristic longing of adolescence. At least the adolescence of Henri Fournier's protagonist is open and specific.
The second influence may seem surprising, but it was undoubtedly that of a book which haunted my childhood imagination, Richard Jefferies' Bevis. I believe novelists are formed, whether they know it or not, very young indeed; and Bevis shares a quality with Le Grand Meaulnes, that of projecting a very different world from the one that is—or was to the middle-class suburban child I had outwardly to be. I cite it as a reminder that the deep pattern, and mood, of such books remains long after one has graduated from them in more obvious ways.
The third book that lies behind The Magus I did not recognize at the time, and can list now thanks to the percipience of a student at Reading University, who wrote to me one day, years after publication, and pointed out the numerous parallels with Great Expectations. What she was not to know is that it is the one novel of Dickens for which I have always had an undivided admiration and love (and for which I forgive him so much else I dislike in his work); that during the earlier writing of my own novel I was even teaching it, with great enjoyment, as a set book; and that I long toyed with the notion of making Conchis a woman—an idea whose faint ghost, Miss Havisham's, remains in the figure of Mrs de Seitas. One small new passage in this revised text is in homage to that unseen influence.
Two other more considerable changes need a brief word. The erotic element is stronger in two scenes. I regard that as merely the correction of a past failure of nerve. The other change is in the ending. Though its general intent has never seemed to me as obscure as some readers have evidently found it—perhaps because they have not given due weight to the two lines from the Pervigilium Veneris that close the book—I accept that I might have declared a preferred aftermath less ambiguously… and now have done so.
No writer will happily disclose the deeper biographical influences of his work, which are seldom those of outward date and occupation, and I am no exception. But my island of Phraxos (the 'fenced' island) was the real Greek island of Spetsai, where I taught in 1951 and 1952 at a private boarding-school—not, in those days, very like the one in the book. If I had attempted a true portrait of it, I should have been committed to a comic novel.*
The well-known Greek millionaire who has now taken over a part of Spetsai is in no way connected with my fictional one; the arrival of Mr Niarchos came much later. Nor was the then owner of the villa of 'Bourani', some of whose outward appearance and whose superb site I did appropriate, in the least the model for my character, though I understand that this is now by way of becoming another local legend. I met the gentleman—a friend of the elder Venizelos—only twice, and very briefly. It was his house that I remembered.
It is probably impossible today—I speak from hearsay, never having returned there—to imagine Spetsai as I have pictured it just after the war. Life there was lonely in the extreme, though there were always two English masters at the school, not the one of the book. I was fortunate in my chance-brought colleague, and now old friend, Denys Sharrocks. He was exceptionally well-read, and far wiser in the ways of the Greeks than myself. He first took me to the villa. He had recently decided to kill a literary ambition of his own. 'Bourani', he declared wrily, was where he had on a previous visit written the last poem of his life. In some peculiar way this fused a spark in my imagination; the strangely isolated villa, its magnificent setting, the death of a friend's illusion; and as we approached the villa on its cape that first time, there came a very bizarre sound indeed for a classical landscape… not the august Pleyel harpsichord of my book, but something much more absurdly reminiscent of a Welsh chapel. I hope the harmonium is still there. It also gave birth to something.
Foreign faces on the island—even Greek ones—were then great rarities. I remember a boy rushing up to Denys and myself one day to announce that another Englishman had landed from the Athens steamer—and how we set off, like two Dr Livingstones, to greet this unheard-of arrival on our desert island. On another occasion it was Henry Miller's Colossus of Maroussi, Katsimbalis, whom we hastened to pay our respects to. There was still a touching atmosphere of one village about Greece then.
Away from its inhabited corner Spetsai was truly haunted, though by subtler—and more beautiful—ghosts than those I have created. Its pine-forest silences were uncanny, unlike those I have experienced anywhere else; like an eternally blank page waiting for a note or a word. They gave the most curious sense of timelessness and of incipient myth. In no place was it less likely that something would happen; yet somehow happening lay always poised. The genius loci was very similar indeed to that of Mallarmé's finest poems of the unseen flight, of words defeated before the inexpressible. I am hard put to convey the importance of this experience for me as a writer. It imbued and marked me far more profoundly than any of my more social and physical memories of the place. I already knew I was a permanent exile from many aspects of English society, but a novelist has to enter deeper exiles still.
In most outward ways this experience was depressive, as many young would-be writers and painters who have gone to Greece for inspiration have discovered. We used to have a nickname for the sense of inadequacy and accidie it induced—the 'Aegean Blues'. One has to be a very complete artist to create good work among the purest and most balanced landscapes on this planet, and especially when one knows that their only conceivable human match was met in a time beyond re-entry. The Greece of the islands is Circe still; no place for the artist-voyager to linger long, if he cares for his soul.
No correlative whatever of my fiction, beyond the above, took place on Spetsai during my stay. What ground the events of the book have in reality came after I had returned to England. I had escaped Circe, but the withdrawal symptoms were severe. I had not then realized that loss is essential for the novelist, immensely fertile for his books, however painful to his private being. This unresolved sense of a lack, a missed opportunity, led me to graft certain dilemmas of a private situation in England on the memory of the island and its solitudes, which became increasingly for me the lost Eden, the domaine sans nom of Alain-Fournier—even Bevis's farm, perhaps. Gradually my protagonist, Nicholas, took on, if not the true representative face of a modern Everyman, at least that of a partial Everyman of my own class and background. There is a private pun in the family name I gave him. As a child I could not pronounce th except as f, and Urfe really stands for Earth—a coining that long preceded the convenient connection with Honoré d'Urfé and L'Astrée.
The foregoing will, I hope, excuse me from saying what the story 'means'. Novels, even much more lucidly conceived and controlled ones than this, are not like crossword puzzles, with one unique set of correct answers behind the clues—an analogy ('Dear Mr Fowles, Please explain the real significance of…') I sometimes despair of ever extirpating from the contemporary student mind. 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, and so far as I am concerned there is no given 'right' reaction.
I should add that in revising the text I have not attempted to answer the many justified criticisms of excess, over-complexity, artificiality and the rest that the book received from the more sternly adult reviewers on its first appearance. I now know the generation whose mind it most attracts, and that it must always 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 own lives freely. The rest of the world can censor and bury their private past. We cannot, and so have to remain partly green till the day we die… callow-green in the hope of becoming fertile-green. It is a constant complaint in that most revealing of all modern novels about novelists, Thomas Hardy's agonized last fiction, The Well-Beloved: how the much younger self still rules the supposedly 'mature' and middle-aged artist. One may reject the tyranny, as Hardy himself did; but the cost is the end of one's ability to write novels. The Magus was also (though quite unconsciously) an out-of-hand celebration of acceptance of the yoke.
If there was some central scheme beneath the (more Irish than Greek) stew of intuitions about the nature of human existence—and of fiction—it lies perhaps in the alternative title, whose rejection I still sometimes regret: The Godgame. I did intend Conchis to exhibit a series of masks representing human notions of God, from the supernatural to the jargon-ridden scientific; that is, a series of human illusions about something that does not exist in fact, absolute knowledge and absolute power. The destruction of such illusions seems to me still an eminently humanist aim; and I wish there were some super-Conchis who could put the Arabs and the Israelis, or the Ulster Catholics and Protestants, through the same heuristic mill as Nicholas.
I do not defend Conchis's decision at the execution, but I defend the reality of the dilemma. God and freedom are totally antipathetic concepts; and men believe in their imaginary gods most often because they are afraid to believe in the other thing. I am old enough to realize now that they do so sometimes with good reason. But I stick by the general principle, and that is what I meant to be at the heart of my story: that true freedom lies between each two, never in one alone, and therefore it can never be absolute freedom. All freedom, even the most relative, may be a fiction; but mine, and still today, prefers the other hypothesis.
Un débauché de profession est rarement un homme pitoyable.
De Sade, Les Infortunes de la Vertu
I was born in 1927, the only child of middle-class parents, both English, and themselves born in the grotesquely elongated shadow, which they never rose sufficiently above history to leave, of that monstrous dwarf Queen Victoria. I was sent to a public school, I wasted two years doing my national service, I went to Oxford; and there I began to discover I was not the person I wanted to be.
I had long before made the discovery that I lacked the parents and ancestors I needed. My father was, through being the right age at the right time rather than through any great professional talent, a brigadier; and my mother was the very model of a would-be major-general's wife. That is, she never argued with him and always behaved as if he were listening in the next room, even when he was thousands of miles away. I saw very little of my father during the war, and in his long absences I used to build up a more or less immaculate conception of him, which he generally—a bad but appropriate pun—shattered within the first forty-eight hours of his leave.
Like all men not really up to their job, he was a stickler for externals and petty quotidian things; and in lieu of an intellect he had accumulated an armoury of capitalized key-words like Discipline and Tradition and Responsibility. If I ever dared—I seldom did—to argue with him, he would produce one of these totem words and cosh me with it, as no doubt in similar circumstances he quelled his subalterns. If one still refused to lie down and die, he lost, or loosed, his temper. His temper was like a red dog, and he always had it close to hand.
The wishful tradition is that our family came over from France after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes—noble Huguenots remotely allied to Honoré d'Urfé, author of the seventeenth-century best-seller L'Astrée. Certainly—if one excludes another equally unsubstantiated link with Tom Durfey, Charles II's scribbling friend—no other of my ancestors showed any artistic leanings whatever: generation after generation of captains, clergymen, sailors, squirelings, with only a uniform lack of distinction and a marked penchant for gambling, and losing, to characterize them. My grandfather had four sons, two of whom died in the First World War; the third took an unsavoury way of paying off his atavism (gambling debts) and disappeared to America. He was never referred to as still existing by my father, a youngest brother who had all the characteristics that eldest sons are supposed to possess; and I have not the least idea whether he is still alive, or even whether I have unknown cousins on the other side of the Atlantic.
During my last years at school I realized that what was really wrong with my parents was that they had nothing but a blanket contempt for the sort of life I wanted to lead. I was 'good' at English, I had poems printed pseudonymously in the school magazine, I thought D. H. Lawrence the greatest human being of the century; my parents certainly never read Lawrence, and had probably never heard of him except in connection with Lady Chatterley's Lover. There were things, a certain emotional gentleness in my mother, an occasional euphoric jolliness in my father, I could have borne more of; but always I liked in them the things they didn't want to be liked for. By the time I was eighteen and Hitler was dead they had become mere providers, for whom I had to exhibit a token gratitude, but could muster very little else.
I led two lives. At school I got a small reputation as a wartime aesthete and cynic. But I had to join the regiment—Tradition and Sacrifice pressganged me into that. I insisted, and luckily the headmaster of my school backed me, that I wanted to go to university afterwards. I went on leading a double life in the Army, queasily playing at being Brigadier 'Blazer' Urfe's son in public, and nervously reading Penguin New Writing and poetry pamphlets in private. As soon as I could, I got myself demobilized.
I went to Oxford in 1948. In my second year at Magdalen, soon after a long vacation during which I hardly saw my parents, my father had to fly out to India. He took my mother with him. Their plane crashed, a high-octane pyre, in a thunderstorm some forty miles east of Karachi. After the first shock I felt an almost immediate sense of relief, of freedom. My only other close relation, my mother's brother, farmed in Rhodesia, so I now had no family to trammel what I regarded as my real self. I may have been weak in filial charity, but I was strong on the discipline in vogue.
At least, along with a group of fellow odd men out at Magdalen, I thought I was so. We formed a small club called Les Hommes Révoltés, drank very dry sherry, and (as a protest against those shabby duffel-coated last years of the 'forties) wore dark-grey suits and black ties for our meetings. There we argued about being and nothingness and called a certain kind of inconsequential behaviour 'existentialist'. Less enlightened people would have called it capricious or just plain selfish; but we didn't understand that the heroes, or anti-heroes, of the French existentialist novels we read were not supposed to be realistic. We tried to imitate them, mistaking metaphorical descriptions of complex modes of feeling for straightforward prescriptions of behaviour. We duly felt the right anguishes. Most of us, true to the eternal dandyism of Oxford, simply wanted to look different. In our club, we did.
I acquired expensive habits and affected manners. I got a third-class degree and a first-class illusion: that I was a poet. But nothing could have been less poetic than my seeing-through-all boredom with life in general and with making a living in particular. I was too green to know that all cynicism masks a failure to cope—an impotence, in short; and that to despise all effort is the greatest effort of all. But I did absorb a small dose of one permanently useful thing, Oxford's greatest gift to civilized life: Socratic honesty. It showed me, very intermittently, that it is not enough to revolt against one's past. One day I was outrageously bitter among some friends about the Army; back in my own rooms later it suddenly struck me that just because I said with impunity things that would have apoplexed my dead father, I was still no less under his influence. The truth was I was not a cynic by nature; only by revolt. I had got away from what I hated, but I hadn't found where I loved, and so I pretended that there was nowhere to love.
Handsomely equipped to fail, I went out into the world. My father hadn't kept Financial Prudence among his armoury of essential words; he ran a ridiculously large account at Ladbroke's and his mess bills always reached staggering proportions, because he liked to be popular and in place of charm had to dispense alcohol. What remained of his money when the lawyers and the tax men had had their share yielded not nearly enough for me to live on. But every kind of job I looked at—the Foreign Service, the Civil, the Colonial, the banks, commerce, advertising—was transpierceable at a glance. I went to several interviews. Since I didn't feel obliged to show the eager enthusiasm our world expects from the young executive, I was successful at none.
In the end, like countless Oxford men before me, I answered an advertisement in The Times Educational Supplement. I went to the place, a minor public school in East Anglia; was cursorily scrutinized, then offered the post. I learnt later that there were only two other applicants, both Redbrick, and term was beginning in three weeks.
The mass-produced middle-class boys I had to teach were bad enough; the claustrophobic little town was a nightmare; but the really intolerable thing was the common-room. It became almost a relief to go into class. Boredom, the numbing annual predictability of life, hung over the staff like a cloud. And it was real boredom, not my modish ennui. From it flowed cant, hypocrisy, and the impotent rage of the old who know they have failed and the young who suspect they will fail. The senior masters stood like gallows sermons; with some of them one had a sort of vertigo, a glimpse of the bottomless pit of human futility… or so I began to feel during my second term.
I could not spend my life crossing such a Sahara; and the more I felt it the more I felt also that the smug, petrified school was a toy model of the entire country and that to quit the one and not the other would be ridiculous. There was also a girl I was tired of.
My resignation, I would see the school year out, was accepted with resignation. The headmaster briskly supposed from my vague references to a personal restlessness that I wanted to go to America or the Dominions.
'I haven't decided yet, headmaster.'
'I think we might have made a good teacher of you, Urfe. And you might have made something of us, you know. But it's too late now.'
'I'm afraid so.'
'I don't know if I approve of all this wandering off abroad. My advise is, don't go. However… vous l'avez voulu, Georges Danton. Vous l' avez voulu.'
The misquotation was typical.
It poured with rain the day I left. But I was filled with excitement, a strange exuberant sense of taking wing. I didn't know where I was going, but I knew what I needed. I needed a new land, a new race, a new language; and although I couldn't have put it into words then, I needed a new mystery.
I heard that the British Council were recruiting staff, so in early August I went along to Davies Street and was interviewed by an eager lady with a culture-stricken mind and a Roedean voice and vocabulary. It was frightfully important, she told me, as if in confidence, that 'we' were represented abroad by the right type; but it was an awful bore, all the posts had to be advertised and the candidates chosen by interview, and anyway they were having to cut down on overseas personnel—actually. She came to the point: the only jobs available meant teaching English in foreign schools—or did that sound too ghastly?
I said it did.
In the last week of August, half as a joke, I advertised: the traditional insertion. I had a number of replies to my curt offer to go anywhere and do anything. Apart from the pamphlets reminding me that I was God's, there were three charming letters from fundless and alert swindlers. And there was one that mentioned unusual and remunerative work in Tangiers—could I speak Italian?—but my answer went unanswered.
September loomed: I began to feel desperate. I saw myself cornered, driven back in despair to the dreaded Educational Supplement and those endless pale-grey lists of endless pale-grey jobs. So one morning I returned to Davies Street.
I asked if they had any teaching jobs in the Mediterranean area, and the woman with the frightful intensifiers went off to fetch a file. I sat under a puce and tomato Matthew Smith in the waiting-room and began to see myself in Madrid, in Rome, or Marseilles, or Barcelona… even Lisbon. It would be different abroad; there would be no common-room, and I should write poetry. She returned. All the good things had gone, she was terribly afraid. But there were these. She handed me a sheet about a school in Milan. I shook my head. She approved.
'Well actually then there's only this. We've just advertised it.' She handed me a clipping.
THE LORD BYRON SCHOOL, PHRAXOS
The Lord Byron School, Phraxos, Greece, requires in early October an assistant master to teach English. Candidates must be single and must have a degree in English. A knowledge of Modern Greek is not essential. The salary is worth about £600 per annum, and is fully convertible. Two-year contract, renewable. Fares paid at the beginning and end of contract.
There was an information sheet that long-windedly amplified the advertisement. Phraxos was an island in the Aegean about eighty miles from Athens. The Lord Byron was 'one of the most famous boarding schools in Greece, run on English public-school lines'—whence the name. It appeared to have every facility a school should have. One had to give a maximum of five lessons a day.
'The school's terribly well spoken of. And the island's simply heavenly.'
'You've been there?'
She was about thirty, a born spinster, with a lack of sexuality so total that her smart clothes and too heavy make-up made her pathetic; like an unsuccessful geisha. She hadn't been there, but everybody said so. I re-read the advertisement.
'Why've they left it so late?'
'Well, we understand they did appoint another man. Not through us. But there's been some awful mess-up.' I looked again at the information sheet. 'We haven't actually recruited for them before. We're only doing it out of courtesy now, as a matter of fact.' She gave me a patient smile; her front teeth were much too big. I asked, in my best Oxford voice, if I might take her out to lunch.
When I got home, I filled in the form she had brought to the restaurant, and went straight out and posted it. That same evening, by a curious neatness of fate, I met Alison.
I suppose I'd had, by the standards of that pre-permissive time, a good deal of sex for my age. Girls, or a certain kind of girl, liked me; I had a car—not so common among undergraduates in those days—and I had some money. I wasn't ugly; and even more important, I had my loneliness, which, as every cad knows, is a deadly weapon with women. My 'technique' was to make a show of unpredictability, cynicism, and indifference. Then, like a conjurer with his white rabbit, I produced the solitary heart.
- "Brilliant and colossal....Impossible to stop reading."—New York Review of Books
- "Sumptuous....An extraordinary literary feat."—J.D. Scott, New York Times Book Review
- "Great, good, lavish, eerie, fun....The Magus is a stunner....It is at once a pyrotechnical extravaganza, a wild, hilarious charade, a dynamo of suspense, a profoundly serious probing into the nature of moral consciousness, a dizzying, electrifying chase through the labyrinth of the soul... Read it in one sitting if possible--but read it."—Eliot Fremont-Smith, New York Times
- On Sale
- Dec 1, 2012
- Page Count
- 656 pages
- Little, Brown and Company