The Magus by John Fowles

[This post contains some small spoilers for what it is a labyrinthine, crafty and wildly complicated book.]

Orphaned, unemployed, bored, Nicoholas Urfe leaves 1950s England to teach English in Greece. The drab world of London soon gives way to a quiet, untouched paradise, the island of Phraxos.

The Magus

The fictional island felt almost more real that the real Mediterranean outside my window (I read the book in Barcelona):

He handed me a mask and schnorkel. At that time they were unobtainable in Greece, and I had never used them before.

I followed the slow, pausing thresh of his feet over a petrified landscape of immense blocks of stone, among which drifted and hovered shoals of fish. There were flat fish, silvered, aldermanic; slim, darting fish; palindromic fish that peered foully out of crevices; minute poised fish of electric blue, fluttering red and black fish, slinking azure and green fish. He showed me an underwater grotto, a light-shafted nave of pale-blue shadows, where the large wrasse floated as if in a trance.

Entranced as Fowles clearly was by the nature and wildlife, like many British authors of his age, he doesn’t have a lot of respect for the local population. The Greeks are a servile population in his eyes, made up predominantly of waiters, maids and gardeners. To that extent, The Magus is not as good a depiction of life on a Greek island as the novels of Nikos Kazantzakis, such Zorba the Greek.

However, there is one Greek who dominates the action, Maurice Colchis, the Magus. Like Zorba, he is a raconteur who has lived a thousand lives. Dwelling in a remote mansion on the edge of the island, Colchis takes Urfe under his wing and starts to play a series of mind games on the young English teacher, which will challenge his view of reality.

Colchis is fascinated by sanity and insanity, why some people lose their minds whereas others can undergo terrible trauma and yet remain undaunted. To test his theories, he manipulates other people to perform for his amusement in a series of bizarre and mysterious games.

It all sounds like a 1960s/1970s TV series, like Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner, although it predates that era by some years. At its weakest, it is just as racist as TV of the time, with the sole black character being depicted as a mute servant, who uses his mere physical presence to threaten the wealthy white visitors to Colchis’ villa.

However, under the spell of the Magus nothing is quite what it seems. Urfe’s experiences bring him under the sway of a weird cult. It’s like something out of Stanley Kubrik’s Eyes Wide Shut or any of those Italian exploitation films of the 1970s, which prove that a charismatic director an get actors to do anything.

While The Magus is borderline melodrama, it is also beautifully written.

Visitors who went behind the high walls of Saint-Martin had the pleasure of seeing, across the green lawns and among the groves, shepherds and shepherdesses who danced and sang, surrounded by their white flocks. They were not always dressed in eighteenth-century clothes. Sometimes they wore costumes in the Roman and Greek styles … It was even said that there were more scandalous scenes — charming nymphs who on summer nights fled in the moonlight from strange dark shapes, half man, half goat …

It is also wise, inspired by Jungian interpretations of dreams and the subconscious with images and ideas which will stay with me for a long time.

in the end I did discover what some rich people never discover — that we all have a certain capacity for happiness and unhappiness. And that the economic hazards of life do not seriously affect it.

Apparently, there are people who read and re-read The Magus every year and it’s easy to see why. Even though Urfe is not a particularly sympathetic character, Colchis, the puppet-master is fascinating. The early part of the book with its scene-setting is gorgeously elaborate and the last third of the book is taken up with an unravelling of the mystery that has gone before. It’s as gripping as any thriller.

If I didn’t exactly believe the story or the characters, that is perhaps the point. The Magus is all about lies and truth, myth and illusion, reality and unreality. All taking place in the Aegean, and as any visitor to the region knows, of all the places you can visit in the world, there is something truly magical about Greece.

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14 responses to “The Magus by John Fowles

  1. Very interesting. A shame about the racism and the shallow portrait of the Greeks, but I guess it’s of its time. I seem to remember this is a very fat novel, which may have put me off it, plus as a teenager aging hippies of my parents’ circle kept extolling its virtues which rather put me off it.

    I’m somehow not surprised to hear there’s a melodramatic element. It did always have that vibe.

    Love that cover.

    • It’s a great cover, isn’t it? The artist is Greek too, which seemed very apt to me.
      On the subject of racism [minor spoiler coming], the black character is revealed later to be a sort of academic playing a role, but it still left a bitter taste in the mouth for me as a modern reader.

      • That sounds fairly subversive actually. Even if it didn’t entirely come off it must have been a hell of a surprise for some of the contemporary readers.

      • And to be fair to Fowles, a lot of the weakness of the novel now have come about because there’s so much fiction like The Magus about, but at the time (mid-1960s), it must have felt very fresh and daring. How many people got to spend time in the Greek isles in those days? Only the very wealthy.

  2. Coincidentally, I plan to re-read this during the summer. I read it after graduating and wondering ‘what next?’, so it was perfect timing, and the descriptions of the Med are as enchanting as you say. The change of pace, for me, brings back that sense of time stretching out ahead of you at the beginning of school holidays when you were a child – the heat, the silence, everything.

    You might want to add a spoiler warning at the beginning btw.

  3. This one has been packed away for years, need to find it again as you recommend it. I came across Pure that you recommended the other day in poor condition and the national chain refused to take any money off despite its hammering, disappointed is not the word…the search continues.

  4. By the gods I love this book! It’s a crafty crafted tale, and once within it’s paper walls, you can’t just leave, you have to follow that labyrinth to it’s core and back I find. It’s brilliant!! I’m glad to have been reminded of it, so thank you. I’ve read it four times over twenty odd years and shall do so again soon. It’s the kind of book that always has more within to find.

    – esme nodding with gusto upon the Cloud

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