I just finished re-reading John Fowles’ classic, ‘The Magus’. If I remember the intro correctly, the book was written in the late ’50s but wasn’t published until the mid-’60s. The author considers it his first novel – which it technically was – although it was third in line to get published.
Inarguably his most famous work, it is also considered by many critics to be one of the best works of fiction published in the 20th century.
I read it the first time back in the early ’70s and I loved it so much I claimed it as one of my own as I did several other novels written during that early Cold War historical period that carried a similar theme of the alienated outsider.
The Magus’ contemporaries were books like ‘The Sheltering Sky’, ‘Franny and Zooey’, ‘Catch-22’, ‘The Catcher in the Rye‘, and ‘The Ginger Man’.
The Magus ostensibly is about a a guy in his early ’20s who had just graduated Oxford and finds himself in that lonely place of not knowing what to do with his life so he decides to leave early ’50s London and take a teaching post on a remote Greek island.
Nicholas is a bit of a closet snob as he is torn between his attraction to a lower class Australian girl and the fact that they have nothing really in common except sex. Fowles makes the character Nicholas out to be somewhat of a callous self-involved sort of guy who without trying too hard isn’t particularly mindful of a girl’s feelings.
I found that part of the story to be somewhat prescient in capturing the way a lot college age relationships went in the ’70s. Many of us then had girlfriends and relationships that we didn’t find all that meaningful; it was just sex. Probably because none of us – me or my friends – were not the least bit grown up and frankly, there were just lots and lots of available girls.
So growing up in the ’60s/’70s – not that you could really call that growing up without at least acknowledging the irony – was all about living some sort of delayed adolescence; or at very least, immature hedonism (or is immature and hedonism self-contradictory?). But whatever. Fowles’ main character’s disposition to women was not particularly revelatory to any male reader who came after the fact.
But I’d be willing to bet that all the sex and Nicholas’ unromantic view towards women was borderline shocking at the time he wrote it. But he and his two relationships are just the story’s base coat; the thread that knits the beginning to the end.
The bigger story is what you could call occultist theater. Fowles draws on WWI era British society occult scandals – ‘The Confessions of Aleister Crowley’ kind of thing – to provide the story’s bigger thematic backdrop.
The magus after all is another way to say magician.
So the story teeters between relentless control, cat and mouse sneakery, before ending up being somewhat of a very interesting detective story as Nicholas sets out to uncover the truth about who manipulated him – the magus shrouded himself in some very plausible fictions – and why he, Nicholas, was chosen to have so majorly messed with.
All in all it is a very great piece of fiction. It starts out as a very ho-hum period piece of boy meets girl in London before slowly in a creepy way transitioning to a timeless tale of sadism so extreme as to be banal.
PS – I once read a very interesting book (I forget the title) on the nature of evil. The author opined that true evil has three salient components: Evil is fetid. Evil is banal. And evil is hidden.
PPS – Something else I should mention that was also somewhat remarkable about ‘The Magus’. The author saw fit to republish a revised edition in 1977. Isn’t that positively interesting? He hit a major homerun with the original yet somehow saw fit to revise it a dozen years later. He explained his reasons in the introduction – lengthy – so for that you’ll have to pick up a copy of the book.