“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.”
The story opens in 1953 London. Our protagonist, Nicholas, is a twenty-something self-absorbed and selfish young man, who moves from one relationship to another and one situation to another, in the hopes that something more exciting lay around the corner. He answers an ad for a teaching position on a remote Greek Island and heads south for adventure. Which is exactly what he finds. He meets an eccentric man of great wealth and becomes lured into his world. What Nicholas hopes for (to be exposed and included in a Mr. Conchis’ upper class society) and what Nicholas gets (a confusing carnival of strange situations) are two very different things.
This is probably the fifth time I’ve read The Magus. My virgin reading was at the tender age of 17, and I thought this was the most fascinating and absorbing book I’d ever read. I haven’t picked it up in twenty years or so, and I was eager to see if my views on the book had changed. While I gained some new perspectives on Fowles’ first novel, it was every bit as good as I remembered.
First, Fowles is a master of language. From his broad vocabulary to his use of double entendre, I am riveted through each word, sentence and paragraph. It’s simply lovely. I was grateful to be reading The Magus on a Kindle this time, as the dictionary feature is so helpful. Unfortunately, either Fowles makes up words, or you would have to use the 26 volume Oxford dictionary to find the meaning of at least half them. (Not to mention the ability to translate Latin, French and Greek).
Second, the author knows how to write a good story. Great prose will only get you so far. Without a captivating story-line, I could never give an author more than three stars. The tale of Nicholas’ adventures on Phraxos, weird though they may be, make this book impossible to put down.
Third, I just love how Fowles messes with your mind. As the protagonist tries to figure out the truth, so do you, the reader. Nicholas triumphs, and gains control, and so do you the reader. Then…Fowles turns everything upside down and both you and Nicholas are left befuddled as to what happened.
Lastly, no great book could ever earn 5 stars without exploring some pretty deep themes. My favorite in The Magus is the concept of freedom. Can one truly have freedom if choices are made in light of constraints? Sometimes those constraints are put there by our own selves – so, then are we really free to act? I spent a good deal of time pondering and discussing these thoughts with my book-club friend. I also enjoyed reading Fowles’ own interpretations on the subject. At the time of writing The Magus, Fowles possessed negative views on religion and felt that faith takes away freedom. If John Fowles could come back from the grave and sit at my dinner table, I’d love to have a long conversation about this. It seems to me that personal constraints are every bit (and sometimes more) hindering than the constraints that others place on us. Truth faith requires an indifference to self, thus eliminating those personal constraints. This, in turn, makes one more free.
At any rate, this book is amazing on so many levels. It is definitely a must read for any serious lover of literature!
5 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1977 (revised version)