Monday, October 24, 2011

The Magus by John Fowles: A Wild Ride Into the Mystic

I read The Magus by John Fowles over the summer.  I read a few other books as well, but I can definitely say that The Magus defined my reading during the summer of 2011.  I had long wanted to read the book, because of its revered status, but only this year did I bother to investigate the premise of the novel.  Upon doing so, I moved the book closer to the top of my to-read list. 

The Magus is not like anything I've read before.  In some ways that can be said about each individual book that one reads, but truly, there is something that sets this giant tome in a class of its very own.  First appearing in 1963, Fowles released a revised edition (with a tweaked ending) in 1977, and it's this version clocking in at 656 pages that I read.

The Magus is a mixture of genres and styles, encompassing mystery, psychological thriller, love story, philosophical treatise, and literary fiction.  There's lots of other stuff in there, too.  Above all, though, it's a heck of a good story, full of twists and turns and shocking revelations that keep you guessing until the very end and long after.

Nicholas Urfe is our protagonist (or antagonist, depending on your view).  He's a 26 year old, smart, good looking, independent man whose parents died early, leaving him wayward and adrift.  Very self-possessed, he is often lost in his thoughts and also quite judgmental of the 1950s London society in which he lives.  Looking for adventure in the wake of a tumultuous romantic relationship, he accepts a post as language instructor in a school on the Greek island of Phraxos.

Although the adventure ostensibly begins when Nicholas arrives on Phraxos, close attention must be paid to the opening fifty pages of The Magus, which detail his relationship with a young Australian woman named Alison.  These scenes are important, because they will tie in to the storyline at a later point.  They are also notable for showcasing Fowles's strength at writing about romantic relationships between men and women, and for his strong character development.  Although this part of the story flies by quickly almost as a prologue of sorts, it rings quite true in its portrayal of young love in first, glorious bloom.

Once Nick arrives in Greece, he discovers that he is just as bored as he was in London.  He also realizes that his poetry is not very good, and even makes an unsuccessful attempt at suicide.  Soon, however, he makes his way to the mysterious mansion of Maurice Conchis on the secluded part of Phraxos known as Bourani, and here is where his life takes a turn, if not for the better, certainly toward the more interesting.  On Bourani, nothing is what it first appears, and Conchis seems nothing less than a magician or magus who manipulates Nicholas and sends him on a labyrinthine adventure that cannot begin to be described in this blog.  You'll simply have to read The Magus for yourself.  I will say only that a beautiful woman named Lily is a central figure in the games Conchis plays with Nicholas, and she emerges as a vivid but oh-so-puzzling character in her own right.

The bulk of the action in The Magus takes place on Bourani, and watching Nicholas navigate the maze set by Conchis is certainly a riveting reading experience.  However, there are plenty of asides and various backdrops in this huge novel, including flashbacks to important periods in Conchis's life which he relates to Nicholas in great detail, and a sojourn to the mountains that Nicholas takes with Alison when he has reached an impasse of sorts on Bourani.  These rustic mountain scenes are understatedly touching and lay a groundwork for the finale of the novel, which ultimately ends up being more of a love story than it first appears (arguably).

I thoroughly enjoyed The Magus.  I liked the character development, the storyline, the questions of physical attraction vs. romantic love, the adventure, the mystery, the historical references, and Fowles's writing style.  By the end of the novel, I was slightly annoyed (impatient), as I waited for everything to come together, and although I didn't really get the answers I wanted, I found the concluding pages of this book so striking that I forgave everything else.  I would recommend the novel to almost everyone just for the sheer puzzlement of it, and the excitement of joining Nicholas as he weaves his way through the Magus's tangled web.  Certainly this modern classic offers the reader one heck of a free ride!