The Modern Library List of Books

AvatarThoughts on reading the top 100 English-language books of the 20th century

93. The Magus by John Fowles

It's hard to do The Magus justice in a 1200-word blog post. The plot is complicated, the themes, complex, and for what it's worth, it's better read with minimal preliminary exposure. It's also hard to whole-heartedly praise The  Magus. It's plausible that someone could walk away from it feeling manipulated and confused. Me, I am ambivalent. At times, I found myself invigorated in a way I haven't been by a book in years. Yet, I also grew weary of the gravitas, impatient with the twisting plot. I blame it on my aching bones; I should have read The Magus ten years ago.

In my late-teens, early 20s, I was obsessed with Hermann Hesse. I read and re-read books, like Demian, Steppenwolfe, The Glass-Bead Game, with a near-religious excitement that I've known with only a handful of writers, before or since. Hesse, influenced by Eastern philosophy, was a psychological explorer, and his fiction examined how the human psyche, in a very real way, shapes our possible experience, and limits our knowledge, of the physical world. The Magus is a psychological adventure of a similar vein, however, instead of a metaphysical tale of transcendence, Fowles is asking us consider the nature of human freedom, and what it means to embrace it in our dualistic world. 
Human freedom, like much of our experience, when manifested, has a double aspect; true freedom involves both the body and the mind. To illustrate this Fowles asks us to consider the following situation.
A group of 81 innocent men are being held prisoner by Nazi soldiers in occupied Greece. A soldier puts a gun in one of the prisoner's hand and asks him to kill an 82nd prisoner. If he does, the other 81, including himself, will be set free. If he doesn't, all 82 men will die. What should this man do? If he doesn't kill the 82nd man, is he responsible for everyone else's death? But, what if he does kill the 82nd man? Is he responsible for his death? Is he justified in ending another man's life? If, after the war, he is somehow brought to trial, it's our intuition that, at the very least, his responsibility is mitigated. He didn't have a choice, we'd say. If he didn't kill that man, 81 other people would have died. One might even go so far to think of this man as a hero; he overcame his aversion to murder, he killed one man to save 81 others.

In this situation, there's no doubt; the man's physical freedom is limited. But what of his mental autonomy? Can he really be made to do what he doesn't want to do? By killing that man, doesn't he choose to value his life (and 80 others) over one? Whether, this is right or wrong is not the point. By making that choice, he participates in, and affirms the game of the Nazi soldiers. 
But, what if, he doesn't play? What if he looks the soldier in the eye, and says, 'Do what you like with us, but I will not pick up that gun, nor will I feel guilty for what you choose to do'? The man, who steadfastly refuses to play, without guilt or hesitation, is a man, who when robbed of his physical freedom, knows that he has to hold all the more tightly to the freedom still left to him: his ability to choose.

The man who may (or may not have) refused to play this game is Maurice Conchis, a rich and mysterious recluse who sets out to show a young (physically free!) Brit, Nicholas Urfe, the shackles that bind his mind.

Nicholas, for his part, is drifting through life, trying his darnedest to avoid being anchored down. A graduate of Oxford, orphaned during college, tired of teaching in East Anglia (and desperate to extract himself from a romance that's becoming too complicated), Nicholas appeals to the British Council. As luck would have it, a position has opened up for an English teacher in the Lord Byron School, on the small Greek island of Phraxos. Nicholas applies, but it is already late August (the post starts in October); he doesn't expect much. To pass the time, he takes up with a pretty (and somewhat entangled) Australian girl named Alison. While Alison quickly falls in love with him, Nicholas is relieved to escape when he finally learns he got the post. 
Island life is a bit quieter than anticipated. With not much else to do, Nicholas spends his leisure time walking around, and tracking down information about a recluse he had been warned about named Maurice Conchis. One day, he ventures off the beaten path, and stumbles upon a mansion hidden from the cove. It is here that Nicholas first meets Maurice Conchis. 
Maurice invites him to tea, and Nicholas is struck by Maurice's enigmatic manner. Nicholas had been warned not to get involved with Maurice, but Nicholas is starved for cultured company and intelligent conversation, and so he gladly accepts Maurice's invitation to spend a couple of days on his estate the following weekend. 
That invitation is Nicholas' call to adventure, and every weekend, situations (scripted and otherwise) unfold, as if part of a game. Nicholas becomes yet another epic hero, like Hercules, Jason, and Perseus, asked to fight his way to meaning and his adult place in the world.

The problem is, Nicholas is stubborn and stunted. His mind is yoked to the conventions of his country and class. He slogs through life, just one of the pack, and he's most comfortable when people do what is expected of them. And so when, Maurice, twists (and twists and twists again) the trajectory of his little game, Nicholas is unable play his part in the game(or walk away!). He fails to understand the archetypes he encounters, fails to learn what he can from them. Instead, he falls in love with them, chases them, tries to possess them. His longing is inappropriate, but he won't be denied, and soon he is obsessed with what is irrelevant – tracking down the truth. 
Of course, Nicholas' questing is not for naught. He returns from his underworld to claim a prize (of sorts). Trouble is, by the end of the book, I didn't feel that Nicholas had earned it at all; he had only partially learned his lesson. It's here, that as a hero's journey, The Magus fails. Or perhaps, that's the point – Nicholas is a failed hero. 
Fowles packs a lot in his punches, and his front-and-center allusions, unfortunately, have the effect of turning people off of this book. From Greek mythology to Shakespeare to Carl Jung to Sir James George Frazer (and I am sure many more that I didn't pick up on), it's easy to think that Fowles packed too many ideas into one (albeit 668 page) book. But something about all those ideas is exciting, and captured for me, the best thing about this book.

I remember when I discovered Tolstoy. I peppered all my undergraduate philosophy papers (quite unfortunately) with minimally relevant references to the Russian writer. It wasn't that I was showing off; I'm sure my professors didn't give a damn whether I had read the Russian classics or not. I was just excited. I was amazed by the universality I had found in Tolstoy's 19th century Russia. Much to the annoyance of my professors and friends, I was excited to share Tolstoy's insights, which I saw everywhere I turned. 
For me, The Magus is a book written from that magical period in early adulthood, when we still believe in the power of ideas, when philosophy still has the power to better our world. Sure, it's slightly immature and ambitious, but there is a real sincerity, a real reverence for ideas here, that, on my better days, when my bones don't ache, I know I'd do well to hold on to.


March 30, 2010 at 4:12 PM SocrMom78 said...

Your comments about Nicholas' character are spot-on. What a great review!!! :)

March 31, 2010 at 2:06 AM Becky said...

This is an amazing review - I want to read this a lot now. It sounds special. I am going to add this my wish list with a link to your review.

March 31, 2010 at 8:18 AM Devon S. said...

Thanks SocrMom78.


Thanks for the compliment and the link! Read it and review it. I'm always interested in how different people read and react to the same book.

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