Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Magus by John Fowles

If The Magus has any "real significance," it is no more than that of the Rorschach test in psychology. Its meaning is whatever reaction it provokes in the reader, and so far as I am concerned there is no given "right" reaction.
--John Fowles

Whew. That's a relief. Because I can tell you now, I have as little idea of what The Magus means as when I started. But you know, I don't really mind, because even if I'm a little fuzzy on the concepts, there is no book like The Magus. I cannot remember the last time a piece of literature had me so on edge--it is a book that thrives on suspense, and not just the "erotic adventures" and "terrifying violence" promised by the jacket.

The protagonist of the book is Nicholas Urfe, a young Londoner just out of college who takes a job as an English teacher on the remote Greek isle of Phraxos in order to escape a messy and ruined relationship with an Australian girl named Alison. (Okay, so, besides the school being in Greece, does that sound like anyone you know?) Before he leaves he is warned by his predecessor not to fraternize with a particular man, a foreign millionaire who owns a mansion on the island's west side and is widely believed to have helped the Nazis during their occupation of Greece.

But of course, Nicholas' interest is piqued and he ends up visiting the man, whose name is Maurice Conchis, at Bourani, his massive estate. Conchis begins to tell him the story of his life, and asks Nicholas to return and stay with him each weekend. But after a while strange things begin to happen--mysterious figures appear, seeming illustrations of the stories that Conchis tells. No sooner does Conchis tell him about his childhood sweetheart who died decades ago than Nicholas, lulled out of the guestroom at night by the sound of music, comes downstairs to find Conchis playing piano accompanied by a young girl on recorder, the spitting image of his long-dead lover. It is all a game, of course, but the underlying lesson is always just out of Nicholas' grasp. It is as if he is trapped in a grotesque performance, a masque, and it can be truly bizarre. Here he is walking down on the beach with the girl, whose name is Lily, and looking back toward the house:

A figure appeared on the terrace, not fifty feet away, facing and above me. It was Lily. It couldn't be her, but it was her. The same hair blew about in the wind; the dress, the sunshade, the figure, the face, everything was the same. She was staring out to sea, over my head, totally ignoring me.

It was a wild, dislocating, disactualizing shock. Yet I knew within the first few seconds that although I was obviously meant to believe that this was the same girl as the one I had just left down on the beach, it was not. But it was so like her that it could be only one thing--a twin sister. There were two Lilies in the field. I had no time to think. Another figure appeared beside the Lily on the terrace.

It was a man, much too tall to be Conchis... I couldn't see, becasue the figure was in all black, shrouded in the sun, and wearing the most sinister mask I had ever seen: the head of an enormous black jackal, with a long muzzle and high pointed ears. They stood there, the possessor and the possessed, looming death and the frail maiden.

There are twin sisters; Nicholas sees through that ruse instantly. But what he cannot see through is the next layer of the ruse, and when he does, he is met instantly with the next. Conchis' explanations shift, he readily drops one explanation for another while intimating something completely different; he is playing three or four hands at a time. This is what makes The Magus so fascinating; the game is labyrinthine, circular, impenetrable. So many books and films play with this conceit--one man trapped in the mind-games of another--but their games are so simple and flimsy. But there is no opportunity for Nicholas to gain any sort of understanding of what lies behind the masks; behind the doors there are only more doors. He falls in love with Lily, but which explanation of her identity can he trust? Is she a ghost? An actress? A psychological patient? Or perhaps a psychologist herself? Or maybe, like Conchis, simply a pure sadist?

And truly there must be sadism here. There is no other way to explain just how vicious the game becomes. Nicholas' amusement fades to abject desperation and terror; while the players in the game never pretend that it is anything but, the stakes begin to look increasingly serious. Mental abuse morphs into physical abuse, and Conchis plays one trick that is so savage, so heartbreaking, that it makes the book's final chapters difficult to read. I had to stop myself from writing that the masque "spins out of control," because as dark as it becomes, every move seems preordained by Conchis, and culminates in a surreal tableau that reminds me of Heironymous Bosch, or perhaps the end of The Man Who Was Thursday viewed in negative.

Ultimately, perhaps it was foolish of me to expect such an unwieldy trick to tie itself neatly at the end, and moreover I expect that if Conchis' motivations could be explained away in a pithy sentence, the masque would hardly have been worth it. But the book is so heavily decked in concept, in philosophy and ideas, that I feel as if I, like Nicholas, have come out the other end of the ordeal with very little to show for it. What is it he--and I--are meant to understand? While in a way I am relieved by Fowles' quote above, I consider it also a bit of a copout.

I recall a blog post by my friend Helen that suggested that there can be no humility without humiliation. I wonder if that isn't part of it--Conchis games are, ultimately, quite cruel--but Nicholas in many ways is a puffed-up little shit and treats Alison quite cruelly himself. Nicholas comes out of the ordeal a different person, a better person; he has been broken and remade. But what of his anger, which is surely justified? Once the anger is gone, as is true in so many cases, there is only sadness, and it is that sadness which is transformative; he cannot be remade if he is not broken and there is no way to break a dish gently.

The greatest flaw of this book is that it succeeds on account of its terrific plot when it wishes to succeed on account of its ideas. But that's hardly damning, isn't it?


Carlton said...

I was terrified just reading the review for this book.

Arukiyomi said...

Just put a link to your review of this at the end of mine.

Adrian said...

It's a great book...I posted something on fowles today actually, glad so many people out there love the book, there are equally as many who probably don't!? Have you read any other of fowles's books?