Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Magus by John Fowles #review

Title: The Magus
Author: John Fowles

This is one of those novels I recommend reading more than once ever few years. And this is my second time, and I have to laugh at how much my perception of the story has changed since the first read-through. Or perhaps I have changed.

The first occasion I was in my early 20s and very much of the assumption that Nicholas Urfe was the one done wrong by Conchis and his cohorts. Funny how my opinion has changed a decade later.

In brief, our protagonist Urfe runs away from a relationship in the UK to go teach at a school in Greece, where he meets a reclusive millionaire, Maurice Conchis, who claims to be a magician. Suitably ensorcelled, Urfe finds himself bewitched not only by the location, but by the bizarre psychodramas in which the old man immerses him. He meets the twins Lily and Rose, and becomes hopelessly fixated. All the while he is of the opinion that he has the upper hand, but Conchis is an adept storyteller, and very soon Urfe can’t tell the fabrications apart from the truth. Isolated as he is, on the island of Phraxos, he is confronted by his own shortcomings and is faced by choices that will impact him later. The question the reader has to ask: Does this man ever truly learn from his mistakes?

Urfe, as a protagonist, is an intellectual snob hamstrung by his misogynist, classist, and racist outlooks on life so mired in his solipsism he can only judge people according to how their shortcomings measure up to his perceived personal virtues. His overweening pride and belief in his intellectual superiority cripples him as he casts himself as the perpetual outsider – unable to connect with the people around him and incapable of maintaining a genuine relationship. He feels a degree of contempt for everyone around him which is perhaps a reflection of the contempt he feels for himself that he is unable to admit.

And he willingly walks into the elaborate trap set for him by Conchis. Perhaps the first hint we have of this is Conchis takes him snorkelling and makes casual mention of how an octopus will fall for the same bait again and again. Again and again, Urfe tries and fails to come to terms with the game, in the end falling prey to his narcissism that he is somehow “elect”. What is sad is that he clearly and consciously chooses to be manipulated.

By the time we reach the end of the story, Urfe is reduced to a paranoid paralysed state, isolated and unable to reach out even when he’s offered the opportunity for a fresh start. And that is where Fowles leaves us. We simply don’t know the final outcome. I’d like to think that Urfe walks away but that small, niggling voice at the back of my head whispers that the man is doomed to repeat the same set of behaviours over and over again in the vain hope that the outcome will somehow be different.

I don’t feel sorry for him; in fact I feel he deserves this personal hell he has evoked. He was given every opportunity to awaken and step outside himself but like the octopus is unable to see beyond his subjective reality.

Other than that, this is a lush novel worth reading for the crisp strokes of Fowles’s prose in which he effortlessly paints the Greek and British settings, as well as the people who populate them. The Magus is laden with esoteric imagery and half the fun is picking up the clues along the way. The novel offers much to think about and I’m glad for this second opportunity to have chewed through it.

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