Tuesday, January 31, 2012

470. The Magus – John Fowles

History: This book was written in 1966.
Plot: The story is written from the perspective of young Oxford graduate and aspiring poet Nicholas Urfe, who takes up with Alison Kelly, an Australian girl he meets at a party inLondon. In order to get away from an increasingly serious relationship with her, Nicholas accepts a post teaching English at the Lord Byron School in the Greek island of Phraxos. Bored, depressed, disillusioned, and overwhelmed by the Mediterranean island, Nicholas struggles with loneliness and contemplates suicide. Finding himself habitually walking the isle, he stumbles upon the estate, and soon the person, of wealthy Greek recluse Maurice Conchis, who may or may not have collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War.
Nicholas is gradually drawn into Conchis' psychological games, his paradoxical views on life, his mysterious persona, and his eccentric masques. At first these various aspects of what the novel terms the "godgame" seem to Nicholas to be a joke, but as they grow more elaborate and intense, Nicholas's ability to determine what is real and what is artifice vanishes. Against his will and knowledge he becomes a performer in the godgame, and realizes that the reenactments of the Nazi occupation, the absurd playlets after de Sade, and the obscene parodies of Greek myths are not about Conchis' life, but his own.
Review: "The Magus" is a stunner, magnificent in ambition, supple and gorgeous in execution. It fits no neat category; it is at once a pyrotechnical extravaganza, a wild, hilarious charade, a dynamo of suspense and horror, a profoundly serious probing into the nature of moral consciousness, a dizzying, electrifying chase through the labyrinth of the soul, an allegorical romance, a sophisticated account of modern love, a ghost story that will send shivers racing down the spine. Lush, compulsive, richly inventive, eerie, provocative, impossibly theatrical--it is, in spite of itself, convincing. It is, in fact, a trick ("magus" means magician or conjurer)--a trick about conviction. The stupefying thing is that Mr. Fowles has pulled it off. The book seems to have its own energy; it reverberates in the mind.
The plot can be only inadequately summarized. Nicholas Urfe, a youngish, charming, intelligent and rather callous Oxford graduate "handsomely equipped to fail," takes up with Alison, an Australian girl he meets at a party in London. Their affair becomes serious ("In our age it is not sex that raises its ugly head, but love"). This is more than Nicholas's effete cynicism can stand, so he leaves Alison to accept a job as an English instructor at the Lord Byron School, a sort of Eton-Harrow enclave on the Greek island of Phraxos, "only a look north from where Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon."
Bored, immeasurably depressed by the self-revelation that he is not, as he had thought, a talented poet ("I felt no consolation in this knowledge, but only a red anger that evolution could allow such sensitivity and such inadequacy to co-exist in the same mind"), out of phase with the throb of the sultry, white-sunned Mediterranean island. Nicholas contemplates suicide, then takes to long solitary walks. On one of these walks he meets a wealthy English-born Greek named Maurice Conchis who may or may or may not have collaborated with the Nazis during the war and now lives as a recluse on his palatial, art- encrusted island estate. Conchis is the magus.
The estate is known as Salle d'Attente (the Waiting Room), and it is here that Nicholas is ushered into the mysteries--Conchis's paradoxical views on life and his eccentric masques which, Nicholas later learns, are called "the godgame."
At first the masques seem a kind of nutty joke to Nicholas, but as they grow more elaborate and intense, his perception of what is real and what is not dims and vanishes. Against his rational will, he becomes a performer in them; painfully he realizes that they are not about Conchis's life--these enactments of an ancient romance of the Nazi occupation, these absurd playlets after de Sade, obscene parodies of Greek myths, pretend meetings of psychoanalysts--but about his own: he becomes a conspirator in his own destruction or psychic rebirth--he does not know which.
The nightmare deepens as he falls in passionate love with the beautiful Lily, who appears in the masques as, incredibly, Conchis's 1915 lover, and then turns out not to be Lily at all, but Julie--or perhaps her twin sister. Nicholas has a brief repeat with Alison in Athens, then learns that she has killed herself.
Now everything becomes conspiracy; the fact that it is all so ludicrous in no way relieves his horror. Fired from the school, Nicholas returns angrily to London intent on ferreting out the reasons for his ordeal, Conchis's real background and the purpose of the godgame. But impossible things continue to happen: Alison turns out to be not only alive but somehow in league with Conchis and his cabal. Slowly, excruciatingly, Nicholas unravels the truth, or truths.
No summary can convey accurately the sense of this extraordinary book. It is not silly, it is fantastical, evocative, imaginative, but it is no self-indulgence. It is original and contemporary; it is intelligent. Most of all, it is great, good, lavish, eerie fun.
Opening Line: “I was born in 1927, the only child to middle class parents, both English, and themselves born in the grotesquely elongated shadow, which they never rose sufficiently above history to leave, of that monstrous dwarf Queen Victoria.”
Closing Line: “And somewhere the stinging smell of burning leaves.”
Quotes: “I had been, and remained, intesely depressed, but I had also been, and always would be,intensely false; in existentialist terms, unauthentic.”
“I do not want politeness. Politeness always conceals a refusal to face other kinds of reality.”
Rating: Very Good.

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