“The Magus” By John Fowles: Should We Always Look For A Meaning?

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A few years ago, I’ve read in no time John Fowles’ “The Collector”. I had decided not to wait too long until my next meeting with the author, but only recently I dared to venture into the fascinating and incomprehensible world of “The Magus”.

About the author

John Fowles is an English novelist, his writing being positioned between modernism and postmodernism. He was born in England, 1926, and died 79 years later, also in England. Fowles graduated from the University of Oxford and he worked as a teacher in Greece, France and Britain. His first novel, The Collector (published 1963, filmed 1965) brought him international and immediate success. After that, he wrote essays reflecting his views on evolution, art and politics, returning to fiction with “The Magus” (published 1965, filmed 1968) and continuing with The French Lieutenant’s Woman (published 1969, filmed 1981, some saying that this is his best-known work). Other notable works include “The Ebony Tower” (1974), a volume of collected novellas, “Daniel Martin” (1977), “Mantissa” (1982), his last novel being “A Maggot” (1985).

About the book

Today I recommend a book that is not at all easy to read, to understand, to follow, to digest, but, also, not at all easy to abandon. “The Magus” has disarming dimensions but once started, it will go under your skin and it will haunt you every time you close it. Fowles knew how to make sure that the reader would gravitate around the book until the end, fully speculating on people’s attraction and fascination for mystery.

The book focuses on the adventure of Nicholas Urfe, an Oxford graduate English teacher whose move to the beautiful Greek island of Phraxos, in 1953, in search of the poetry muse, will turn into a real adventure. The novel’s debut is realistic, with no hints of magical surrealism to be unleashed once the young teacher moves to the island, away from England, away from Allison – the girl he abandoned, away from reality, in search of a metaphorical Circe.

„The whole island seemed to feel this exile from contemporary reality.”

But this becomes Nicholas’ reality and the fascination it exerts on him would break the bridges with his past and his world as he knew it. The one who will make possible the volatilisation of the borders towards this parallel universe is Maurice Conchis, a controversial rich man who lives, isolated, on the island.

Conchis, “the agent of hazard” as Nicholas perceives him, embodies the Magus from the tarot cards, the latter representing the magician, the trickster, the illusionist.

Haunted by suicidal thoughts and in search of a meaning of life, Nicholas walks, along with the entry on the Bourani domain, into a magical world. Here he will meet Julie whose dose of fragility potentiated by inaccessibility creates her an aura of mystery that the young aspiring poet will not be able to resist to.

Bourani is the gateway to a world full of unbelievable events, a world in which “the dead live through love”, in which anything can happen, “a world of multiple meanings” in which, apparently, there are a multitude of options but the true architect seems to be Conchis himself. He stages a parallel reality that is “half art, half science”. The scene is populated by other unique characters meant to bring an extra confusion in the chaotic development of events.

The young woman who disturbs the young poet’s universe is, one at a time, Julie or Lily, if not even June or Rose, but whatever name she has, she is a Fata Morgana/mirage that Nicholas tries to get out of the puppeteer’s wires, from this play in which time and space exceed the stage and invade reality.

“Uktram bibis? Aquam an undam? What do you drink? The water or the wave?”

The choice of the character and, at the same time, of the reader, is the only possible one: the wave.

As a reader, I fully felt all of Nicholas’ emotions – enthusiasm, frustration, helplessness, relief, and I felt strong Kafka accents in the trial he was going through. The mythological references are numerous and the main character will identify with “Odysseus going to meet Circe, Theseus on his way to Crete, Oedipus in search of destiny”.

The events that Nicholas goes through are sometimes revealing, as he finds in it the meaning of life, the balance, the reconciliation, the joy of being, but sometimes they are deeply disturbing. This lesson, meant to reveal to our hero the human egocentrism, paves, at the same time, the way to himself.

“An unique adventure, psychological and philosophical at the same time, (…) an unprecedented journey into the human subconscious”.

Conchis’s nostalgia for “a world rich in mystery and subtle emotions” – a world long time ago disappeared, determines him to try to recreate it and bring back to life feelings lost by humanity in the whirl of technological evolution.

“Not only animal species are disappearing, but also species of feelings.”

Love seems to be one of these feelings and Julie / Lily only certifies its sacredness: “Love is the mystery between two people, not the resemblance between them.”

The reader assists and lets himself be carried away in scenes of hypnosis that lead to mystical experiences in which the wind is pure light and the sensation that you reached the absolute truth is almost palpable, the great revelation being the awareness of one’s own existence and the existence itself:

“Reality was an infinite interaction. Neither good, nor bad, nor beautiful, nor hideous. No sympathy, no antipathy. Interaction. That’s it. (…) There is no more meaning. Only existence.”

In addition, the reader will witness grotesque rituals of mythological origin, with multiple symbols from Kabbalah. The apogee will be a final judgment that could elucidate the mystery. But it will only deepen it.

I return to Kafka, who is so present in the inability of the main character, of the reader and, extrapolating, of human being to understand the experiences he goes through and to resign himself in the role of a pawn, “for it is not in our power to choose neither the play nor the role”. Fowles seems to let his reader, however, choose the ending.

Today I recommend a magic book, a book that will leave you with more questions than answers but this book will paint the (non-)reality in a different light: “There is no truth beyond magic.”

Today, the book is Magical Lust For Flying.

To the author:

John Fowles, you charmed me from the very first page, to the last! Thank you for this magical journey!

Quotes

“Any intelligent person is an atheist or an agnostic.”

  • “If there is a hell, then this is it. No flames, no forks. A place without the possibility to reason.”
  • “It’s not about swimming. It’s about knowing in which direction to swim.”
  • “Not only animal species disappear, but also species of feelings. If you are smart enough, you will not mourn the past for what it did not know, but you will feel sorry for yourself for what the past has known.”
  • “Love is the mystery between two people, not the resemblance between them.”
  • “Acceptance of what we really are must inhibit what we should be.”
  • “Nothing is unfair to everyone, although many things can be unfair to each individual.”
  • “We all have a certain aptitude for happiness and unhappiness, which does not depend on economic opportunity.”
  • “The greatest distances are never the geographical ones.”
  • “In the Western world, homo sapiens will become homo solitarius.
  • “There is no truth beyond magic.”
  • “There are times when silence is a poem.”
  • “Love results mainly from the ability to love that exists in ourselves, and not necessarily from the fact that the partner has real qualities to be loved.”

Read more book reviews by Raluca Neagu here.

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