Nov 11 2009 12:41pm

Twists of the Godgame: John Fowles's The Magus

The Magus is one of those books that ought to be science fiction and is ultimately less satisfying than it could be because it isn’t. Fowles himself admits in the introduction that it is a book with problems, and that the people who really like it are adolescents. He’s right: I adored this book when I was a teenager. At the same time I was gulping down Heinlein and Piper and Le Guin and Brunner, I couldn’t get enough of this. I think of this sometimes when people talk about writing simple books to appeal to young adults—the complexity of The Magus was part of what I loved about it. At the same time that I was failing to understand why Lord of Light was a classic I was writing lists in my notebook (“Best Books In The World, Ever!!!”) that ranked The Magus second only to Tolkien, with The Dispossessed third, Triton fourth and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress fifth. I like it rather less now for a variety of reasons.

I was born in 1927, the only child of 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. I was sent to public school, I wasted two years doing my National Service, I went to Oxford; and there I began to discover I was not the person I wanted to be.

The Magus is a coming of age story. A young English man, Nicholas, gets a job teaching on a Greek island in 1953. It’s worth noting here that the book was written in 1965 and revised in 1977, which allows Fowles to have Nicholas make correct remarks about future trends. Once on the island, Nicholas encounters a Greek millionaire, Conchis, who tells him his life story and involves him in what is eventually called the “godgame”, a set of masques, masks, and mysteries, in which nothing and nobody is what they seem, psychological games are played on Nicholas, scenes acted out with and about him, and he is led to question everything he has complacently accepted about himself and the world. What’s brilliant about is is the masque, the whole thing is fascinating. Fowles’s prose really is marvellous. The stories of Conchis’s life are absorbing, and the constant hints of revelation of the purpose of the psychological wringer Nicholas is put through are intriguing. This is a story that twists and turns and tantalises but never quite makes satisfying sense, because the palette with which Fowles found himself equipped didn’t lead him to the possibility of any really interesting answers.

When I read this as a teenager, I could identify wholeheartedly with any first person protagonist—I didn’t appreciate that both Bron (the protagonist of Triton) and Nicholas here were supposed to be unsympathetic. I did notice some weird gender-essentialism, but supposed it to be one of Nicholas’s psychological problems. I’m reluctant to ascribe to authors the faults of characters, but I’ve since read enough of Fowles to find his women very odd. He seems to think that having a woman withdraw and encourage a man to chase her is the essentially feminine thing—and framing that as women being better than men at seeing relationships doesn’t actually help. He also sets up oppositions of England in relation to Europe which don’t quite work in this filter.

The Magus is a really good example of the advantages and disadvantages of writing in first person. As Orwell said, we’re inclined to believe anything an “I” tells us they did, no matter how improbable. It’s easy to swallow improbabilities, it’s easy to enter into sympathy. Unsympathetic first person narrators are a nifty thing to do, but some people won’t get it, and not just fifteen year olds. The story is filtered entirely and completely through them, you’re inclined to believe them and you have to believe them, you have no other source of checking. It’s perfectly possible to have a first person narrator who isn’t observant, or who isn’t introspective, or who isn’t intuitive or a good judge of character—but the norm is to make them all these things because it makes the writer’s life so much easier to be able to have them notice things about the world, themselves, and other people. Fowles does some bravura first person in The Collector, and he really is an incredibly good writer. But here he wants to have it both ways—he wants Nicholas to be selfish and unempathic, and yet he wants to get away with Nicholas’s guesses and intuitions to be more often right than wrong. You can see from that first paragraph I quoted that Nicholas is insightful, has a wider context, and yet we’re simultaneously supposed to accept him as insular and ineffective. Fowles has him lurch from one to the other as is convenient.

I’m going to talk about the end now, so stop reading if you don’t want spoilers.

After having the benefit of being the focus of the godgame, having all that attention and all those people revolving around him, nothing could possibly ever be enough for Nicholas. Alison wasn’t enough for him before and wouldn’t be again. Fowles himself clearly didn’t know how to end the story—it had a different ending in the original 1966 version. And by making the focus of the end Alison, it makes the godgame—and by extension life—all about love, about Lily rather than Conchis, it twists at just the wrong moment and sends it away from metaphysics into triviality and romance. Yes, love is important, yes, trusting people is important, yes, Alison is authentic, but can that be the point of the stories of Neuve Chapelle, Seidvarre, de Deukans and the Occupation? I have always been unsatisfied with this resolution. They are at the end floating in blank space, as Cherryh puts it, desperate for any input, any echo. I’m not sure sanity is reachable from there. I can’t believe it is supposed to have been a healing. Nicholas’s earlier image of himself taken to pieces and needing help with reassembly seems even more apposite at the end.

This is a long book and I always enjoy it as much or more than I am frustrated by it. But as I was reading it this time, I found myself thinking about the hints Stephenson drops about Enoch Root in Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle. I am absolutely sure than Stephenson knows the whole backstory and that it all makes sense and is satisfying and that I will one day either figure it out or have it revealed. In the exact same way, I’m increasingly sure Fowles doesn’t know what he’s doing, that the underlying reality that is never explained doesn’t make sense. I think—and this is why I picked this up again this week—that what Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life” does is what Fowles may have wanted to do. In Chiang’s story, the protagonist learns an alien language and everything is transformed forever. Chiang manages to convey a sense of that, Fowles doesn’t.

It’s beautifully written. The characters are so real I’d recognise them if I saw them at the bus-stop. And there’s nothing wrong with it that couldn’t be fixed by having them go off in an alien space ship at the end.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

David M Gordon
1. David M Gordon
Wow, Jo, you sure read (and re-read) voluminously!

THE MAGUS never successfully worked its magic on me. Oh, I know many people sing its hosannas, so when I found the book in a give-away pile while on a Greek island (how apropos!), I picked it up. The novel's length and positive remarks from other readers gave me hope my free time during my holiday would be otherwise occupied.

It did not take long before the novel was back in the give-away pile; not after I defenestrated the darn thing! Well, not really. I forced myself to read to its end, and then I moaned.

A long while has lapsed since I read the novel, so I am not qualified to discuss it. I can only discuss my reaction. I used to think the book cut across gender lines -- women loved it; men hated it -- but I quickly learned my thesis was not that simple. I recall thinking that the novel would have ended abruptly, and early on, if Nicholas simply got up and walked away. He, and perhaps the entire novel, remind me of Damon Knight's injunction against "idiot plots" -- the character(s) are idiots to advance the story and the readers are idiots for reading it. (Do I have that correct?)

I just said a lot about a book I mentioned I could say little about. So I wonder: am I wrong? Perhaps Fowles obeyed Faulkner's advice for what makes great fiction, and I missed it. Should I re-read the novel? (Surprise, surprise, I still have it!)
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
David: I think if you hated it then, you still won't like it. It definitely isn't gender lines -- most of the people I know who like it are male. I think the readership more likely splits on people who would like that to happen to them. I couldn't walk away from that any more than I could walk away from a wardrobe that just might lead to Narnia.
will shetterly
3. willshetterly
Add me to the list of males who think The Magus is all mood and no substance. I read it when I was in my '20s, though, so I might've missed a lot.

Trying to decide if Fowles is the anti-Zelazny now. Zelazny's a democrat in the purest sense of the word, but Fowles seems envious of the people that society places above him. Zelazny seeks new structures, and Fowles embraces classical ones. Hmm. I shouldn't go too far with this. I've only read The Magus, The Collector, and The French Lieutenant's Woman, and all of those were decades ago, so, as always, I could be very, very wrong.

I really wanted to like Fowles. His choice of subjects made me give him three tries.
Patrick Garson
4. patrickg
Great to see you pick up on Fowles, Jo. I find he's a writer I can always say is "interesting"; whether I enjoy the books is another question entirely, but definitely always interesting.

I, too, read this is a teen and loved it (though the ending always deflates you a bit). I then promptly forgot all about it for about ten years, only to later recollect how into it I was at the time.

I think you're right in that - somewhat ironically, Fowles falls victim to Nicholas' failings, namely over-confidence coupled with I guess you'd call it gnosticism. When he finally pulls the curtain aside, you sense he's almost as disappointed as you that there's nothing but sawdust behind.

Interesting, too, how Fowles reputation really waned in his native UK; viewed as a hopelessly middlebrow poseur, whilst I believe in the US he has always been regarded quite highly? I do think many UK critics do him a disservice, especially with regards to his prose which is really very good in most of his books. Will do be doing A Maggot? Definitely his most speculative book.

Oh, and also, have you seen the film they made of The Magus. God damn, it really is one of the worst films ever made.
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
PatrickG: I haven't seen the film -- I tend to hate films of books at the best of times. I didn't know about the decline of his critical reputation either. I don't tend to see much criticism.

Sooner or later if the creek don't rise (but not very soon) I'll probably get to The Collector and The French Lieutenant's Woman, which I re-read every once in a while, and maybe the rest, which I haven't read for ages.
Jon Evans
6. rezendi
I read a lot of Fowles in my late teens, and none since, and now I am both tempted to and dissuaded from returning to him.
Patrick Garson
7. patrickg
Oh yeah, I quote from the NY Times book review:

For whatever reason - he always said it was because he was mistrusted by the British literary establishment he had rejected - Mr. Fowles was always far more celebrated, both critically and popularly, in the United States than he was in his native country. In America, his books became mainstays of college literature courses while managing to achieve that rare combination: admiring reviews from serious-minded critics and best-selling sales in the stores.

Not so in England, at least not all the time. "In many ways, I have been put in exile in this country," he once said.
David M Gordon
8. Foxessa
I too thought The Magus was a brilliant marvel when young. Then, the older I got, that changed, mostly for the same reasons it changed for JW. The representation of women, the unexamined assumptions about them, and so on, was at the heart of that. Also that fancy of the 'alpha' male pulling everyone's strings ... that got annoying fairly soon in my life as well.

That said though, what Fowls was attempting with structure and story-telling was interesting and still is. I've often wondered how much this book was a reaction of Fowls to the considerable adulation awarded to Durrell's Alexandria Quartet -- which too, I adored through my mid-twenties, and then less and less (the revelations of Durrell's character with his daughter did play a role in this). However, my admiration for the AQ has revived, though on rather different principles that when younger. Also, the volume I ranked as best of the quartet has changed as well.

And I have acquired so much more history of the region and the cultures and the collisions now, since my early 20's. This too has changed my reading of the Quartet.

Love, C.
Eli Bishop
9. EliBishop
I haven't read The Magus for a long time, probably not since I was one of those teenage fans (and unfortunately, so was my girlfriend. Later, I kind of blamed Fowles for some of our problems-- silly, but yeah, his notions of what women are about are very peculiar). Still this review seems spot on, and makes me almost curious to read the book again.

The Collector is really good; maybe it holds up better because it's less ambitious? But I remember being impressed with A Maggot too... right up until the end which was the kind of trick I usually would've liked, but somehow it was just annoying. I'll definitely reread that one if you review it.
David M Gordon
10. Foxessa
I just did a zippy google on the string, Alexandria Quartet The Magus, and this came up on the top -- written by Canadian no less. :)

The title is Lawrence Durrell and the Greek World, by Anna Lillios; this grew out of her doctoral thesis.

Since this was so obvious that even I, unprompted, considered this thesis, it isn't surprising!

Love, C.
David Dyer-Bennet
11. dd-b
All I really remember is finding this boring. I think I read it at the urging of a girlfriend back in college, so in the early 1970s; I guess that means I read the earlier version, most likely.

I'm with the "all mood and no substance" view, from my memory of my reaction at the time. It never arrived anywhere, and didn't develop anything interesting along the way either. I've certainly never considered going back to it.

At a bit of a tangent, I don't think I'll ever dare to try reading Lawrence Durrell; I don't see how he could ever get past being Gerald's weird older brother Larry.
David M Gordon
12. Neville Rhys Barnes
The book is baffling. A vast conspiracy, involving actors, enacted rituals, detailed scenarios, one that probably cost millions to create...and all to teach some young boor to be slightly nicer to his girlfriend. An idiot plot indeed, unless Fowles is telling us that God is, in fact, an idiot.
David M Gordon
13. richb
I've just re-read this, thirty years after reading it the first time aged twenty, and stumbled on this blog looking for a translation of the latin quote at the end. The translation makes it fairly obvious which interpretation of the ending Fowles favoured, so that is a question which I now consider answered. As to the criticisms above; there are flaws, but I still think it a fabulous story. Throughout, in the 'real-life' scenes, Nicholas is extremely perceptive as to character and motivation, and yet he stumbles through the masque like an inept spectator. Hard to believe he could be so taken in. And, as someone else said, if he was so world weary and cynical about women, it's stretching credulity that he would put up with 'Lily's' emotional vacillations for more than a few minutes, let alone days. Language is a bit dated now, some social observations are obsolete, but still there are some things he nails; 'the English are born with masks; bred to lie', and the 'only connect' moment of the book, 'men observe objects, women observe the relationship between them'. Still thought provoking stuff, even if some of the more histrionic manipulation fantasies might only appeal to teenage bedrooms.

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