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.


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