Wendy Robertson has a post-graduate diploma in Primary Education and a Master's Degree in Education. She has been writing since she was eight years old. She writes her books by hand, with a pen and real ink in big ledgers, before editing them as she puts them on to the computer. Wendy has published 23 books, amongst them Sandie Shaw and the Millionth Marvel Cooker, The Lavender House and Family Ties. She blogs at A Life Twice Tasted. Here she writes about John Fowles's The Magus.
Wendy Robertson on The Magus by John Fowles
'[I]t must substantially remain a novel of adolescence written by a retarded adolescent. My only plea is that all artists have to range the full extent of their private lives freely. The rest of the world can censor and bury their private past. We cannot.' (John Fowles, in his introduction to the revised 1977 edition of The Magus)
Of the hundreds - even thousands - of novels I have read in the last 40 years The Magus is one of only two which I read to the end and then turned straight back to the beginning to read again, to find out what the heck it was about. (The other was the excellent, luminous The Owl Service by Alan Garner.) My bafflement was not unique; many people emerge from reading this long novel with a feeling of floundering, of not-quite-knowing. John Fowles wrote to one schoolgirl, 'What one writes is one's own explanation, you see, and if it's baffling then the explanation is baffling... The Magus is trying to suggest that reality, human experience is infinitely baffling...'
The Magus tells us the story of Nicholas Urfe, a kind of mid-century intellectual everyman touched by post-world-war blues and the edges of existentialism, shot through with heavily-worn learning and the cynical naiveté of personal, sexual and political inexperience. Nicholas is a fool rushing in where only magicians and shapeshifters tread.
Fowles tells us elsewhere that as a child, being short-tongued, he used to call the Earth 'urf', and perhaps that's where Nicholas's surname comes from. Occasionally, as I was re-reading the novel to write this piece, I wondered whether Nicholas Oaf might provide a better clue to this intriguing character.
The young, intelligent, self-absorbed Nicholas goes to the Greek island of Phraxos to teach in a high school, just as John Fowles himself did as a young man on the real island of Spetsai. On Phraxos, bored with the school and the teaching, Nicholas falls in love with the light, the landscape and the natural environment of the island – as did Fowles: 'I walked through a small brake, and a woodcock flew off from under my feet. A lizard scuttled away. It was very warm, airy; I struck off the road and came to a cliff facing westwards. I sat on the edge of it, on a rock, and the world was at my feet. I have never had so vividly the sense of standing on the world; the world below me' (Diaries). Fowles obsesses about the light - 'It and its absence are life and death. It reveals everything and spares nothing. It can be both achingly beautiful and consoling; it can be terrifyingly ugly' – and simply all of this is reflected in the novel in the way the Island weaves its spell on the young Englishman Nicholas Urfe.
The spell is personified in Conchis, a millionaire resident who lives in an exquisite villa on a headland. Using beautiful identical twins as bait, he lures Nicholas into his world, in which nothing is what it seems and reality changes according to Conchis's whim and will. To unleash this magic, Conchis tells Nicholas fantastic stories which change form and meaning; he uses masques and staged scenarios masterminded by himself, playing mind games with Nicholas – and of course with the reader, who is driven to identify with Nicholas's fear and angry bewilderment, in order to hang on to the crazy course of the novel.
It strikes me that The Magus is a tale of mind and meaning which can only exist in novel form. There was a disastrous – even laughable - attempt at a film. It focused ridiculously on sado-masochistic sequences, which are only one illusory element in the series of games Conchis plays on Nicholas Urfe. The more successful filming of Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman had a screenplay by Harold Pinter who cleverly tackled the job by treating the screenplay as a kind of metaphor for the novel.
But we need no esoteric knowledge to relish this novel. It works on so many levels. It works as a quest novel; a novel of adolescent rites of passage; a novel of place and the natural world; a novel shot through with magic realism (meeting Matthew Strecher's definition: 'what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something "too strange to believe"'). This novel can be all things to each reader. Perhaps it is its all-encompassing nature – so full of adolescent energy, firing on all cylinders – which is baffling for the kind of reader who wants a safe journey, a sure narrative and a distinct, more or less predictable ending to take him or her through a novel.
I read The Magus (twice) in its first edition in 1967. Then I read Fowles's revised edition in 1977. How odd, you would think, to revise a novel and put it out there again. At the very least this showed that for John Fowles The Magus was clearly unfinished, highly personal business. (There is another discussion there.) But for me there is no doubt that The Magus is Fowles's masterpiece. It is an historic novel of the mid-20th century, trailing the smoke of D.H. Lawrence, Alain-Fournier, James Joyce, Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre, but marked by its own distinctive signature of intensity, its sense of magic, its confusions and its challenges to the reader, all of which are entirely unique to John Fowles.
Re-reading the novel yet again for this piece for Norm, I was worried in case I would find less in it to relish. But in fact there is more. Since I last read it, I have written a good number of novels myself. So this time, as well as still appreciating all the other elements, I am reflecting on the courage, the originality, the riskiness of the writing and the structure of the novel. And, strangely, I am now in the middle of writing a novel myself which is set in an ancient magical place and involves unexplainable time illusions that may baffle the reader. This has been a bit of a risky departure for me, but re-reading The Magus has been inspiring. It is as though John Fowles (who tends to scatter Frenchisms in his prose) is shouting across the ether, 'Courage mon brave!'