Sue Mongredien has had over 100 children's books published, including the Oliver Moon series. She also writes women's fiction under her glamorous pseudonym 'Lucy Diamond'. Her latest novel, Hens Reunited, is out now, published by Pan. Here Sue writes about John Fowles's The Magus.
Sue Mongredien on The Magus by John Fowles
I'm not exactly sure what made me first pick up this novel. I was 21 years old and had recently moved to London, and perhaps thought it looked like a big fat literary tome that I could read on the bus and impress my fellow passengers. I'm sure it wasn't just because there was a naked male statue on the cover anyway.
Before reading The Magus, I had long struggled to reply when asked, 'What's your favourite book?' Having just finished an English degree, I felt obliged to churn out platitudes on a title I'd studied and written essays about, like The Bell Jar or Pride and Prejudice, or alternatively something cool like Catcher In The Rye. Those three are, of course, all brilliant novels, but it wasn't until I began reading The Magus that I found myself thinking, 'This is it. This is my real favourite. This is amazing!'
The novel tells the story of Nicholas Urfe, a rather aimless young man, who takes a job as an English master on a remote Greek island but becomes suicidal at his feelings of worthlessness, the guilt he feels over an ex-girlfriend back home and the worry that he may have caught something nasty from a brothel in Athens. Despairing and lonely, he imagines himself spiralling down through misery after misery. 'But then,' says our narrator, 'the mysteries began' – and what mysteries!
Nicholas has taken to walking endlessly around the island, and Fowles's writing vividly conjures up a shimmering Greek paradise:
It was a Sunday in late May, blue as a bird's wing. I climbed up the goat-paths to the island's ridge-back, from where the green froth of the pine-tops rolled two miles down to the coast. The sea stretched like a silk carpet across to the shadowy wall of mountains on the mainland... Lizards flashed up the pine-trunks like living emerald necklaces. There was thyme and rosemary, and other herbs; bushes with flowers like dandelions dipped in sky, a wild, lambent blue.
It is during one of these walks that Nicholas stumbles upon a villa, Bourani, with its own private beach. He is intrigued by what he has heard about the reclusive owner, Conchis, and decides to pay him a visit. But little does he know what he is letting himself in for – for Conchis is a master trickster, a liar, a player of puppets, and an extraordinary story-teller who dazzles and confuses both Nicholas and the reader, so that one is never entirely sure what is fact and what is fiction. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that I have never read a book since where the plot twisted and turned so surprisingly, where, just as I thought I had worked out what was happening, it was revealed to be an elaborate sham and I'd been completely wrong, time and time again.
When I read this book, I had just started my first 'proper' job as a scruffy little editorial assistant at Random House, and I remember so many times, looking up from the pages and out of the bus window, and realizing that I was in Victoria, having sailed right past the office on Vauxhall Bridge Road without noticing. It is one of the few books I have ever read whilst walking along the pavement, so loath was I to leave its magic.
But... you know, times change. Tastes change. And last year, 17 years after first reading the book, and having replied 'The Magus by John Fowles' to all those 'favourite book' questions for all those years, I suddenly thought, well, is this still my favourite book? Is it quite as brilliant as I remember?
I got into a panic. I decided I'd better read it again, just to check I hadn't been bamboozled and befuddled by Fowles, like Nicholas is by Conchis; just in case the whole thing wasn't some kind of dazzling, surreal con. Would it stand up to a re-read now that I was older and, hopefully, wiser? And would it change the way I read it, knowing from the start that there was this mesh of deceit at the heart of the book?
I needn't have worried. I loved The Magus second time around almost as much as I had done the first. Yes, there are flaws. Yes, perhaps it does get a bit silly towards the end. And yes, it is probably better read whilst young and impressionable than older and more cynical. But Fowles's prose still felt as sensual and fluid as ever, and that, coupled with the tantalising build-up of tension, plus the fabulous cast of characters who are never quite what they seem, still make it a great read in my eyes. So yes, I would still count it as one of my favourite books, if only for the way it made me feel back as a twenty-something, utterly seduced by this Greek mystery and constantly late for work.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]