The Magus

by John Fowles

The Magus is a lengthy tale of an emotionally immature young schoolmaster who gets ensnared in someone else's enigmatic headgame while on assignment abroad. It is part slice-of-life, part mystery, part fable.

What is not to like? Let's start there. The novel leaves me feeling frustrated and wanting a bit more. The story finishes ambiguously—and the author does not suffer in this case from writing an all-too-revealing foreword. In my search for how others have interpreted the ending (or, even, the plot as a whole), I run across commentary that leads me to believe that this inscrutability is a John Fowles trademark. (One anecdote has him responding to a querying piece of fan mail from a terminally ill reader one way and then responding to a piece of fan mail that poses the same question about the same book—but from an unpleasant person—with another answer altogether!) In the end, I have drawn my own conclusion as to the questions: What is this book really about? What does it mean? What is the significance of the ending? In an attempt to get you to read it, & me not to spoil it, I elect not to detail that conclusion here. However, ask me about it when you see me.

The writing is powerful & layered; Shakespeare & mythology references abound, as do passages in other languages. Two cover blurbs worth repeating here are: "Brilliant and colossal...impossible to stop reading" and "Read it in one sitting if possible—but read it." Although this book has an enigmatic central theme, (p.s., ambiguous endings don't go over well in mysteries), I have to admit that I find the writing more poignant in the mundane scenes than in the tense, plot-salient parts that forward the mystery. Fowles has a craft for drawing these painfully realistic characters, so that when they are interacting in their banal reality the feel is much more trenchant than when they are bucking about in the traces of an unrealistic and sensational plot element.

There are far too many portions of the text to cite here; words that resonate, passages that speak to you & alter the beating of your heart. (I must have nearly fifty marked.)
• "[I]t suddenly struck me that just because I said with impunity things that would have apoplexed my dead father, I was still no less under his influence."
• "We sat in silence, close and warm, both aware that we were close and aware that we were embarrassed by the implications of this talk about children. In our age it is not sex that raises its ugly head, but love."
• "I remember one day when we were standing in one of the rooms at the Tate. Alison was leaning slightly against me, looking in her childish sweet-sucking way at a Renoir. I suddenly had a feeling that we were one body, one person, even there; that if she had disappeared it would have been as if I had lost half of myself. A terrible deathlike feeling, which anyone less cerebral and self-absorbed than I was then would have realized was simply love."
• "It seemed almost a secondary thing, by the time I left, that I wanted to escape from England. I thought of Alison only in terms of my going to Greece. When I loved her, I thought of being there with her; when I didn't, then I was there without her. She had no chance."
• "He had the charm of all people who believe implicitly in themselves, that of integration."
• "But all games, even the most literal, between a man and a woman are implicitly sexual."
• "Her mixture of enthusiasm and ignorance, which I remembered so well from London, didn't really irritate me any more. It seemed part of her energy, her candour; her companionability. But I had, so to speak, to be irritated; so I seized on her buoyancy, her ability to bob up from the worst disappointment. I thought she ought to have been more subdued, and much sadder."

This is an enormous book (656 p.), this is a maddening book, this is a meaningful book. I do not profess to understand The Magus, but I do recommend it.