Dated and rather lengthy The Magus (1966) by John Fowles takes the reader on a somewhat mysterious adventure with a young Oxford Grad and aspiring poet Nicholas Urfe.
To escape a love affair going any deeper with an Australian Beauty, Alison, Urfe takes a teaching position in Greece on the island of Phraxos. There he teaches boys at the Lord Bryon School.
I knew the affair was like no other I had been through. Apart from anything else it was so much happier physically. Out of bed I felt I was teaching her, anglicizing her accent, polishing off her roughness’s, her provincialism’s in bed she did the teaching. We knew this reciprocity without being able, perhaps because we were both single children, to analyse it. We both had something to give and to gain… and at the same time a physical common ground, the same appetites, the same tastes, the same freedom from inhibition. She was teaching me other things, besides the art of love; but that is how I thought of it at the time.
Much more tempting were some of the boys, possessors of an olive grace and a sharp individuality that made them very different from their stereotyped English private-school equivalents—those uniformed pink ants out of the Arnold mold I had Gide-like moments, but they were not reciprocated, because nowhere is pederasty more abominated than in bourgeois Greece; there at least Arnold would have felt thoroughly at home. Besides, I wasn’t queer; I simply understood (nailing a lie in my own education) how being queer might have its consolations. It was not only the solitude—it was Greece. It made conventional English notions of what was moral and immoral ridiculous; whether or not I did the socially unforgivable seemed in itself merely a matter of appetite, like smoking or not smoking a new brand of cigarette—as trivial as that, from a moral point of view. Goodness and beauty may be separable in the north, but not in Greece.
That last excerpted paragraph is probably sounding a bit odd in our own heyday here as the time of this writing was a bit more expansive than our present day where sex with boys is a subject that is not as easily dispensed with! It was the 60’s and 70’s so modern social watchers will be aghast at a teacher, and a straight one at that, with such a lack of concern to the possibility of an illegal relationship with youth.
While on the island teaching the boys Nicholas becomes curious of a mysterious singular man living atop a hill on the Island. This man Maurice Conchis wields a very powerful psychological power over Nicholas throughout the book. Going so far as to create living scenes with living actors to influence his new discovery.
I didn’t say anything to Karazoglou, who had noticed nothing; but I then and there decided to visit Mr Conchis. I cannot say why I suddenly became so curious about him. Partly it was for lack of anything else to be curious about, the usual island obsession with trivialities; partly it was that one cryptic phrase from Mitford and the discovery about Leverrier; partly, perhaps mostly, a peculiar feeling that I had a sort of right to visit. My two predecessors had both met this unmeetable man; and not wanted to talk about it. In some way it was now my turn.
Before anything else, I knew I was expected. He saw me without surprise, with a small smile, almost a grimace, on his face. He was nearly completely bald, brown as old leather, short and spare, a man whose age was impossible to tell: perhaps sixty, perhaps seventy; dressed in a navy-blue shirt, knee-length shorts, and a pair of salt-stained gym shoes. The most striking thing about him was the intensity of his eyes; very dark brown, staring, with a simian penetration emphasized by the remarkably clear whites; eyes that seemed not quite human.
He was standing in the doorway, giving me his intensest look. He seemed to gather strength; to decide that the mystery must be cleared up; then spoke. ‘I am psychic.’ The house seemed full of silence; and suddenly everything that had happened earlier led to this. ‘I’m afraid I’m not psychic. At all.’ We seemed drowned in dusk; two men staring at each other. I could hear a clock ticking in his room. ‘That is unimportant. In half an hour?’ ‘Why did you tell me that?’ He turned to a small table by the door, struck a match to light the oil-lamp, and then carefully adjusted it, making me wait for an answer. At last he straightened and smiled. ‘Because I am psychic.’ He went down the passage and across the landing into his own room. His door shut, then silence welled back.
The Magus tells or proceeds into quite a few different scenarios one involving a love affair with Lily who Nicholas chooses for a time to favor over Alison the young Australian who does decide to meet him eventually in Athens Greece. It is there where their relationship appears to go wrong and a very startling event occurs in the book.
As the book proceeds The Magus did begin to confound me with its myriad plot points and meanderings. Most interesting were the simple interplay between Nicholas and Conchis. There was a much better opportunity between the two of them than what eventually Mr. Fowles decided upon. Conchis was and does remain rather enigmatic and mysterious throughout the book, but Fowles often leaves Conchis out of the book, when he should have much better had cut all the other people out.
Instead of a better and more interesting story between a possible mentor and his charge, the book becomes much more of a story about a love affair, lost love and the future of a young man’s (Nicholas’ heart. All important matters as life goes, but not nearly as interesting as the relationship between Conchis and Nicholas in their first encounters. I did assume that the entire book would be about these two, but then all this other superfluous foolery with scenes acted out and a dominatrix (Lily) demanding of Nicholas’ attentions and then the story of Alison the needy Australian did take the book away from it’s much bigger possibilities.
I enjoyed those moments when Conchis and Nicholas were discussing the various points of Chonchis’ life. But Fowles runs out of ideas and gas and instead goes for drama. Drama certainly would have come, but a bit later would have been better, as it is The Magus isn’t much on Majic but does close in on the ordinary, especially in the last 3rd of the book.
Fowles who died in 2005 is a writer of some real depth and the book does hold you all the way through, but as things were slowly revealed, and a few new plot points, even then, added, I think we must recognize that Fowles lost his original thread here, it’s almost like he kept “The Magus” himself Maurice Conchis, out of the book on purpose to keep the mystery alive, but in doing so, Fowles fails us and himself as well.
There was surely a story between Nicholas and Maurice but Fowles obliterates it before it can go any deeper. In this sense Fowles couldn’t go any further with the center of his work here…
He (Fowles) was onto something but lost the thread… shame.
The next day was Friday. I had another letter at lunch. It had been delivered by hand and I knew the writing. I didn’t open it until I had escaped from the dining-room—which was as well, because its brief contents made me swear aloud. It was as brutal and unexpected as a slap across the face; dateless, placeless, without superscription. Any further visits to Bourani will be in vain. I do not think I have to explain why. You have gravely disappointed me. MAURICE CONCHIS I knew a stunned plunge of disappointment and a bitter anger.