We shall not cease from exploration……………
John Fowles’ The Magus has come at me again, demanding to be re-read, from several directions.
A while ago I was asked to guest write something for another blog about literature and place. The Magus came immediately to mind as the book with such a powerful setting that it prevented me from visiting Greece, specifically island Greece, for decades, because it had set up such a vision that I was afraid reality could not possibly deliver the transcendent quality of light and landscape promised:
When that ultimate Mediterranean light fell on the world around me, I could see it was extremely beautiful; but when it touched me, I felt it was hostile. It seemed to corrode, not cleanse. It was like being at the beginning of an interrogation under arc-lights; already I could see the table with straps through the open doorway, already my old self began to know that it wouldn’t be able to hold out. It was partly the terror, the stripping-to-essentials, of love; because I fell head over heels, totally and for ever in love with the Greek landscape from the moment I arrived……..this sinister-fascinating, this Circe-like quality of Greece…..in Greece landscape and light are so beautiful, so all-present, so intense, so wild, that the relationship is immediately love-hatred, one of passion.
So wrote Nicholas Urfe, the first-person narrator of Fowles’ god-game, roman-a-clef mysteriously powerful, iconic second novel.
I had been primed for Greece, since childhood; Greek (not Roman) mythology, the Greek Pantheon had obsessed me from the age of seven. Mary Renault’s books about Ancient Greeks, which I read in my early teens, continued a sense of longing for a land I had never seen, but one with a mysterious, awe-inspiring, curious combination of powerful light which revealed and yet mistily, dreamily, hid, at one and the same time. My teens also exposed me to Alain Fournier’s melancholy, lost-Eden, elusive Le Grand Meaulnes. And somehow these all had a connection with each other. The mist of the Fournier, the lost domaine, somehow linked to the light of Greece.
In a foreword to a revised version of The Magus, which Fowles wrote some years later, he explained how influenced he had been by the Fournier. The feeling I had had, all along, of the French book behind the Greek set one, though so very different, was real.
So…….to Greece, or not, we must go (or not go)
In the end, I did, though not to Spetses, the island which was the springboard for The Magus’ setting, Phraxos.
And MY island, another one of the many which is the visiting place for rich Athenians with second homes and within-Greece holidays, remains un-named here, my secret place, to be returned to I hope one day. Suffice it to say it is one of the many small islands which is by all accounts sacred to Aphrodite, and has history going back thousands of years, though it had not (when I was there) become a developed tourist destination.
The transformational power of the light and ancient potency of Greek Islands is not, however, the only profound engagement with landscape within this book. Another, central section involves a darker engagement with a transforming experience of ‘the living god’ (whatever that might mean) in the isolation and darkness of Norwegian forest
The Magus is undoubtedly a book which is going to be most potent for a reader who embarks on its journey when young and unformed, when the sense of the possibility of not only choices to be made in the HOW you will live your life, but WHO you are to live your life, are potent. And it is (possibly) a book of even more resonance for a young man than it is for a young woman, as the selfish, cynical, faux-existentialist decadent central character, the narrator, is male.
But (I think this is probably the fourth or maybe fifth time I have returned to the book) it is one which still has the power to allure, to puzzle, and to bear re-reading again.
In brief, the well written story concerns the disaffected Urfe, a man with a wayward and careless, though unrealistically Romantic attitude to women – locked in an idea of The Woman, so that he cannot stay within what a relationship with a real woman might mean, what loving, as opposed to in love, might mean. Urfe is a product of the stultified 50s British class system. An Oxbridge graduate, a teacher at minor public schools, he takes a post teaching English at a school on ‘Phraxos’, an isolated Greek island.
There he encounters a mysterious Greek, an older man, urbane, wealthy, steeped in the arts, philosophy, a degree of learning which is more ancient than Renaissance. A man who fulfils the roles of guru, trickster, enchanter, and through whose mind-games Urfe learns. It is almost impossible to explain the power – cerebrally, emotionally, viscerally of this book. The reader, over and over, like Urfe, is stretched, deceived, seduced, puzzled – and within this story Fowles is also creating transformations for reader as well as his central character.
He (Fowles) either displays a certain arrogance towards his reader (no spoon-feeder he), or he expects reading to BE something to work to transform, not merely to entertain, and instead RESPECTS the reader’s capacity to make that journey. Untranslated passages of Latin, French, Italian, Greek, are casually strewn through the text, not to mention many allusions to artistic, musical and literary classical pieces. Reading Fowles in a Google world is fairly easy, with the ability to search for, and translate, the quotes, the references, but, at the time of writing, if you did not have that wide learning more work needed to be done in order to better understand.
In its time it was unlike anything I had read. Now, the novelist as trickster, the novelist who twists and turns the reader, making them work, whilst they unfold their fabulous immersion, is using devices we are more used to. But in the unfolding story in The Magus, time and again the reader is NOT given answers, any more than Urfe is, all is ambiguity – and even when Urfe does unravel answers, he will say ( for example) in the solving of a crossword clue how someone felt/reacted to the solving of the clue – but the reader is not given the solution, and left to work it out. These various little stings are devices to make the reader participate in what they are reading.
Perhaps nowhere does Fowles throw the refusal to ‘black and white’ to ‘wrap’ to tie up and produce a fixed narration more, than in the deliberate ambiguity of the end.
Many anguished letters to Fowles via his publisher, many student dissertations, over the years, were produced, arguing and debating the ‘what happened’
Fowles deliberately left this open. ‘Life’, unlike Hollywood, does not have wraps
Despite the fact there are always an infinite number of new must-read books, this is STILL one I will return to again, even though this last re-read has broken the back of my paperback, replete with its many, many underlinings, each added to on subsequent re-reads. Judicious use of sellotape will be needed for the NEXT read through. And, NO this is never one for the Kindle, since there is something so potent in the measure of each of my reading journeys, viewable by changing pens in underline
Despite (of course) some of the flaws due to the ‘of its time’ this remains an unusually potent, astonishing reading experience.