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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Magus

John Fowles

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To purchase The Magus

Title: The Magus
Author: John Fowles
Genre: Novel
Written: 1966 (rev. 1977)
Length: 668 pages
Availability: The Magus - US
The Magus - UK
The Magus - Canada
The Magus - India
Le Mage - France
Der Magus - Deutschland
Il mago - Italia
El mago - España
  • Revised edition published in 1977, with a Foreword by the author

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Our Assessment:

B+ : ridiculously over-twisted (and over-heated), but sufficiently compelling

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times A+ 17/1/1966 E.Fremont-Smith
The NY Times Book Rev. . 19/3/1978 W.H. Pritchard
The Spectator . 6/5/1966 Bill Byrom
Sunday Times A 1/5/1966 Frederic Raphael
The Times B 5/5/1966 .
The Times . 25/9/1969 .
The Times . 9/6/1977 Richard Holmes
TLS D 5/5/1966 Marghanita Laski

  Review Consensus:

  More favorable than not, but no consensus; impressed by the writing/story-telling

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Magus is a stunner, magnificent in ambition, supple and gorgeous in execution. It fits no neat category; it is at once a pyrotechnical extravaganza, a wild, hilarious charade, a dynamo of suspense and horror, a profoundly serious probing into the nature of moral consciousness, a dizzying, electrifying chase through the labyrinth of the soul, an allegorical romance, a sophisticated account of modern love, a ghost story that will send shivers racing down the spine. Lush, compulsive, richly inventive, eerie, provocative, impossibly theatrical--it is, in spite of itself, convincing. (...) No summary can convey accurately the sense of this extraordinary book. It is not silly, it is fantastical, evocative, imaginative, but it is no self-indulgence. It is original and contemporary; it is intelligent. Most of all, it is great, good, lavish, eerie fun." - Eliot Fremont-Smith, The New York Times

  • "(I)t is a remarkable tour de force, and not just as a promising writer's first novel." - William H. Pritchard, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Pervading the book, there is a brutality not wholly acknowledged by the author; and Nicholas emerges from his elaborate psycho-mythological trial so mutilated that any self-revelation is an experience which he shares uniquely with his creator: the 'reader is left only with the battered husk of a character. Lastly, The Magus has an intellectual vulgarity. It tackles all of psychology, mythology, history, mysticism, art with an idiotic abandon. It is as if Aldous Huxley were loose upon one of Norman Douglas's islands." - Bill Byrom, The Spectator

  • "The Magus is a deliciously toothsome celebration of wanton story-telling. (...) Mr Fowles has concocted a myth for our time which will prove indigestible only to those whom Eng. Lit. ulcers have put on a milky diet. However, I am bound to say there are places where Mr Fowles's language comes near to exploding his enterprise (specieslessness is an ineffable word) and others where the straight face essential to the creation of evil wears too pretentious a mask." - Sunday Times, Frederic Raphael

  • "Whatever one makes or doesn't make of its central theme (...) and whatever it is that may fail to convince the reader that the theme is driven to a proper conclusion, the narrative skill and power of invention, the sense conveyed of an obsession having been wrung dry to the last drop of titillating juice, must command our admiration. (...) Confronted by the teeming images of The Magus we become voyeurs rather than participants." - The Times

  • "The novel is a breathtaking technical achievement, with a delicate and baffling latticework of clues to the layers of deceit practiced on the young narrator." - The Times

  • "The overall effect of these revisions is twofold. The new carpentering of the cache-cache dialogues, with their illusory revelations of personal identity and desire, now gives the central section of the novel all the tightness and excitement of a well-made play." - Richard Holmes, The Times

  • "The scepticism with which the author endows his hero soon fails to alleviate the sheer ridiculousness of the incidents played out for his benefit. (...) (C)oils tighten, idiocy deepens and exasperation exacerbates while no commonplace curiosa are left unturned (.....) Certainly Mr. Fowles can tell a story and can often write extremely well (.....) Yet in total The Magus is a silly book and an unhealthy one." - Marghanita Laski, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Magus is narrated by Nicholas Urfe, an Oxford graduate -- even if all he got out of it was: "a third-class degree and a first-class illusion: that I was a poet" -- with no family ties (the parents died in a plane crash) and not much of a plan for the future. It's the early 1950s, and he staggers about a bit, trying his hand at teaching and then settling on a position at a good school on an out-of-the-way Greek island. Before he heads out into that wilderness, he begins a relationship with an Australian girl, Alison. She was more or less engaged to someone else, but is won over by Nicholas -- but neither of them is really set to commit; she takes a job as an airline stewardess and they more or less go their separate ways, with decidedly mixed feelings.
       Nicholas quickly settles in on the island, but has very little to say about his teaching duties, or indeed school life generally. The island of Phraxos is boring and isolated -- "It's remote. Let's face it, bloody remote", one of his predecessors had warned him before he set out, and it certainly feels that way -- and Nicholas is rather unhappy and frustrated with life there, in a sort of: "exile from contemporary reality".
       Things seem to look up when he stumbles across one of the island's mysteries, the isolated estate of Bourani and its mysterious owner, Maurice Conchis -- who invites young Nicholas into his lair and life. Little does Nicholas know how much contemporary reality will be upended there .....
       Conchis' background and circumstances are -- and remain -- mysterious. Apparently English, he was appointed mayor by the occupying Germans during the war, and so there's a whiff of the collaborationist about him -- but the locals don't provide Nicholas with clear answers or explanations. Conchis also doesn't offer clear answers about his life, or much of anything else -- or rather he does, of sorts, but it becomes rather clear that these are stories. Some possibly factual, some, it turns out, obviously not. But Conchis is a compelling character -- well-educated, with a fine collection of art and a refined manner -- and Nicholas easily gets caught up in his web -- certainly far more intriguing than anything else on the island. What he eventually says to another character captures what becomes his general feeling towards Conchis and what he finds himself ensnared in -- and goes for the reader, following him on his heady journey, too:

     "I don't believe a word. But go on."
       Conchis has an extensive library, but one of the first things he points out to Nicholas is that there's nary a work of fiction to be found on the shelves. He purged his collection in a grand auto-da-fé -- "It took me all day. The sky took their smoke, the earth their ashes" -- and argues: "The novel is no longer an art form", yet he is also fabulator -- and stage director. Initially, Conchis' claim to Nicholas is: "I am psychic", but he sees himself as considerably more -- and acts accordingly. The title suggests his true nature -- "There's a card in the tarot pack called the magus. The magician ... conjuror" -- but even that doesn't quite do him justice; as Nicholas eventually suggests, Conchis wants nothing less than to play at being God.
       Conchis stages a reality for Nicholas -- and not only stages it, but has him participate, playing a role. Except that Nicholas doesn't know what role he's playing. He realizes soon enough he's being manipulated -- but he can't imagine to what end or, for that matter, all the ways in which Conchis is toying with him.
       It's a bit of a game, too, with Conchis even telling him:
I do not ask you to believe. All I ask you is to pretend to believe. It will be easier.
       But nothing comes easy here. Nicholas soon sees behind some of Conchis' staging -- but he seems to be meant to see ..... He draws conclusions -- as he is meant to -- but as soon as he thinks he has a grasp on something another rug is pulled out from under him, as almost everything seems to be drawn into question.
       There's a girl on the scene, too -- eventually brought to the fore -- but her identity, even her very nature remains unclear. Actress ? Fragile, damaged -- and possibly dangerous -- schizophrenic ? Another fly in Conchis' web, as she sometimes claims ? Nicholas knows what he wants to believe -- yet Conchis always seems to have a new twist for him.
       Then there's Alison, who hasn't completely let go either. And she too becomes part of whatever Conchis is orchestrating -- with Nicholas (and the reader) wondering just how far Conchis' reach extends, and how elaborate his game is. (Very, very elaborate, certainly.)
       Conchis boasts of his grand design and execution (still without letting on what it might all be about) -- "He talks a lot about experimental situations. About the behavior patterns of people faced with situations they don't understand" -- and in turn Nicholas vents some of his frustration:
     "There is no place for limits in the meta-theatre."
     "Then you shouldn't involve ordinary human beings in it."
       Nicholas is puppet and test subject -- and not Conchis' first. He's also in way, way over his head, even once he (thinks) he's gotten a glimpse behind the scenes; as someone tells (or reminds) him:
"Man, you're holding a lousy pair against a full house. No chance. Compris ?"
       But Nicholas doesn't want to admit Conchis has been getting the better of him all this time -- even as the time continues long past when the game seems it should have come to some sort of conclusion.
       Early on, Conchis tells Nicholas:
I envy you. You have the one thing that matters. You have all your discoveries before you.
       Nicholas is at least sharp enough to recognize that Conchis' interest is not personal:
What interested him was something else, some syndrome I exhibited, some category I filled. I was not interesting in myself, but only as an example.
       Indeed, Nicholas recognizes he is being used -- just not quite how, or to what end. Or if, indeed, there even is an end -- because one of Fowles' successes in The Magus is how he keeps twisting the plot yet another turn. Conchis tells his own backstory to Nicholas, at considerable length -- including some of the horrific events on the island during the German occupation -- but, as Nicholas comes to learn, even the basics aren't always what they seem. Conchis isn't exactly a fraud, but clearly he is also rarely whatever he claims to be, or have been. Nicholas learns not to trust what Conchis says -- anything he does say is probably: "just another of his fifty-seven variations of red herring", as another character suggests -- yet there are certain things he wants to believe, and certain things he has to, if he doesn't want his entire conception of the reality around him to collapse.
       The Magus is a very elaborate game -- and succeeds in part because of it's ridiculous over-elaborateness. Just when you think there can't be another twist, Nicholas' life is upended yet again. Much of this is truly ridiculous -- but compelling for all that.
       Fowles tells a good story, too, even beyond the toying with Nicholas: Conchis is a fascinating character, in all the different stages Nicholas regards him at, and the back- and side-stories of various characters are often very good and well-told. There are stretches when things don't seem to be going anywhere interesting, but Fowles eventually twists things up shockingly enough.
       The Magus is a decidedly odd novel -- an experiment with a character; an experiment in fiction; a different sort of coming of age and finding one's place story -- but has its bizarre appeal.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 August 2017

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The Magus: Reviews: John Fowles: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       English author John Fowles lived 1926 to 2005.

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© 2017-2021 the complete review

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