“The Magus”, John Fowles. (Book 19, April 12-26)

the magus john fowles cover imageJohn Fowles’ The Magus. Wow.

I generally steer clear of sexual analogies, at least in public, but I think it would be unfair to say anything less than this book gave me a sense of what it must be like to have multiple orgasms. It was just so good, and it kept being so good, and it was almost so good that it hurt and I wanted it to stop, and then it stopped, and I wanted more and more and more again.

It’s a hell of a book.

Awesome prose in Fowles’ The Magus

Above anything else, the prose is extraordinary. To write without resort to cliché requires one to be free – to see and describe and author while rigorously holding one’s mind above the well-worn ruts of common expressions. Fowles succceds, and this success is no academic technicality – it infuses The Magus with phrases, words and sentences that are a sheer delight to read. Who could deny the literary genius of “flatulent clouds”, or the observational genius in the phrase “already she seemed far away, not in distance, not in time, but in some dimension for which there is no name.”

The Magus is a tri-partite work, with Books 1 and 3 largely focused on the intricacies of the English narrator’s, Nicholas’, relationship with the Australian Alison. In Book 1 we witness the inception of their affaire, as well as the turmoil it goes through as a consequence of Nicholas’ all-too-English (the text’s, not my, implication) inability to express emotion. This inhibition adversely affects the relationship, and they eventually go separate ways.

Fowles writes beautifully, evocatively and honestly about this experience. “In our age”, he ruefully points out, “it is not sex that rears its ugly head, but love.” As Nicholas makes his preparations to leave, and Alison considers getting back with an old lover, they meet for an awkward meal, “like two strangers”. On the sad reality of their impending separation, Alison laments:
[quote]I know what it’s like when people go away. It’s agony for a week, then painful for a week, then you begin to forget, and then it seems as if it never happened, it happened to someone else, and you start shrugging. You say, dingo, it’s life, that’s the way things are. Stupid things like that. As if you haven’t really lost something for ever.[/quote]Of their correspondence: “Imperceptibly information took the place of emotion in our letters”; of the nostalgia, “moments of tenderness and togetherness, moments when the otherness of the other disappeared, flooded back through my mind for days afterwards…”.

This writing is brilliant not only because of the strength of the prose itself, but because of the piercing honesty it affords. Fowles, like other literary geniuses, is able to make real something inside of the reader, because he is able to describe a universal experience in a way others can relate to.

Or in a way that I at least could relate to. I began reading The Magus on April 12th. At that time, I was tangled up in blue in an affaire that was offering joy and pain in approximately equal proportions, with the inamorata in question about to quit Australia. So what I had been experiencing, what I am perhaps still yet to experience, was very much revealed in the book. It was almost eerie. And it was beautiful.

Impressive vocabulary in Fowles’ The Magus

Fowles also employs a range of vocabulary that basically knocked me out. I kept track, in the front of the book, of words that I needed to look up:

  • affaire (a love affair)
  • histrionic (something like a tantrum)
  • triune
  • sibilant (whispering ish?)
  • caique (some sort of boat)
  • sere
  • nacreous (having a pearl-like sheen)
  • martinet
  • simian (like a monkey)
  • saurian (like a lizard)
  • hieratic (of or relating to priests)
  • exiguous (existing in small quantity)
  • peripateia (assorted props related to a play scene)
  • ukase
  • stippling (looking as if created by the artistic effect of stipple)
  • elision
  • apophthegm (like an aphorism – some sort of shallow saying)
  • lachrymatory (producing tears)
  • incongenerous (not part of a group)
  • eschai

Of course a good vocabulary is not a sign of good writing and, in fact, there is literature in which using the above words would be nothing short of pretentious. In this book, it certainly works, not least of all because the narrator is pretentious. I should also confess that I love very precise adjectives of the form “of or relating to”. Thus “hieratic” really lifted my luggage, as did “simian” and “saurian”. I also like the adjectives “lupine” (wolves), “vulpine” (foxes), “juglandaceous” (walnuts), “phocine” (seals), “porcine” (swine).  You get the idea.

Enigma vs. Reality in Fowles’ The Magus

The more sensitive readers amongst you will have noticed I haven’t yet referred to Book 2. Now’s the time. Particularly as the book is long overdue from RMIT City Library, and it costs me 50c a day to keep it. 50c a day that my ad-free blog is not supplying.

So in Book 2 Nicholas heads to the Greek island of Phraxos, which is basically devoid of culture, intellectuals, etc.. It’s a bit of a hole. It’s beautiful, yes, but he isn’t having a great time. Then he meets the very rich and very cultured and very enigmatic Conchis, who invites him over a bit to a place called Bourani. Conchis subsequently engineers a series of events that are both literarily and literally fantastic. Conchis is the titular “Magus”, creating a fantasy domain which Nicholas is compelled to inhabit. In this domain, “anything might happen….there were no limits in this masque, no normal social laws or conventions.” Later, a character explains to Nicholas that part of the aim of this is to see how well sane people are able to distinguish between reality and unreality.

A person wearing a horse head and standing in a backyard inside a toy car. It represents the juxtaposition of fantasy and reality that John fowles' The Magus shows so well.

The book is a little weird at times. No surprise that we got along.

Pardon my truly awful French, but j’dig. It’s facilely true that so many of our social interactions are crafted to a fine, invisible polish. We can accomplish rudimentary transactions by rote, and even dinner dates, 21st birthday parties, have familiar structures and patterns – social conventions – that allow us to conduct them without being emotionally stretched. And don’t get me wrong – this is worthwhile and necessary. What is interesting to consider is how contravening these conventions, or stepping outside these boundaries, affects others.

By way of explanation, I umpire netball. My authority to do so arises from certain conventions – I wear a white shirt, I blow a whistle. It also depends on the players’ acceptance of me in this role. At times players will disagree with calls that I make, sometimes vocally. This is darn rude, but it exists within the context of my being the authority that I am. In theory, a player might disagree, I might warn them, eventually I might send them from the court. In theory, they go. But this is silly! I have no actual power over any player, and any person could easily refuse to obey and remain stubbornly on the court, ruining the game for everyone. This would put me in an impossible position, and would be a struggle for many of the less emotionally-resilient amongst us.

In The Magus, in Book 2, Nicholas is put in such positions time and time again. He is never sure of what the next moment holds. He never understands the motivations and agendas of other agents. At times, complete absurdities take place and he is asked to accept or obey. It’s a stimulating exploration of what novel situations can do to a person. Suffice to say, he isn’t very emotionally resilient.

Well, that’s probably about enough from me. The book is truly fascinating, and truly rewarding, and bloody long. In that way it perhaps analogises the effort required to achieve anything at all that is worthwhile in life.

Finally, with Nicholas and Alison standing together, not necessarily re-united, the book ends with a quotation. One that I haven’t yet looked up myself, but I will leave  here for the purposes of mystery.

Cras amet qui nunquam amavit; quique amavit cras amet.

Rating: 5/5

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