Book review: The Magus by John Fowles

I love to buy used books. Whenever I’m travelling in Europe, I always keep an eye out for secondhand book shops, and while on a recent train trip to Val d’Isere for some spring skiing; we stopped for a night in Nimes, one of the nicest villages just over the border from Cataluña. There was a book shop that had caught my eye the last time we were in town, which was closed, but on this trip, I had a chance to rummage through the English language selection in a wooden cart set up on the sidewalk. What I like about used books, beside the price, is the limited selection. Sometimes, fewer choices are better and thanks to limited choices; I’ve read novels I wouldn’t have if I came across them within an unlimited selection and as a result have happily discovered new authors. If I walked into a Barnes & Nobles, I wouldn’t know where to begin browsing.

This little secondhand shop in Nimes had spectacular novels on offer; I can’t remember the last time I came across so many books I wanted to buy. There was very little genre fiction among the stacks; it was mostly literature and post-modernist fiction, and only 3€ a pop. I wanted to buy them all but ended up parsing my selection down to four novels: The Magus by John Fowles, Moon Palace by Paul Auster, and two from John Barth, Chimera and The Sot-Weed Factor.

I had heard about John Fowles and The Magus as well as his most popular novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman and the film version starring Meryl Strep and Jeremy Irons. There was something about the cover, the yellowed edges of the pages and the slightly cracked spine that told me it had been read before; I was drawn to start reading it the very same day and decided to abandon Women by Bukowski.

The tone of the novel reminds me of an eccentric British TV series from the ‘60s called The Prisoner, about a sports car driving secret agent who is sequestered to a mysterious island where he finds himself under constant surveillance, doesn’t understand what his captors want from him, and his identity is stripped away when he is assigned a number – #6. The intro, which features a James Bond/Secret Agent style guitar diddly, centers on a scene of the leading man who plays #6, Patrick Magoon, asking, “who is #1?”. The show was moderately successful in its day but earned an afterlife and robust cult following. A modernized remake starring Jim Caviezel and Ian McKellen was produced by AMC in 2009.

The Magus takes place on an isolated Greek island where the protagonist, Nicholas, a horny young hyper educated Englishman, meets a wealthy and mysterious older local man and finds himself submitted against his will to some sort of psychoanalytical sessions and hypnotism among other mind tricks. The novel is full of magical realism: characters appear from nowhere; for example, a squad of WWII German soldiers land on the beach in front of Nicholas for no apparent reason. Things get even weirder for Nicholas, and every detail is orchestrated by some benevolent force as if the narrator were in a cell or cage and under constant surveillance, everyone but Nicolas seems to know what’s going on; they are all in on it and Nicholas Urfe suffers from constant waves of paranoia and deception.

The story is convoluted but the pacing and narrative are masterful. Fowles based the story on a personal experience when he lived on Spetses teaching at a boarding school. Post modernism is a wide-open term and this novel fits well into the genre. I can’t put my finger on a precis definition of post modernism, it’s like what that judge said about porn a long time ago, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it” that’s how I feel about post-modernist literature.

There’s not much more to say about this novel. It’s one of those reads that you’ll either push through to the end, or end up tossing it early on, but it is worth the effort.

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