93. The Magus by John Fowles

The MagusYear Published: 1966
Pages: 582
First sentence: I was born in 1927, the only child of middle-class parents, both English, and themselves born in the grotesquely elongated shadow, which they never rose sufficiently above history to leave, of that monstrous dwarf Queen Victoria.
Rating: 3/3 (read it!)

I've often seen books referred to as journeys, but I don't think I've ever really gotten that sense from any book quite as much as I got it from this one, which completely blew my mind, by the way.

Before I get too carried away gushing over it, though, I should say what it's about. The narrator (I'm noticing a distinct trend toward first person narration in the books so far, we'll see if that continues) is Nicholas Urfe, who finds himself on a Greek island called Phraxos, teaching English at what is supposed to be the best boys' school in Greece, although just about everyone there cares far more about science than they do about English literature, or English in general. It's the early 1950s, and Nicholas is right in the middle of his twenties. There are two sort of gigantically important people in his life.

The first is Alison Kelly, an Australian girl just a few years younger than Nicholas, who he shacks up with shortly before his departure to Greece. Their relationship is a somewhat incoherent mess, but I really liked Alison, and when I say "incoherent mess" I'm not referring to a lack of quality in the writing, but rather a mutual lack of ability to connect on the parts of both Nicholas and Alison.

The second person is Maurice Conchis, an oldish man with a villa on Phraxos. He and his role are a little bit hard to pin down, but basically Nicholas meets him and ends up spending some time at Conchis' villa, where there are numerous shenanigans going on, including both ghosts and gods.

By now I'm sure everyone can agree that I'm not terribly good at summaries, so let's just move along. This book is really, really good. At the beginning, it felt kind of similar to Peter Straub's Shadowland (which I loved for its slow burn), in that there's a young man who goes to learn from a mysterious older man living alone in the middle of nowhere (sort of). I had to take that comparison off the table fairly early on, though, because The Magus gets into so many more things. I do have to admit I was a little disappointed that fantasy and magic didn't have a bigger presence here, though.

The prose is occasionally a little clunky, but that's easy to ignore because of the force of the story and how evocative it is. I'll admit too that towards the end there were bits that started sailing over my head, but I think I got the gist of the book's comments on choice, trust, love, and even reality.

I did make one observation that I'd really like to discuss, but it's kind of spoilerful. Has anyone read this one?

- - - - -

"You're not me. You can't feel like I feel."
"I can feel."
"No you can't. You just choose not to feel or something, and everything's fine."
"It's not fine. It's just not so bad."

- - - - -

He looked out to sea. "There is a poem of the T'ang dynasty." He sounded the precious little glottal stop. "'Here at the frontier, there are falling leaves. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups on my table.'"

- - - - -

But the battlefield—that is something different. Because that is when the real enemy, death, appears.

- - - - -

A young Victorian of my age would have thought nothing of waiting fifty months, let alone fifty days, for his beloved; and of never permitting a single unchaste thought to sully his mind, let alone an act his body. I could get up in a young Victorian mood; but by midday, with a pretty girl standing beside me in a bookshop, I might easily find myself praying to the God I did not believe in that she wouldn't turn and smile at me.

- - - - -

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