Have you ever read a book and found yourself being tested or tricked? John Fowles, The Magus is a daring psychological thriller that not only deceives the main character, Nicholas, but deceives you as well.
The term ‘magus’ is defined as magician or sorcerer; think potions, think tricks, think mind games beyond our world. This is not exactly the title you would expect after reading the first 150 pages of John Fowles gripping novel, The Magus. Whilst looking like a lacklustre romantic story on the surface, if you are in a reading rut, this is the paperback you have been looking for. It plays with your mind and toys with your emotions, testing you as you navigate the pages. This book is anything but candid.
A minor gloss of the plot without ruining the magic
Written from the perspective of Nicholas, The Magus unwinds initially as a simple love story between Nicholas and Alison. You know the drill. Student finishes uni, falls in love with a bright-eyed blonde, has lots of sex. The beautiful Alison is exciting, thrilling and cheeky – everything you would want in a partner. But, for Nicholas, he is always reaching for something more.
It was not enough to just roam London streets and sip coffee on corners or read books in armchairs and drink beers on carpeted floors surrounded by bumpy wallpaper. This guy wanted some spark. He needed to ‘find himself’ (in the least cringey way possible). And what better way to find yourself than returning to his schoolboy roots with some good old-fashioned magic.
‘Find yourself’ on the Grecian island, Phraxos
Where can you find that spark? That excitement? The feeling of being at one with your mind and away from the stresses of your parents, or London, or Alison? The mystical Greek island, Phraxos, of course.
A desolate island in Greece, travelling to Phraxos sounds like a great idea initially. With all its mythological connotations probing the idea of something more than the boring everyday, Nicholas went in search of spark. But the island rapidly becomes Nicholas’ source of overbearing, all-encompassing boredom. Working in a school as an English teacher, Nicholas can scope the whole island on his lunch hour and the most exciting part of his day is talking to the other dry teachers, whilst occasionally receiving a bitchy letter from his now ex-lover Alison.
Begging for some flare, Nicholas goes exploring and meets an old man, Conchis, in a tiny house from which blue smoke floats out of the top of the chimney, in an invigorating sensuous smog. The magic that I keep banging on about is starting to unfold.
Finally, some magic
I hope I have made you feel safe. Made you feel like you are in the secure environment of a love story of sorts with a simple man trying to ‘find himself’. Here we have the familiar lulls of ‘inbetweener’ life with all its confusion, boredom and regret.
This initial romantic setting is all part of Fowles’ elaborate ruse. He wants the reader to think that this story is predictable, that Alison will fly over to Greece as Nicholas regrets leaving her and the couple will live happily ever after in Grecian sunset. This is not a love story. And *spoiler alert* this does not happen.
When Nicholas is invited to dinner at the strange old man’s house, you quickly realise that we, as the reader, have just completed the first of series of psychological tests that pepper this novel. Fowles wanted you to think the story is predictable. I wanted you to think this story is predictable. Lulling you into a false sense of security, Fowles strikes whilst the iron is burning hot through the strange and kind-of wonderful character of Conchis.
A leather-skinned man kissed by the Grecian sun teleports this book into a completely different genre; he turns what feels like a comfortable (and possibly even boring) romantic novel into a psychological journey for you and Nicholas.
It would seem initially we are simply witnessing an old man who needs company as Conchis tells his life story. In awe, Nicholas returns to his abode weekly, hungrily hearing all the stories he can, as though he is unsure whether he will return. And the stories that Conchis tells come to life.
John Fowles playing the “godgame”
Fowles’ coined his trickster novel “godgame”. We only see what is happening from poor Nicholas’ eyes, and it figures. Without truly knowing whose, who and if Conchis wife is dead or if Conchis is really called Conchis, we as a reader are as equally in the dark as Nicholas himself. The ultimate manipulator and the God of The Magus is John Fowles with his uncanny ability to pull the wool over our eyes.
But is this magic or mania? Is Nicholas really seeing a girl who looks exactly like Conchis’ dead wife or is he falling into the trap of insanity? You will be asking the same kind of questions. Whether you like it or not – the question of mania vs magic is rife is Fowles’ illusionary novel. Magic is potions and spells and Harry Potter. Mania is Conchis, tricking Nicholas, and tricking you.
The Grecian environment only aids the mystical disorientation. If we were to still be in the concrete streets of London the feel of this would differ. No pensive moments on Grecian cliff edges or pondering on long lonely walks. In a busy city, your mind has more time to rationalise, to realise and to adjust to the fact that this man is tricking you.
Lost in his thoughts and you your own, it is clear that Fowles has deliberately placed Nicholas on a deserted island, to ensure manipulation of his mind will be as easy as possible. The poor guy.
Are you up to the test?
I must reveal no more secrets as this book is one to be discovered organically, there is nothing worse than a spoiler. Who are all these people? Are Conchis’ stories coming to life? Where is the magic? Have I been tricked? Am I even real at this point? The kind of questions that probe your mind in the remaining pages of this masterpiece.
This book is a series of psychological tests on both Nicholas and you as a reader. But at least you have a head start; remember that boring at the beginning does not necessarily mean that you are set for a boring story. Rather, a bed is being made for you to sleep in, making each and every one of us vulnerable to the mind games.
Magus means magician and what boring love story involves real magic? If you bear in mind the romance ruse, you might even pass the first test.
Graphic courtesy of Isabel Armitage