Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al
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Book: The Magus

Author: John Fowles

Details: (c) John Fowles 1966, revised edition 1977; Pub Jonathan Cape 1985; ISBN 0-224-01392-0

Verdict: The Magus is interesting and well-written, if perhaps a little dated. Well worth reading.

Reasons for reading it: I listed it under 'books I've never heard of' when I was discussing the BBC's Big Read list, and rysmiel recommended it highly.

How it came into my hands: The library were jumping on the Big Read bandwagon and had it prominently on display when I was walking past.

I have a bit of a dilemma about reviewing this, because it relies so heavily on suspense. Normally I don't make a fuss about spoilers; I simply hide all my reviews behind cuts anyway, and assume that anyone who is bothered will have the sense not to read them. But with The Magus, knowing the outcome in advance would almost completely destroy the story. And the main thrust of my review is pretty much how I reacted to the way the plot was gradually revealed. Anyway, I'll do my best to be discreet.

The Magus is really quite stunningly well-crafted. The writing is very dense; it almost has the feel of much earlier, Realist stuff. But it very often manages to transcend that sort of over-writing, and some of the descriptions were incredibly evocative, without being consciously poetic. Although the style borders on being verbose or even flowery, it felt as if every single word had weight, making the language of The Magus an aesthetic pleasure in itself.

Apart from that, it's just about the tightest first person perspective I've ever encountered. I felt completely under the skin of the narrator, Nicholas. Even to the extent that I found myself despising him in some ways, only to discover later that I was picking up his own despising of himself. Likewise I was bothered by his attitude towards women and relationships, but by the end found that the book addressed these issues too.

I was taken in to exactly the same extent that he was, and therefore as surprised as he when the truth was finally revealed. By which point one doubted that as well; the set-up is one of those eXistenZ-type ideas where you're constantly jumping between levels of reality, until you lose the sense of what is actually real. The sort of thing that points up the self-referential gubbins that is called post-modern (in a very loose and fluffy, non-literary sort of sense), because it makes it very difficult not to be aware that 'true from the point of view of the work of fiction' is very different from actually true.

That said, one criticism I do have is that there's not much insight on offer into any of the other characters apart from Nicholas. This is partly because you see them entirely from the his rather selfish point of view, but with such a very detailed portrait of Nicholas, I would have liked a bit more idea of the motivations and character of Conchis, Lily, Alison and so on.

Perhaps I'm being unfair in calling The Magus dated; it may just be that it has a very clear sense of period, just as it really puts across place and atmosphere and so on, more than almost anything else I've read. (There were scenes of the horrors of WW1 trench warfare, for example, which were incredibly immediate, even considering that I read Pat Barker's Regeneration very recently.) But there were a couple of annoying passages where it seems to be trying to set Nicholas up as the Universal Man, and his Universal Man's concerns are very much those of the 60s.

I very much like the ambiguity of the ending; of course the whole book, with all its deceit and appearances diverging from reality sets you up to doubt everything. But the final scene is ambiguous at face value as much as on that sort of level.

Actually, what The Magus reminds me of most strongly is Hesse: the slightly mystical set-up being used to cast light on real human problems. I wouldn't compare any old rubbish to Hesse, but I think in this case it's reasonable to mention them in the same sentence, even if The Magus doesn't attain quite the level of Steppenwolf.



Anyway, many thanks to rysmiel for recommending this; it's not something I would particularly have gone for spontaneously, and I really got a lot out of it.
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