the 1998 Modern Library edition of The Magus

The Magus

  • Author:  John Fowles  (1926  –  2005)
  • Rank:  #78
  • Publisher:  Little Brown
  • Published:  1965  (revised version, 1977)
  • Pages:  711  (Modern Library edition)
  • First Line:  “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.”
  • Last Lines:  “A flight of pigeons over the houses; fragments of freedom, hazard, an anagram made flesh.  And somewhere the stinging smell of burning leaves.”
  • ML Edition:  1998  –  gold cover
  • Acclaim:  Modern Library Top 100 English Language Novels of the 20th Century  –  #93
  • Film:  1968  (**  –  dir. Guy Green)
  • Read:  Fall, 1999

The Novel: The Magus succeeds as a novel because it is, at heart, a work of philosophy bound into fictional form.  Fowles poured himself into it for over a decade.  Originally titled The Godgame, it was his first novel, but he was so unable to let it go in completed form that The Collector was written, published and adapted into an Oscar-nominated film before The Magus would finally see publication.  In some ways, as acknowledged in the introduction to the revised version, it is re-imagining of Great Expectations on a 20th Century Greek island.  Nicholas Urfe’s parents aren’t dead like Pip’s, but he’s a cultural orphan: “During my last years at school I realized that what was really wrong with my parents was that they had nothing but a blanket contempt for the sort of life I wanted to lead.”

So Nicholas takes a position at the Lord Byron School in Greece and flees one island for another.  He soon finds himself staying with a reclusive millionaire and taking part in his “Godgame.”  “The house was as quiet as death, as the inside of a skull; but the year was 1953, I was an atheist and an absolute non-believer in spiritualism, ghosts and all that mumbo-jumbo.”  But he doesn’t know yet how deep in he will end up.  A feeling begins to persist “that something was trying to slip between me and reality.”

There is little to be gained from simply explaining the entirety of the plot.  That is essentially what the film tries to do and a major reason why it is such a disaster.  It is the language that Fowles employs, as well as the character of Nicholas and his journey into darkness at the hands of this mentor that is so fascinating.  In lines like the following, he seems to get right to the heart of the matter: “Long afterwards I realized why some men, racing drivers and their like, become addicted to speed.  There are those of us who never see death ahead, but eternally behind: in any moment that stops and thinks.”  It brings a men to the depth of darkness.  And after that, how could you possibly ever emerge into light?  “If Rome, a city of the vulgar living, had been depressing after Greece, London, a city of the drab dead, was fifty times worse.”

Sad as it seems, this might have been a metaphor for Fowles career.  After The Magus, he would go on to write The French Lieutenant’s Woman.  But then, mired in novels that he struggled to bring to a close, he struggled with mediocre reviews, dwindling sales and few novels left in him.  He noted in the introduction that though it was his third published book, it, in many ways, was a first novel.  So tragic then, that it was also where he peaked.

Michael Caine said The Magus was the worst film he ever made.

The Film: Woody Allen once said “If I had to live my life again, I’d do everything the same, except that I wouldn’t see The Magus.”  Michael Caine called it the worst film he ever made, because no one knew what the hell it was about.  It’s not quite as bad as all that.  After all, Caine did star in Jaws IV and Allen’s probably made some worse choices than seeing The Magus.  But it is a bad film, one stuck in the middle between an idea and a story.  It illustrates what can often be the difference between a novel and a film.  It is very easy to make an idea into a novel, a philosophical novel.  But, unless you’re Ingmar Bergman, it is much more difficult thing to do in a film, especially if you are determined to have a story along with it.  The result is often like this film, a complete mess that can be laid pretty firmly at the feet of director Guy Green and Fowles himself.  Fowles, after all, wrote the script, and he couldn’t seem to either stick enough with the story or enough with the ideas.  In the end, he went more with the story and that’s the problem, because the novel succeeds more on the strength of the philosophy, not the plot.  And of course, Green didn’t really know what the hell he was doing.  It’s obvious that the actors don’t know whether they’re coming and going.  So, even if you can find it (it’s not particularly easy to find on video), you should go ahead and skip it.  Just like every novel made into a good film isn’t worth reading, many films made from great books should be skipped.  This is certainly one.