Friday, March 13, 2009

The Magus. John Fowles.

New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc. 1965.

Why read it? Novel. Well, you’ll have a hard time putting it down. And, more than once, you’ll ask yourself, “What the hell is going on?” Which is the way Nicholas Urfe (an anagram of “fury”?) sees what is happening to him. And you’ll keep on reading.

Hard to summarize the plot of this novel. I think essentially “Conchis” (“Conscious”) is trying to show a bored-with-life, insensitive role player that when everybody is role-playing, we lose our sense of reality. Conchis creates mysterious situations involving Nicholas Urfe who is thereby energized by seeking the solution to the mysteries, solving his problem of boredom with life. But he’s in a maze. He does not understand what is going on around him and to him, except that he is being manipulated by others, especially Conchis, and also by two women. He doesn’t know if people are simply playing roles that Conchis has assigned to them or if they are really what they seem. He feels as if he is losing contact with reality.

The other thing that Conchis is trying to show Urfe is that women are not simply sex objects, but people who are closer to what we mean by God than men. [This novel was written well before The Da Vinci Code.]

We all act as if we are being watched by God Almighty twenty-four hours a day. Urfe feels that he is being watched by Conchis. But the “godgame” [Conchis’s manipulation of people] ends with Urfe’s realization that nobody is watching, nobody cares, and, like the existentialists, he alone must shape his view of reality. There is no “plan.”

The language and ideas in this novel are sometimes so trite, that it’s hard to believe the author wrote them with a straight face: “There are things that words cannot explain.” “There’s only one of everyone.” Sounds like Yogi Berraisms.

On the other hand some of the author’s quotes are quite thought-provoking. His description of war is especially noteworthy as is his vivid evocation of personal interrelationships and conversations, not unlike Henry James. Also like Henry James, the author’s lead character, Conchis, is similar to Dr. Sloper in Washington Square and Ralph in The Portrait of a Lady, someone who likes to observe people in situations, even setting the situations in motion, to see how they handle them. James, however, does not go as far as Conchis who actually stages settings that then involve the protagonist. Urfe on Conchis: “Now I saw Conchis as a sort of novelist sans novel, creating with people, not words….”

All in all, I guess I’ve grown out of this novel. but I enjoyed it when I was younger.

Sample Quotes:

“The most important questions in life can never be answered by anyone except oneself.” p. 149. ………. “It was a beach I had been to before two or three times, and it gave, like many of the island beaches, the lovely illusion that one was the very first man that had ever stood on it.” p. 64. ………. “Like all men not really up to their jobs, he was a stickler for externals and petty…things; and in lieu of an intellect he had accumulated an armory of capitalized key words like Discipline and Tradition and Responsibility. If I ever dared—I seldom did—to argue with him he would produce one of these totem words and cosh [hit with a blackjack] me with it….” p. 11.

“I suppose our accepting what we are must always inhibit our being what we ought to be.” p. 160. ………. “I did not like the colonel at all. He had eyes like razors. They were without a grain of sympathy for what they saw. Nothing but assessment and calculation. If they had been brutal, or lecherous, or sadistic, they would have been better. But they were the eyes of a machine.” p. 279. ………. “What was I? The net sum of countless wrong turnings.” p. 487.

“But all my life I had tried to turn life into fiction….” p. 487. ………. “He [training company commander] was one of the most supremely stupid men I have ever met. He taught me a great deal.” p. 117. ………. “Every truth was a sort of lie; and every lie…a sort of truth.” p. 273.

“She made me talk about myself. She did it by asking blunt questions, and by brushing aside empty answers.” p. 24. ……….”It was supposed to sound spontaneous, but I had been composing it on and off for days.” p. 44. ………. “I was too green to know that all cynicism masks a failure to cope—and impotence….”

The meaning of “Magus” is magician. I suppose Conchis is like the Stage Manager in Our Town who sets up situations like “A Day in Our Town” and “Love and Marriage” and “Death.” The Magus is fun to read. It’s sort of like a detective novel. There are enough twists and turns to keep one’s mind occupied with trying to figure out what’s going on. And there are a few philosophical ideas in it that are worth thinking about. RayS.

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