Saturday, March 14, 2009
by John Fowles
John Fowles’ second book, “The Magus,” is a novel poised upon a cusp. Remember this: the book’s clear and self-reflexive identity as a novel. Additionally, this is a novel concerned with the novel as a form, while all the while retaining a bewildering twilight ambiguity. First, the book is very much a novel in the grandest sense of the word – in his introduction to the 1978 revised edition, Fowles reveals that his initial vision of “The Magus” was “…an attempt at something along the lines of Henry James’s masterpiece, “The Turn of the Screw.” Yet Fowles follows this statement by saying he “…had no coherent idea at all of where I was going, in life as in the book.” This biographical uncertainty manifests in the book’s aesthetic and technical driftlessness. Not to say the book is sloppy or aimless. Far from it, “The Magus” meanders and twists with a methodical deliberation, balanced in an autumnal loci between modernism and postmodernism. The book itself, to a reader today, appears almost conventional, despite its dizzying, and enthralling, plot. Yet a more considered reading of the “The Magus” reveals a text seriously committed to an investigation of the novel in form and practice.
The plot follows Nicholas Urfe, an Oxford educated British man lost in his mid-twenties. Urfe’s lack of direction echoes both Fowles’ own as well as that of his generation, one that came of age in the immediate wake of forty years of seismic world war. Following a short, intense affair with Alison, a similarly adrift Australian, Nicholas accepts a teaching position at the Lord Byron School on the Greek island of Phraxos. There, he quickly becomes embroiled in the chimerical “godgame” of Maurice Conchis, a mysterious and fabulously rich man who purports to be a psychologist who studied under Carl Jung in his student days. Note the duality here of pupil and mentor. This situation is complicated by Nicholas’ obsession with Julie Holmes, one of two twin sisters under the unspecified employ of Conchis.
Amidst the novel’s romances and turnabouts of identity, a strong undercurrent of reeducation and trial persists. That is, “The Magus” interacts within a firmly inquisitive mode. Nicholas comes to the Lord Bryon School at Phraxos as a teacher, though we later learn “…his work there is academically barely adequate and his relationship with his colleagues and students poor.” His success as a pupil under Conchis remains decidedly more ambiguous. Early on, Conchis grills Nicholas: “Are you elect?... Do you feel chosen by anything?... Hazard makes you elect. You cannot elect yourself.” Nicholas undergoes a series of humiliations and intrigues before finally being bound and gagged, lead to an underground chamber, and presented before an alchemical tribunal that he himself must pass judgment upon. Yet if Conchis and the majority of the novel’s characters are testing Nicholas, Fowles is questioning the validity and relevance of the modern-day novel.
Remember Conchis’ statement, “The novel is no longer an art form.” He asks, with actual good reason, “Why should I struggle through hundreds of pages of fabrication to reach half a dozen very little truths?” Words, Conchis maintains, “… are for truth. For facts. Not fiction.” Nicholas replies that a reader works his way through such fabrication, such illusion, not in spite of, but for the fun of such illusion. “The Magus” concerns itself with the polarities of the struggle and the immersive fun of the novel. Fowles’ later work such as “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” and “A Maggot” grapple with such issues on a more integrated aesthetic level, yet it is herein that he baldy posits his dilemma. “The Magus,” in fact, would not be the novel it is if not for Fowles’ confliction. Though his struggle with literature does at times smack of the self-involvement maring much of the work of the American “Angry Young Men,” Fowles maintains a sardonic dissent in the face of literature’s grandiose seriousness.
Perhaps the novel is saved on account of its conceit –it exists as a game of initiation and investigation. Fowles’ assessment of the novel is torn between the poles of narrative as an experiential pleasure and the worthlessness of fabrication. His distrust of the novel never reaches a heavy-handed bathos. Consider Conchis. Nicholas, and therefore the reader, connects him with “…a very early identification of the father, or male, as separator – a role which Doctor Conchis adopted in [the] experiment.” The tribunal, portrayed as a cocktail of Crowley-esque aplomb and Freudian analysis, diagnose Nicholas, figuring “In the usual way the subject identifies God with the father-figure, aggressively rejecting any belief in Him.” Is Conchis simply an avatar of Fowles then?
No, it’s not that simple. It is never that simple, and if it were, then Fowles’ novel wouldn’t really be worth such close inspection. Yes, Conchis is a father-figure, which extends to a Godlike role and further outward towards an authorial presence, as much an echo of Fowles in his authority as writer as Nicholas Urfe is an echo of Fowles’ personal uncertainty. A quick aside to the mirroring of the novel: Conchis is both an author and a teacher, two roles Nicholas fails in his own poetry and at the Lord Byron School.
“The Magus” is, of course, archly aware of itself. Remember Nicholas’ exasperated cry at page 273 of this 656-page novel: “This experience. It’s like being halfway through a book.” This is only one of Nicholas’ metatextual references to his own unreality. Yet if Conchis is to assume the role of the writer, Fowles never approaches the issue of authorial presence with the direness of a Stanley Fish. There is a certain fallibility to Conchis preventing such melodrama – his weak heart and the eminence of his own mortality. This humanizes the supposedly aloof millionaire. Conchis appears at the tribunal, as “A man in a black cloak on which were various astrological and alchemical symbols in white. On his head he wore a hat with a peak a yard high and a wide nefarious brim; a kind of black neck-covering hung from behind it.” Afterwards, Nicholas discovers a Tarot pack at a second hand shop. On one of the cards “…was a man dressed exactly as Conchis had been; even to the same emblems on his cloak. Underneath were the words LE SORCIER…” Conchis is a sort of sorcerer, an alchemist, yet despite all its mystery and ambiguity, “The Magus” is not a supernatural novel. An alchemist is ultimately a master of illusion, another fabricator.
But consider Conchis’ conspicuous absences throughout the text. Following the trial, Conchis disappears from the book – apart from his entrenched influence that does not fade. Still, Nicholas must navigate the final scene of “The Magus” without the net of an authorial ordinance. He discovers “There were no watching eyes. The windows were as blank as they looked. The theatre was empty. It was not a theatre… They had absconded, we were alone.” Nicholas is not quite correct. The irony is that he is under persistent surveillance - as a character in a novel, the reader is always watching him.
But it is in the realm of meaning that Nicholas, and the novel itself, has struggled towards liberation. Fowles is certainly a disciple of the master novelists in his steadfast reliance upon symbolic, referential meaning. The book is without a doubt a classically allusive one. “The Magus” also hinges upon its net of deliberate symbolism – it’s hard to miss the persistence of water imagery during each of Nicholas’ sexual encounters with Julie Holmes.
It is in how Fowles chooses to end his novels that his progressive character betrays itself. Look at the alternate endings of “The French Lieutenant’s Women” and the maddening emotional ambiguity of Nicholas and Alison’s final confrontation in “The Magus.” In interviews, Fowles has insisted upon the reader’s authority in regards to his novel’s conclusions. He wishes to stand outside any final decisions and allow for a diversity of meaning instead of a more classical fixity. From our contemporary perspective, “The Magus”s open-ended conclusion does not immediately smack of a post-modern deconstruction so much as it simply stands as good writing. Look at how the current literary short fiction market thrives upon such underplayed ambiguity. Yet it is Fowles’ implicit depowering of the authorial voice in regards to a definitive conclusion that is truly remarkable.
In an interview, Fowles relates his responses to two letters written to him. Both letters ask him what the romantic fate of “The Magus”s Nicholas and Alison are. In one letter, he responds that Nicholas and Alison get back together, while in the other he writes that the two of them never see each other again. The idea that such a decision is dependent upon John Fowles, the author, is absurd. Even if Fowles had decided to write an actual sequel to “The Magus,” there is nothing incontrovertible about any authorial decision. The illusions within illusions Conchis weaves around his estate at Bourani demonstrate the instability of meaning – that it is indeed a struggle.
Conchis’ argument against the novel is that it requires an inordinate amount of work to arrive at a kernel of truth. This argument supposes that a work of art possesses a chartable core. The concept of falsehood is invalidated alongside truth – there is no center to the earth, nor do we walk upon a hollow earth. Instead, a series of shifting surfaces redirect the focus of the text, all are reliant upon the delineating direction of an empowered reader. The experiments Conchis conduct do not possess a cogent meaning or truth, they exist as process, to exist. The novel, then, in John Fowles’ hands, is an experiential device whose foundational conclusion is offset by an empowerment of the reader. Of course, this reading is further complicated by Fowles’ classical tendencies. The intrigue of “The Magus,” just as much as its plot’s labyrinthine twists, is based upon the wonderful tension between Fowles’ traditionalism and progressivism.
“The Magus” is an extremely entertaining novel, yet it is never comfortable with its own addictive immersion.