John Fowles: Death of a Magus

British novelist John Fowles died this weekend at his home in Lyme Regis, England at the age of 79.

The Magus was Fowles’ definitive work, a tour de force in every sense. An earnest but vapid young man accepts an invitation for what appears to be a conventional teaching job on a small Greek island where an eccentric wealthy landowner holds court. Once there, the young man discovers himself imprisoned within an elaborate constructed world in which Greek myths come frighteningly alive and philosophical theories about mankind’s Dionysian and Appolonian impulses are put to test.

But that’s only the setup. Originally imagining himself to be a bystander caught in his patron’s head games, the young teacher begins to realize he is the somehow the sole subject of a vast experiment, and that the entire improbable fantasy world has been set up to examine his character, his morality, and his ability to love a flawed but attractive woman who may be either his persecutor or fellow victim.

The Magus has been called a postmodern classic, and the “postmodern” label makes sense in a novel that mixes 20th Century anomie with ancient Greek philosophical urgency. But it’s the book’s powerful plot, not its narrative voice, that breaks boundaries. As in other books, such as The French Lieutenant’s Woman, A Maggot and The Collector, Fowles is a “concept novelist”, a compelling armchair philosopher studying humanity through trials and tests.

It’s a telling fact that a reader of The Magus will not identify the book’s author with its hero, but rather with the inscrutable Magus who perches in the shadows on that sunswept Aegean island, controlling everything within his realm. As a novelist, Fowles was always comfortable in the role of deus ex machina — half-hidden, fully in charge.

Like many of the best postmodern novels of its vibrant age, The Magus was even made into a questionably successful Hollywood movie starring Michael Caine, Anthony Quinn and Candice Bergen in 1968. You can read more about John Fowles at his official website.

11 Responses

  1. 2 Cents?My brother and father
    2 Cents?

    My brother and father urged me to read this book a long time ago, and I did not, I had forgotten about it, so thanks for the reminder. I did try to watch the movie, but it seemed boring — I am sure the book is better.

  2. I heard about the 1968 movie,
    I heard about the 1968 movie, but it doesn’t get much play around here, and I’ve never gotten a chance to see it. Apparently it’s Anthony Quinn as the Magus, Michael Caine as the teacher … Zorba meets Alfie, sounds fascinating to me. I wonder why it bombed so bad at the box office.

  3. classic plotI am not
    classic plot

    I am not familiar with John Fowles’ work, but the plot of The Magus seems to have been copied to some extent in lesser works, especially in science fiction and mystery.

  4. The movie was fabulous – a
    The movie was fabulous – a classic at cinematheques. Candice Bergen was exquisite as the wild female goddess.

    It was a brilliant setting and a memorable treatment of the book.

    As for Fowles, he was mandatory reading in Toronto High Schools – A Separate Peace gave us our indoctrination into the classic gamut of themes: reality v.s. illusion, innocence v.s. The fall, and so on.

    His was a kind voice into that door of lit study.

    I’m sure that many of my generation remember him with fond regards for being there for us.

  5. Thanks Judih — you know,
    Thanks Judih — you know, until this morning when I googled the name of the book, I didn’t even know this film existed. Candice Bergen plays the woman? So we got Zorba meets Alfie plus Murphy Brown. Okay!

  6. The CollectorThe Collector,
    The Collector

    The Collector, which came out in 1963, was my introduction to John Fowles. Being a mere lad of 18, that was a most intriguing novel to stumble across during those clumsy years of relationships.

    Revolving around the abduction of a beautiful woman, Miranda Grey, by Frederick Clegg, the story is told first by him and then by Miranda, thru her diary.

    The book was turned into a movie in 1965, which attests to its popularity at the time. Terrance Stamp played the abductor, Frederick, and Samantha Eggars played Miranda, the captor — a wonderful matchup that made the movie as intriguing as the novel.

    While The Magus undoubtedly became his most ‘classic’ of novels (that and The French Lieutenant’s Woman), the year it came out, 1966, I found it a bit convoluted for my tastes of the time (21 and in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam era). Despite its cleverness, I soon lost interest. Due to this thread I would like to find time to ‘try it on’ again.

    BTW: that John Fowles website is an interesting one!

  7. Judih – I may be mistaken,
    Judih – I may be mistaken, but I think A Separate Peace was written by John Knowles. I also had to read him in high school, which is why it caught my attention. I don’t know if he’s dead yet or not.

  8. Ahh, yes, thanks Fumb.
    Ahh, yes, thanks Fumb. Separate Peace was definitely John Knowles — I thought Judih comparing the two novels, and I hadn’t realized the coincidence of the names. Judih, thanks for the report of the movie anyway!

  9. Knowles! Well, well! Thanks,
    Knowles! Well, well! Thanks, fumb.

    There goes another link in my synapses.

  10. HmmmFor a while, everyone I

    For a while, everyone I met urged me to read the Magus as I was actually moving to a Greek island to teach English. Now I know why…

  11. Well, I never read The Magus,
    Well, I never read The Magus, but I did read A Separate Peace, which I liked very much. Actually read it twice. But I will pick up The Magus, sounds fascinating. Thanks Litkicks for another recommendation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!