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.