The Magus (Modern Library #93)

(This is the eighth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Wide Sargasso Sea)

Over the course of several interviews, John Fowles enjoyed recycling one particular anecdote concerning The Magus. The then bigshot author once received a letter from a woman who didn’t care for his book. The woman asked Fowles if two of the novel’s characters got together at the end. Fowles wrote back and said, “No.” He received another letter from a New York attorney dying of cancer in a hospital. The lawyer asked the same question, but, unlike the woman, informed Fowles that he enjoyed the book. Fowles replied, “Yes.” In 1986, Fowles would tell a dull interviewer seeking literal-minded answers, “I tell that story because that’s how I feel — I don’t know the answer. And I tend to react as people want, or don’t want it — if they’ve annoyed me — to end.” But Fowles’s story after the story does have me wondering about the novelist’s responsibility. If a novelist leaves his volume open-ended, does he not have some duty to know every aspect of his characters as he knows the back of his hand? On the other hand, if Fowles led his narcissistic schoolteacher Nicholas Urfe to a specific point, perhaps he’s off the hook for anything beyond these final words:

cras amet qui numquam amavit
quique amavit cras amet

Some takes on these closing lines, repurposed by Fowles from The Virgil of Venus (3rd century AD), can be found at the most definitive online place for all things Fowles. Loosely translated, the Latin reads: “Tomorrow let him love, who has never loved; he who has loved, let him love tomorrow.” While this suggests that Fowles wanted the frequently callous Nicholas to love again, the lingering question I had after finishing The Magus was whether Fowles even cared about people. I realize it’s important to separate the novelist from the novel, but I think my impressions were colored by The Magus‘s repugnant first-person perspective:

We both smiled, and we both knew we smiled to hide a fundamental truth: that we could not trust each other one inch.

At the risk of oversimplifying a big burly opus, this is the general timbre in which Nicholas relates to people. People don’t exist to feel. They exist to be used. At one point, there’s the possibility that Nicholas’s actions may have caused another person to commit suicide. It wasn’t too much of a surprise to learn from Eileen Warburton’s John Fowles: A Life in Two Worlds that Nicholas Urfe and John Fowles weren’t terribly far apart. The young Fowles, teaching at the University of Poitiers, was “a shy, self-absorbed young man” who was unable to write much of anything aside from his diaries. Yet even more than a decade after Fowles first talked shit about his friends and colleagues in his wildly bitter journals (collected in two volumes and loaded with the kind of vinegar and vitriol that one expects from a sociopath-in-training), he remains quite singularly absorbed in himself:

11 October 1963 It enrages [Elizabeth Whitton, Fowles’s wife] that my priority isn’t the getting of a house, it enrages me that her priority isn’t giving me the time (or peace) to finish The Magus. So we live at cross-purposes.

Fowles began work on The Magus (originally titled The Godgame) when he was 28, and then dropped the project for ten years. One quotation Fowles relied on during the writing of The Magus was from Henri Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes: “I like the marvelous only when it is strictly enveloped in reality.” And yet the one thing distinct about The Magus is the frequent lack of reality. We are asked to believe that Nicholas, a learned man, would not conduct some serious research into Maurice Conchis, the apparent World War II veteran who charms Nicholas into his manipulative world, after so many inconsistent stories. (To cite just one example, if you are a young and self-absorbed man with poetic aspirations and a man tells you, “Words are for facts. Not fiction,” would you not doubt him?) Nicholas does look into Conchis and his ostensible associates eventually, but only after the terrain has shifted into the ridiculous, with Nazi reenactments and implausible impersonations.

It has been put forth by some critics that The Mysteries of Udolpho was an influence upon The Magus (both books initiate a series of adventures from the discovery of a poem), yet Fowles was to dismiss Ann Radcliffe in a 1956 diary entry: “not much ear, but some pleasant fragments of 1800 delight in batsy gloom and soft despair.” One accidental influence may have been Dickens’s Great Expectations. In a 1980 interview, Fowles was to speak approvingly of one dissertation making this connection, in large part because the student didn’t know that Fowles had taught Great Expectations while writing The Magus. (In a 1959 diary entry, Fowles, who mostly didn’t care for Dickens, called Chapter 29, where Pip returns to Miss Haversham’s house, “one of those remarkable seminal chapters in Dickens which really touch upon something vast and deep.”)

27 May 1964. I cut everything that stands in the way of the narrative thrust; anything that lapses beneath a certain state of tension. Because this seems to me the essence of the novel — the exact harmony between subject-matter (symbolisms, intellectual and stylistic aims) and narrative force (simple old readability). The words on a page have got to life it over. Narrative is a sort of magnetism.

When Nicholas tells Alison, the purported paramour whom he proceeds to treat like dirt, about the tricks that Conchis has been up to, he says, “It’s not that I believe any of these things in the way he tries to make me believe them….It’s simply that when I’m with him I feel he does have access to some kind of power.” And yet Conchis’s magnetism is clearly a load of bunk. When a man you confuse with “an Elizabethan nobleman” sends you a note not to come around again shortly after you have had to cut yourself free from German soldiers who have tied you up (and where did they come from by the way?), only to send you another message through his courtesan, surely there is a point in which you realize your homemade cork needle isn’t bobbing the way that you hoped.

On the other hand, hokum does sustain readability. In a 1971 interview with Daniel Halpern, Fowles would cop to going back to Chandler and Hammett in order to get a handle on craftsmanship. He admired Chandler especially, telling Halpern that “his best paragraphs are absolutely tight and hard. Like good furniture.” Sure enough, The Magus proves to be a learned man’s attempt to simulate pulp. Consider the early hookup between Nicholas and Alison:

“You don’t know what its like waking up with a man you didn’t even know this time yesterday. It’s losing something. Not just what all girls lose.”

“Or gaining something.”

“God, what can we gain. Tell me.”

“Experience. Pleasure.”

“Did I tell you I love your mouth?”

“Several times.”

She stubbed the cigarette out and sat back.

“Do you know why I tried to cry just now? Because I’m going to marry him.”

Hundreds of pages later, we get “I HATE YOU!” in all caps. We have words “spat out like a grape pip.” We have plenty of purple pots boiling: “Her eyes were very direct, so direct I looked down from them.” (These examples were culled from the revised edition, which was the only copy I could find. Yes, Fowles would revise The Magus in 1977, which he would declare the favorite of his novels “in the sense that one might love a crippled child more than normal children.”)

So when we tally up Fowles’s concern for taut narrative, the desperate approximation of tough guy craftsmanship, and the desire to write Dickensian chapters communicating epiphany (but stopping short of that “vast and deep” artistry through gesture; hence all the Jung and the philosophy and the psychoanalytic bullshit), it is especially interesting that he would write novels that weren’t interested in the most peremptory reader wish fulfillment: resolution. (Fowles wouldn’t confine his desire for open and alternative resolutions to his correspondents. His third novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman contains three possible endings.)

Of Anthony Burgess, Fowles was to write in his journal: “It is a mistake when fine minds wear a mask of plebeian coarseness to excuse themselves, even truth can’t pardon that.” I can’t help but feel this way about Fowles, a novelist who preferred the company of readers over critics and who, for a time, received the twin triumphs of unmitigated sales and critical acclaim. But stacked against Jean Rhys’s pith and Iris Murdoch’s layered comedy, for me, The Magus was the reading equivalent to watching an untrained wrestler without confidence attempt to fight himself.

It’s very possible that I was a tad too old to read this book. For many, I suppose The Magus is a bit like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But I’m certain there were other stumbling blocks having little to do with the philosophy. Self-described centathlete Michael Menche, also working his way through the Modern Library, observed that Fowles shares a quality with Herman Hesse: namely, an inability or unwillingness to make the reader laugh.

What’s especially interesting is that when The Magus came out, it was widely ridiculed in England. But in the United States, it was championed as a masterpiece. Whether trash or gem (and I suspect that Fowles would have agreed with both), I’ll let the novelist have the last words:

Novels, even much more lucidly conceived and controlled ones than this, are not like crossword puzzles, with one unique set of correct answers behind the clues — an analogy (“Dear Mr. Fowles, Please explain the real significance of…”) I sometimes despair of ever extirpating from the contemporary student mind.

Next Up: William Kennedy’s Ironweed!