Years back now I was given a copy of The Magus by John Fowles for my birthday. The book didn't appeal to me so a plonked it on the floor by my bed and there it stayed. I remember vacuuming around it and resting coffee cups on it when my bedside table was too full of crap to be of use.
I really don't like being given books. The obligation I feel towards the object because it is a gift comes between me and the pages. It disturbs the words, it messes with the carefully designed cover.
You know that feeling you get when someone who doesn't know what you’re about plays you a song and really wants you to like it as much as they do? You know that feeling?
So the book stayed on the floor. No, I couldn't chuck it in the bin yet. There is a protocol to follow. You can’t chuck an unwanted gift before the year is out. Everyone knows that.
It couldn't go on the shelf, either. Only books I choose myself get to go on the shelf.
The book had to stay where it was and that was that.
One day I got snotty sick. Rotten. Moany, mopey, tea drinking, aloe-vera tissue blowing, stay at home in bed watching the ceiling sick. And then the boredom came. And all my carefully collected books looked too hard to read. The TV hated me. Even the thrill of mixing cold and flu tablets with paracetamol waned.
I reached for the dumb book on the floor which some dumb-head friend had given me.
Of course it was good. (Stupid book making me look like a dope!)
I found what I now know many people have found in the past - The Magus is instantly engaging. It is told from the point of view of Nicholas Urfe, a Englishman at the end of his tether, who is certainly no sentimentalist. The world Urfe lives in has been measured and weighed. There are no mysteries. Not even love can offer Urfe any surprises. Oddly, though, and thankfully, there is a very attractive vigour to Urfe’s languid tone. He convinces us of the truth of his experience and conclusions. We recognise that there is an untapped force in his wasted soul. Thus, his world weariness does not lack charm.
Urfe's prosaic account of his life in London promises a ‘warts and all’ picture, and seems to fulfil that promise till a doubt creeps into the mind of the reader. When Urfe leaves love and London and heads for Greece we begin to doubt Urfe’s commanding narrative. Suddenly we find ourselves asking – Are we being lied to?
The most unsettling aspect of this creeping doubt is that we become conscious that John Fowles is aware of our concerns. Through Urfe, he plays with us unmercifully. When Urfe meets Conchis, a mystical, powerful recluse our stalwart guide stumbles and we fall with him. Fowles suddenly smiles in a way which causes us to distrust the narrative entirely and we hate him for it. But he already has a power over us – he knows we want to believe.
That day, years ago now, when I lay in bed wallowing in my misery, the day when I first picked up The Magus I did so knowing nothing of the book. In my ignorance I did not even question the title. I read and was hooked. I was so impressed by the book I made my flatmate read the first page. (I do that. It’s an annoying habit I have. Kinda like playing someone a song they don’t want to hear.) She read, snorted and made no further comment.
The next day I was cured and went to work.
When I got home, eager to continue reading, I found my flatmate sitting on the couch reading the book herself. She was already a third of the way through it.
For the next few days I returned to my normal reading while I awaited my turn with The Magus. My flatmate, I knew, read quickly so I put up with her treachery. (Besides, at that time I had a thing for her and she could do no wrong.) But the following day I came home to find her reading something else and on the coffee table lay The Magus, with her bookmark three quarters of the way in.
I hate that book, she said.
Can I read it now? I asked.
No! she said, and picked it up.
I remember thinking it was odd behaviour. Then a few days later she had finished and she was urging me to read it, but with the proviso that I promise to keep reading it – even when all you want to do is throw the book out the window. She said it was the most remarkable book she’d ever read, that it was a complete and utter mind-fuck.
Her warmth cooled my interest in the book. I left it where it lay on the coffee table.
However, when I overheard my flatmate telling a male friend to read it I decided to give The Magus another go. I read through the night (I was young then, it was possible) and took the book with me to work. Every spare moment I read. And then, just as my flatmate predicted, I wanted to stop reading.
Why? I have never been able to say. All I can say is that I felt the butt of a joke, a dupe – I was offended.
The Magus is an astonishing work of fiction. So controlled, so precise in its delivery of its many parts, deadly accurate, the kind of book Prospero might have written. The Magus is the player and we are the instrument. It is a moral encyclopaedia, too. But no dry tome. It is an interactive experience. We enjoy the experience until that moment, different for everyone, when the game turns rough and we are exposed.
My flatmate was right in telling me to read on through my distaste, for The Magus is not the god of the Old Testament, it does not smite one, it is the god of the New Testament forgiving us our trespasses and wanting us to learn from our mistakes.
In the hope that this marvellous novel will not loom above us, casting a shadow over all our future reading, we suggest to ourselves, that The Magus might be all smoke and mirrors. Surely it cannot be all that it seems to be? Fowles cannot know so much about the machinations of the human psyche, human nature and morality. We laugh, then, as we might do when we are frightened, to dispel the sense of foreboding. And put the book down as we might any other book - knowing full well that it is not like any book we’ve ever read or are ever likely to read.