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The Magus (1965)

by John Fowles

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
1,2462611,327 (3.89)2 / 278
Read John Fowles's feisty, clever, cunning and compelling novel with an unusual twist. On a remote Greek island, Nicholas Urfe finds himself embroiled in the deceptions of a master trickster. As reality and illusion intertwine, Urfe is caught up in the darkest of psychological games. John Fowles expertly unfolds a tale that is lush with over-powering imagery in a spellbinding exploration of human complexities. By turns disturbing, thrilling and seductive, The Magus is a feast for the mind and the senses.… (more)
  1. 42
    The Secret History by Donna Tartt (WoodsieGirl)
  2. 20
    A Maggot by John Fowles (Booksloth)
  3. 10
    The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (WSB7)
    WSB7: Check out the eerily similar endings.
  4. 10
    Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis De Bernières (Booksloth, edwinbcn)
  5. 00
    Lemprière's Dictionary by Lawrence Norfolk (KayCliff)
  6. 00
    The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton (CGlanovsky)
    CGlanovsky: Secret societies whose aims you are made to reassess.
  7. 00
    The Athenian murders by José Carlos Somoza (ligature)
  8. 00
    The Journey to the East by Hermann Hesse (CGlanovsky)
    CGlanovsky: Secret societies whose aims you are made to reassess.
  9. 00
    The Amnesiac by Sam Taylor (jayne_charles)
    jayne_charles: I never thought I would read anything quite like The Magus, but The Amnesiac came close
  10. 00
    Foe by J. M. Coetzee (Hibou8)
  11. 00
    Icelander by Dustin Long (Hibou8)
  12. 00
    The Way through Doors by Jesse Ball (Hibou8)
  13. 11
    The Tempest by William Shakespeare (WSB7)
    WSB7: Similar power playing, but with a very different point to make in the end. Better? Truer? More satisfying? Good to contemplate. Wish I'd thought of it while reading.

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» See also 278 mentions

English (23)  Danish (1)  French (1)  Dutch (1)  All languages (26)
Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
the book meets at least one of my criteria for a novel. It seems long enough. Having now the experience,, to place this best-seller in context I find that as it seems to discuss the difference between reality, and how people will experience reality, it is an inferior work to the "Alexandria Quartet" of Lawrence Durrell. It could be seen, and dismissed as a pallid American rival to that intriguing novel. It is well enough written for me to have finished it, and then move to see what Durrell had to offer. The film seemed confused, and its director or scenarist...a little beyond their depth. A good performance by Anthony Quinn, well seconded by Michael Caine.
  DinadansFriend | Jul 11, 2020 |
The Magus took John Fowles more than two decades to complete. It was the first viable novel he began writing, but was published for the first time in 1966, and then in a revised version in 1977. The latter edition, which is by far the easiest to find these days, was the one I read.

As Fowles explains in the preface, some of the details of the story are taken from his own life: for instance, like his protagonist, Nicholas Urfe, Fowles spent some time teaching at a school on a remote Greek island. From such material, Fowles weaves a fantastic story that owes a heavy debt to Shakespeare's final play, The Tempest. The Prospero character, in this instance, is Maurice Conchis, an elderly multi-millionaire who own a house on a section of the island known as Bourani. Nicholas finds himself drawn to Conchis's character, and in the hours they spend together he learns more and more about his host's past, which includes an uncertain relationship with the Nazis. Further characters are introduced, most notably a pair of beautiful twin Englishwomen and a black man, Joe.

The story proceeds as a series of disjointed acts in which Nicholas, blessed (or cursed) with a critical mind, undermines and sidesteps the stories of the people he encounters. He increasingly suspects that he is taking part in some kind of masque or drama in which the others are all actors. It is through this device that Fowles causes the story to twist and turn, with new characters abruptly appearing (the German soldiers, for instance) or being dramatically recast (Joe, the twin girls) as Nicholas grapples with the line between fiction and reality. Nicholas's story is framed, in turn, by his affair with an Australian girl, Alison Kelly, whose directness and solidity are repeatedly placed in juxtaposition with the mind-games of the island drama.

The story itself hums along nicely enough, but there are points in the middle of the book, especially when Nicholas is drawn into permutation after permutation of different but similar mind games, that it starts to drag a little. Let me be clear: I think Fowles is the greatest English writer of his generation. His genius lies in his incisiveness, both in terms of his storytelling ability and his utter lack of moral prudery. Nonetheless, I found fault with The Magus mostly for the character of Nicholas, whose part in the game I thought became too predictable; truly turning the tables on Conchis and his actors would have been an interesting move that Fowles does not exploit. I also felt as though the flaws Nicholas judges so harshly in his character at the end of the book were merely the markings of inexperience rather than anything fundamentally bad about him. Toward the end, the novel comes dangerously close at certain moments at being morally judgmental in this respect.

Still, despite these minor flaws, The Magus is an astounding piece of fiction. Fowles clearly wrote it in a spirit of ambition that would have defeated many a lesser writer. The Magus is thus an important novel that, while it does not measure up to the true greatness of, say, The French Lieutenant's Woman, is still an enjoyable and worthwhile book to read. ( )
  vernaye | May 23, 2020 |
The Magus was the first book John Fowles started writing but not the first he published. It is the story of Nicholas Urfe, a middle-class Englishman, single, self absorbed playboy set in post war period. Nicholas decides to go to Greece to take a teaching position in an all boys school where he becomes in an ordeal that is a nightmare and where the nature of reality is questioned. There are many questions raised and reader be warned, left unanswered. The themes touch on freedom, power, knowledge and love. The novel is filled with tension that keeps you reading. A good knowledge of Greek mythology and Shakespeare’s Tempest and Othello and Jungian psychology will go a long way to adding to the enjoyment of this book. ( )
  Kristelh | Nov 17, 2018 |
I read The Magus years ago. It is still one of the best books I have read. ( )
1 vote | Foghorn-Leghorn | Jun 5, 2016 |
Ah, the difficulty of reviewing God. God the book, God the wicked old millionaire, God the author, God the reader. All the gods looking down on poor old Nicholas Urfe, holy fool and everyman, just intelligent enough to sense the game, not intelligent enough to know what to do about it. Like the rest of us. Because he wants in. He wants to know the purpose, the answer. He wants to be a player. Oh God, don't we all. And everybody, even Nicholas himself, knows that he is being played and, worse still, that there is no game and no God, though it seems crass, even vulgar to say so.

Nicholas Urfe goes to Greece to teach at a remote, secluded island. He leaves behind an unsatisfactory life and love affair, and brings with him all his faults and failings. On the island he encounters a rich old man, and over weekends at the old man's house hears his life story. Right from the start, games are being played. Visions appear, unseen guests move about, suggestions of ghosts and madness and theatrical tableaux, and all the time lie after lie after lie. Nicholas accepts the challenge, which at its heart and stripped of deception is to simply be a part of the old man's games, to be a fox that knows it's being hunted. Naturally, he does not know what he is in for, but at each stage, half deceived, half aware of the deception, he plunges deeper into the labyrinthine layers of the game, until there is no turning back and no guessing the harm and humiliation awaiting him.

No reader can possibly find the broad elements of this unfamiliar. It has utterly permeated our culture, the idea of the manipulative game played on an unsuspecting person who must succumb to the game's hidden but inevitable outcome, or who must overcome the traps and deceptions and defeat the minotaur at the heart of the maze. It pops up in books, films, television. The cheap attraction of the authorial stand-in able to make things happen in a certain order and a certain way with contrived complexity and conceptual craziness; the cathartic choice of the victim falling at the final trap or breaking the walls and gaming the gamers. And yet none of them are quite like The Magus.

The lessons of the game in The Magus are brutal and unpleasant. The arrogance with which they're dispensed are horrifying. Nicholas is chosen as likely to be at least semi-complicit in the proceedings, and as this is an elaborate con and the gifted con-man will exploit the victim's weaknesses to his profit, sympathy for con victims tends to be limited. If it weren't for their own greed and foolishness they wouldn't have been caught out, we say, sitting in judgment. The repulsive heart of any con is the co-man's apportioning of blame with the victim, and so it is also the repulsive heart of this superb novel.

This book made me depressed and angry as Nicholas inveigled himself into the lies and illusions, setting himself up not just for betrayal, but for the flaying of his own personality for the entertainment of all. And the lesson is good. The lesson is right. Illusions, freedom and the simple necessity of not hurting other people. Be skeptical about things, but not cynical. Be open to the signs and portents and experiences of life without being infantile. Know the measure of your freedom and use it. But even so.

Nicholas' heroism is that he resists as many lies as he falls for, and he sees through the game as it happens. His tragedy is that he's supposed to, and then he's supposed to be grateful for it. At the end he is poised with the girl from the affair previous to his trip to Greece, both dripping from mutual wounds, and one is, perhaps, meant to root for them to somehow bridge the canyon between them. Why, I wonder, are they meant to be together? They won't have a relationship, they'll have an ongoing trauma. The suspense of the ambiguous ending, to me at any rate, isn't whether they will get together, but whether they'll find the strength to walk away. Find Jojo, Nicholas, and get your shit together.

Like the rest of us.

( )
1 vote Nigel_Quinlan | Oct 21, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (39 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Fowles, Johnprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Boulton, NicholasNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mason, RobertCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Velde, Frédérique van derTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Un débauché de profession est rarement un homme pitoyable.
De Sade, Les Infortunes de la Vertu
To Astarte
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I was born in 1927, the only child of middle-class parents, both English, and themselves born in the grotesquely elongated shadow, which they never rose sufficiently above history to leave, of that monstrous dwarf, Queen Victoria.
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Είμουν Άνθρωπος της πόλης και δεν είχα ρίζες
Η Ελλάδα είναι σαν καθρέπτης. Σε κάνει να υποφέρεις. Μετά μαθαίνεις.
Μάθε να χαμογελάς, μάθε να είσαι σκληρός, μάθε να είσαι ψυχρός, μάθε να επιζείς.
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Read John Fowles's feisty, clever, cunning and compelling novel with an unusual twist. On a remote Greek island, Nicholas Urfe finds himself embroiled in the deceptions of a master trickster. As reality and illusion intertwine, Urfe is caught up in the darkest of psychological games. John Fowles expertly unfolds a tale that is lush with over-powering imagery in a spellbinding exploration of human complexities. By turns disturbing, thrilling and seductive, The Magus is a feast for the mind and the senses.

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