book review: The Magus

The Magus by John Fowles
1966 (revised edition: 1977)

Because it was such a long time between first discovering this book and actually getting my hands on it, I was determined to enjoy it. Now that I have finished it, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. Yes, I enjoyed it, or rather, I enjoyed the writing. The story itself – not so much.

But first things first. The book follows the twenty-something Nicholas Urfe who, in his desperation to escape the Sahara his life has turned into, accepts a teaching job on a small Greek island called Phraxos. Now, Phraxos might seem like a genuine paradise upon Earth, but that is until Nicholas meets the mysterious Maurice Conchis and it soon becomes the backdrop for a bizarre psychological experiment into which Nicholas is drawn.

Even though the beginning of the book really got me interested and the text even seemed to have a certain John Green-esque feel to it (but of a slightly different, better, quality), the more the story and the experiment within it evolved, the more confusing it all got. The strange and even ridiculous events unfolding on the island were hard to relate to or find realistic. I had to constantly wonder what was happening, why was it happening and what was it all leading to. And although we are given various hints as to why anyone would organize or participate in such a farce, no solid explanation of the reasons behind this experiment is provided. All in all, this elaborate yet pointless experiment seems completely not worth the effort invested to organize it (or to read about it, for that matter), if only to satisfy the whimsies of a rich extraordinaire that Mr. Conchis is. Also, it seems very unlikely that all of this could have been accomplished back in the 1950s when the most efficient means of communication was the telegraph.

Another thing I had a problem with was the incredibly irritating personality of Nicholas Urfe. Although completely at the mercy and under the control of Conchis, he often thinks he has got him (or others) outsmarted and cornered, that they have nothing left to do but confess everything. The cynical little smile he so often offers to his puppeteers, makes one really want to strangle the book. The childish anger and the tendency he so often displays makes him even less likeable. He is seeking answers but when the ones provided do not fit his iron-clad theories, he becomes furious. More than once he shows a tendency towards violence, by thinking he can beat the truth out of somebody. He constantly sees himself as a victim and is expecting apologies because he is hurt and being played with, yet he never understands the consequences of his own behaviour. He never considers anyone elses needs or feelings as long as he gets what he wants.

Maybe with time I’ll come to understand what the meaning of this book was, but for now I don’t. Frankly, I’m not a fan of big books with tons of text which don’t really say anything. And to my mind these kind of “unfinished” books, i.e., books that provide no answers and sort of leave it all hanging in the air, are an insult to every reader.

"I was too green to know that all cynicism masks a failure to cope – an impotence, in short; and that to despise all effort is the greatest effort of all."

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