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Fifty Years On

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If, as I did, you came of age in the Sixties, then one rite of passage you may have undergone was reading John Fowles’s bestselling Bildungsroman, The Magus (1965), which provided, it was said, an experience ‘beyond the literary’ – in my case, a vicarious ego trip. How flattering to have so much time and energy expended in order to make you a better person! Even the indignant narrator, Nicholas Urfe, who compares what he’s been through to ‘exposure in the vil­lage stocks’, can scarce forbear to cheer: ‘that all this could be mounted just for me’.

But that was in another country. Returning to a book you’ve not opened for fifty-odd years is potentially as hazardous as meeting a long-lost lover. Furthermore, in his introduction to the revised edi­tion (1977) – I had long since lost its predecessor – Fowles describes it as ‘a novel of adolescence by a retarded adolescent’. Hardly a ring­ing endorsement. So why bother opening it again?

Partly because I had an argument with someone about the ending, and it didn’t seem right to settle this by simply turning to the last few pages. But what clinched it was learning that Sam Mendes was pro­posing to adapt the book for television, a project that would certainly have delighted Fowles, who shared everyone’s dismay at the disastrous film starring Michael Caine, whom he liked personally but thought ‘totally incredible as an English graduate, however proletarian in origin’. If you want your book reproduced, he told an interviewer, ‘go to television and ask for an eight-hour serial’.

Although published after The Collector (1963), The Magus was actually Fowles’s first novel, to which he returned again and again during his long and gruelling literary apprenticeship. This began after he left Oxford in 1950, aged 24. He had arrived there as a cle

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If, as I did, you came of age in the Sixties, then one rite of passage you may have undergone was reading John Fowles’s bestselling Bildungsroman, The Magus (1965), which provided, it was said, an experience ‘beyond the literary’ – in my case, a vicarious ego trip. How flattering to have so much time and energy expended in order to make you a better person! Even the indignant narrator, Nicholas Urfe, who compares what he’s been through to ‘exposure in the vil­lage stocks’, can scarce forbear to cheer: ‘that all this could be mounted just for me’.

But that was in another country. Returning to a book you’ve not opened for fifty-odd years is potentially as hazardous as meeting a long-lost lover. Furthermore, in his introduction to the revised edi­tion (1977) – I had long since lost its predecessor – Fowles describes it as ‘a novel of adolescence by a retarded adolescent’. Hardly a ring­ing endorsement. So why bother opening it again? Partly because I had an argument with someone about the ending, and it didn’t seem right to settle this by simply turning to the last few pages. But what clinched it was learning that Sam Mendes was pro­posing to adapt the book for television, a project that would certainly have delighted Fowles, who shared everyone’s dismay at the disastrous film starring Michael Caine, whom he liked personally but thought ‘totally incredible as an English graduate, however proletarian in origin’. If you want your book reproduced, he told an interviewer, ‘go to television and ask for an eight-hour serial’. Although published after The Collector (1963), The Magus was actually Fowles’s first novel, to which he returned again and again during his long and gruelling literary apprenticeship. This began after he left Oxford in 1950, aged 24. He had arrived there as a clean young Englishman, whose pedigree included being head boy and captain of cricket at Bedford School, and holding a commission in the Royal Marines. At New College, which then had a reputation for intellec­tual rigour, he drew a line under his past, embracing existentialism and fancying himself a highbrow. Emerging with a Second in Modern Languages he turned down a job at Winchester College and chose instead to teach first at Poitiers University and then at a Greek boarding-school for boys on the tiny island of Spetsai. It was here that The Magus was conceived. And it was also here that he met Elizabeth Christy, who would become his wife. A tall, striking blonde who has been identified as the model for Alison in The Magus, Elizabeth was married to a ‘difficult’ colleague of Fowles. The saga of her bitterly contested divorce is told in excru­ciating detail by Fowles’s biographer Eileen Warburton. Uneducated, but acutely perceptive about Fowles’s writing, Elizabeth described her editing duties as ‘delousing’. Without her The Magus would probably have been stillborn. Spetsai enchanted Fowles, the latest in a long line of English writers to succumb to the allure of the warm South. But it was the landscape rather than the ambience that beguiled him. One day, gazing out to sea from a sunny vantage point, he had an epiphany: ‘Landscapes like this, on such days, advance men immeasurably. Perhaps ancient Greece was only the effect of a landscape and a light on a sensitive people.’ Newly arrived on Phraxos, the name Fowles gave to Spetsai, Nicholas Urfe also invokes ancient Greece: ‘There was something pleasantly absurd about teaching in a boarding-school (run on supposedly Eton-Harrow lines) only a look north from where Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon.’ But what Nicholas feels most is ‘emotional triumph’ at having successfully ditched someone – Alison – who loved him more than he loved her: ‘I had in some un-definable way won.’ He knows this is ‘odious’ of him but is too excited at the prospect of ‘taking wing’ again to feel much remorse. The novel’s first fifty pages recreate this doomed affair. They meet at a bottle party in London’s flatland – a trip down memory lane for me – and immediately go to bed. She is Australian, sexy, promiscuous, tough on the outside but emotionally fragile. He is a more raffish version of Fowles himself, a Brigadier’s son with enough money of his own to run a car (Fowles never learnt to drive), a plausible manner and a strong sense of entitlement. Alison sees through him but can’t help falling for him in a big way, so that when, later on, he rejects her, it’s reasonable to assume that she might take an overdose. When out walking on Phraxos Nicholas meets an elderly gent called Conchis, a cosmopolitan millionaire who owns a large secluded villa, full of priceless artefacts, on the other side of the island. Part impresario, part sorcerer, Conchis – ‘The Magus’ – has had an amaz­ingly eventful life that includes surviving both the Western Front and a Nazi firing squad, two harrowing episodes in which Fowles’s mas­tery of narrative is established beyond doubt. Conchis befriends Nicholas, convinces him that he has been ‘chosen’, and then involves him in the ‘godgame’, a series of disturbing and hallucinatory ‘hap­penings’. Though increasingly suspicious of Conchis’s motives – is he a voyeur, an old queer, or what? – Nicholas cannot resist the bait that is dangled before him, a beautiful and enigmatic young princesse lointaine called Lily, with whom he is soon besotted. Like everything else connected with Conchis, Lily – whose real name is Julie, and who has a twin sister called June – is not what she seems. Whenever they meet Nicholas is torn between trying to seduce her and trying to unmask her. There is a lot of verbal sparring, inter­spersed with unconsummated erotic interludes that only serve to stoke Nicholas’s frustration. He becomes increasingly paranoid and suspects that everyone on the island is secretly laughing at his predic­ament. The regular debriefings he has with Conchis reminded me of an aphorism Ferdinand Mount coined about his schooldays at Eton: ‘How they see through you, the best schoolmasters, and how little the seeing through does to change you.’ So it is that when Nicholas learns, in a letter from her flatmate, that Alison has indeed taken an overdose, any grief he feels soon evaporates at the thought of finally bedding Lily. Nicholas achieves his aim but is then so thoroughly humiliated that he vows to expose his tormentors. Sacked from the school for punching one of his colleagues, he is mortified to discover, on his way home, that Alison is alive, and must therefore have been com­plicit in almost everything he has suffered. Which is where we shall leave him for the moment. In 1977 I interviewed Fowles at the small Hampstead flat he kept for his rare visits to London from Lyme Regis. Earlier in the year he had earned $500,000 in a single week from the advance for his fourth novel, Daniel Martin, and the film rights to The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Why, I remember thinking, hadn’t he spent some of it on his teeth, which looked mildewed. But he insisted that money was not what motivated him, describing himself as a ‘compulsive storyteller – a kind of victim, almost, in that I cannot not write’. Hence the masses of unpublished – and unpublishable – material he’d accumulated since leaving Oxford. Speaking in a soft voice that belied his burly frame, Fowles said his ‘retarded’ adolescence was the result of an institutional straitjacket: first boarding-school in wartime, then the Royal Marines. At Oxford his attempt to grow up and enjoy himself was hampered by chronic amoebic dysentery, so that by the time he came down he had a lot of ground to make up. Recalling the success of The Magus, which he pronounced with a short ‘a’, he said it seemed to have ‘put people’s critical faculties to sleep’. He’d received more letters about it than all his other books put together, ‘very remarkable letters, some of them, from people who identified with the narrator, or who claimed to have had similar experiences’. He thought the fact that it was ‘unasham­edly narrative’ helped to explain its appeal, also its ‘fairy tale’ element, which you didn’t find in adult fiction. Reviewing the revised version, an American critic said that ‘what­ever one’s opinion of The Magus, no one ever wished it any longer, except John Fowles’ – who had added another seventy pages. I agree. Fifty years on I was in danger of nodding off over the indulgent descriptions of flora and fauna – what my friend Simon Raven, who’d relished The Collector, called ‘all those bloody pines on Greek islands’. And I grew impatient at the game-playing between Nicholas and Lily/Julie: ‘For Christ’s sake, get on with it!’ Nor are there any laughs. Wit was one gift the Good Fiction Fairy withheld at Fowles’s christening. But just when you’re ready to toss the book aside, Fowles, like Conchis, starts weaving his web again and you’re compelled to read on. For instance, Conchis describes how, at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in 1915, he spent a night in a shell hole full of decomposing corpses. He chooses a singular way of conveying to Nicholas what this was like. No pyrotechnics, just a faint chorus of ‘Tipperary’ and a nauseating cesspool stench that makes Nicholas want to throw up. Had Fowles, I wonder, read Sir William Orpen’s memoirs, in which, recalling his stint as a war artist, he quotes an officer saying that while it would be possible to paint the Somme from memory, ‘you couldn’t paint the smell’? This of course is what’s missing from all those elab­orate trench systems you find at places like the Imperial War Museum. Back in England Nicholas impatiently follows the trail that even­tually leads back to Alison. En route he meets the twins’ mother, an autumnal beauty and long-term lover of Conchis, who responds to his recriminations with a serenity that only increases his frustration. At one point she gives him a valuable ceramic plate. ‘I think you should get used to handling fragile objects,’ she says. And what then? Will Alison forgive him? Does he deserve to be forgiven? Fowles said he’d rewritten the ending to make it less ambiguous, but I know I’m not alone in disputing this. It’s still unclear whether they walk off together into the sunset or never see each other again. So the object of the exercise, to settle that argument I’d had, was in vain. But all was not lost, because a second reading revealed some­thing that in my impetuous youth I’d missed, the importance to us all of Chance or, as Conchis calls it, Hazard. When you’re young you believe you’re master of your fate. When you’re old, you raise a glass to Time and Chance and thank your lucky stars.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 74 © Michael Barber 2022


About the contributor

Michael Barber’s son was conceived on a Greek island. He wonders if this was down to Hazard.

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