A few days ago I felt the satisfaction of climbing a large mountain. Exhausted. Exhilarated. Satisfied. Except my mountain was a big thick book, The Magus by John Fowles.
It isn't that I'm unacquainted with big thick books. They're just usually non-fiction. It'd been a long time since I'd tackled a literary novel like this one.
I'm not sure how The Magus ended up on a shelf where my unread books resided. I recall hearing that it was a classic thriller of sorts. This is the Amazon description.
Widely considered John Fowles's masterpiece, The Magus is "a dynamo of suspense and horror...a dizzying, electrifying chase through the labyrinth of the soul....Read it in one sitting if possible-but read it" (New York Times).
A young Englishman, Nicholas Urfe, accepts a teaching post on a remote Greek island in order to escape an unsatisfactory love affair. There, his friendship with a reclusive millionaire evolves into a mysterious -- and deadly -- game of violence, seduction, and betrayal. As he is drawn deeper into the trickster's psychological traps, Nicholas finds it increasingly difficult to distinguish past from present, fantasy from reality. He becomes a desperate man fighting for his sanity and his very survival. John Fowles expertly unfolds a spellbinding exploration of the complexities of the human mind. By turns disturbing, thrilling and seductive, The Magus is a masterwork of contemporary literature.
Quite a few months ago I elevated The Magus to a row of books that I read every morning before I meditate. I'd only read a few pages a day from it, doing the exact opposite of what the New York Times recommended above: Read it in one sitting if possible.
Wow. I'm a fast reader. But it's hard to imagine reading the 656 pages of The Magus in one sitting, nor does this seem desirable.
I savored the book. From the first pages, I highlighted passages that stuck me as particularly well-written or profound. These were the passages marked in yellow on the initial two pages.
I was sent to a public school, I wasted two years doing my national service, I went to Oxford; and there I began to discover I was not the person I wanted to be.
I had long before made the discovery that I lacked the parents and ancestors I needed. My father was through being the right age at the right time rather than through any great professional talent, a brigadier; and my mother was the very model of a would-be major-general's wife. That is, she never argued with him and always behaved as if he were listening in the next room, even when he was thousands of miles away.
Like all men not really up to their job, he was a stickler for externals and petty quotidian things; and in lieu of an intellect he had accumulated an armoury of capitalized key-words like Discipline and Tradition and Responsibility.
During my last years at school I realized that what was really wrong with my parents was that they had nothing but a blanket contempt for the sort of life I wanted to lead.
There were things, a certain emotional gentleness in my mother, an occasional euphoric jolliness in my father, I could have borne more of; but always I liked in them the things they didn't want to be liked for.
I went to Oxford in 1948. In my second year at Magdalen, soon after a long vacation during which I hardly saw my parents, my father had to fly out to India. He took my mother with him. Their plane crashed, a high-octane pyre, in a thunderstorm some forty miles east of Karachi. After the first shock I felt an almost immediate sense of relief, of freedom. My only other close relation, my mother's brother, farmed in Rhodesia, so I now had no family to trammel what I regarded as my real self. I may have been weak in filial charity, but I was strong on the discipline in vogue.
Over and over as I read The Magus, almost on every page, I'd picture John Fowles tossing off sentences with seeming ease that I couldn't write in a thousand years of putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard.
Maybe it wasn't that easy for Fowles. But I suspect it was. That led me to feel a curious combination of literary joy and envy as I made my way slowly through the book. I was hooked on the story, a marvelously creative plot with fascinating characters.
And I badly wanted to be able to write even a semblance of the evocative passages that my highlighter displayed in yellow. Eventually, though, I realized that what Fowles possessed as a novelist, and I didn't, and never would, wasn't so much an exceptional ability to write, but an exceptional ability to understand people and human relationships.
Here's some excerpts from an early chapter that shows what I mean.
I suppose I'd had, by the standards of that pre-permissive time, a good deal of sex for my age. Girls, or a certain kind of girl, liked me; I had a car -- not so common among undergraduates in those days -- and I had some money. I wasn't ugly; and even more important, I had my loneliness, which, as every cad knows, is a deadly weapon with women. My 'technique' was to make a show of unpredictability, cynicism, and indifference. Then, like a conjurer with his white rabbit, I produced the solitary heart.
I found my sexual success and the apparently ephemeral nature of love equally pleasing. It was like being good at golf, but despising the game.
At times I'd say to myself, "Man, The Magus would make a really great Netflix streaming series." I'd say this because Fowles was so adept at creating characters in his novel who were complex, flawed, and hugely interesting -- just what I look for in my TV watching.
I would like them not because they were likable. Few, if any were. But Fowles allowed me to get to know them as deeply as I've ever known another person, as strange as that may sound. Meaning, a skilled novelist is able to reveal what is in a character's mind more clearly than real people are able to do, or at least choose to do.
It was quite an adventure, reading The Magus over many months. I'd forgotten what a pleasure a marvelously written literary novel can be. Thanks for reminding me, John Fowles.