The rebel with no specific gift for rebellion is destined to become the drone; and even this metaphor is inexact, since the drone at least has a small chance of fecundating the queen, whereas the human rebel-drone is deprived even of that small chance and may finally see himself as totally sterile, lacking not only the brilliant life-success of the queens but even the humble satisfaction of the workers in the human hive. Such a personality is reduced to mere wax, a mere receiver of impressions; and this condition is the very negation of the basic drive in him – to rebel. It is no wonder that in middle age many such failed rebels, rebels turned self-conscious drones, aware of their susceptibility to intellectual vogues, adopt a mask of cynicism that cannot hide their more or less paranoic sense of having been betrayed by life.
When I was sixteen my English teacher suggested I read The Magus. I lied and said I had already read and disliked it. He was disappointed. In fact, all I had done was taken it down of the shelf, flick through it and then place it back. When John Fowles died in 2005, I promised myself I really would read The Magus this time. However, it was a different tiem and place and I no longer had access to a copy. Instead I took The Collector down off the shelf, left it on my bedside table for a couple of weeks and then placed it back on the shelf. I’ve finally read it now and it is bloody good.
I probably should have read it when I was sixteen. As Fowles says in the introduction to the second edition, The Magus “must always substantially remain a novel of adolescence written by a retarded adolescent”. Nicholas Urfe, our narrator, is the very definition of a callow, bright young man. He has considerable self-awareness and yet not quite enough. (Late in the novel he is pointedly told that “silliness and intelligence are not incompatible. Especially in your sex and at your age.”) After graduation he finds himself becalmed in early 1950s London: he wants to be a rebel but finds himself becoming a drone. In the end, to escape his girlfriend (and himself), he takes a job as an English teacher on a small Greek island.
We are introduced to Urfe over a hundred pages of this slow, careful novel but once he meets Conchis it soon becomes clear that this is very much the opening act. Urfe finds himself irresistably drawn to Conchis, a reclusive millionaire who lives on the island. Conchis, for his part, is also keen to form a relationship. That hundred pages of acute but familar portrayal of a self-absorbed young man gives way to something else entirely, a godgame where Cochis takes the role of “a god like a novelist”. This forms the bulk of the novel, perhaps 400 pages, and is an extraordinary literary achievement.
I’ll be honest, I found the novel very slow to start. I could admire the writing but Urfe was a character I knew too well; a man many writers have recognised, a man like me, a man I had made peace with. Perhaps if I had read it when I was sixteen. The appearance of Cochis offered me something more than the same story with different period details. If anything, the pace became even slower due to Fowles’s increasingly exact and exacting prose but now I was hooked. We, the reader, are right there with Urfe as we are alternatively teased and put through the wringer through a series of precisely controlled – by Conchis and Fowles – “games”.
Thinking of this part of the novel, it is hard to avoid sexual metaphors. The Magus does become overtly (and wonderfully) erotic when Conchis introduces other characters into his games but it is more than this. I used the word “teased” earlier and, despite the fact this is a psychological experiment, there is also a sense in which it is foreplay. At one point, Urfe notes to himself: “But all games, even the most literal, between a man and a woman are implicitly sexual.” True enough but you could probably take that further; there is a notable scene where Cochis temporarily excludes Urfe (all part of the game) and the latter responds exactly as a jilted lover.
Orgasm, when it arrives, is muted. The climax, Conchis’s final revelation, requires another hundred pages for Urfe (and the reader) to come to terms with it. As with the first act, it is entirely necessary and (again) forces us to mirror Urfe’s emotions on his return to London but, in terms of sheer reading pleasure, it cannot compete with what happened in Greece.