Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

The Godgame

with 2 comments

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.


Written by Martin

13 April 2010 at 15:37

Posted in books

Tagged with

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. By ‘climax’ do you mean all the eleutheria stuff? The tortured Greek partisan is a powerful scene, I remember; though not one earned by the novel.

    I did read this book when I was sixteen, and so my trajectory with it has been rather different to yours. I loved it when I was an adolescent, but now my love for it rather embarrasses me than anything else. It is a pretentious book, which isn’t in itself a terrible thing (I write pretentious books myself, after all); but its pretentious is a class-bound, 1960s-that-never-escaped-the-1950s sort of way.

    Adam Roberts

    13 April 2010 at 16:26

  2. By ‘climax’ do you mean all the eleutheria stuff?

    Yes. It isn’t really a climax – I pursued my line of thinking too far – but it is the end of the game.

    its pretentious is a class-bound, 1960s-that-never-escaped-the-1950s sort of way.

    I jotted down a quote when I was reading the novel which didn’t really have any place in these thoughts. It is Urfe reflecting on the story Cochis has been telling him:

    I lay in my chair and stared up at the stairs. 1914 and 1953 were aeons apart; 1914 was on a planet circling one of those furthest faintest stars. The vast stretch, the pace of time.

    I did have a similiar experience of the vastness between 1953 and 2010. I had no problem with its pretension though. Perhaps I will grow to be embarrassed by my love of the book too (Fowles clearly has). At the moment though, it just makes me want to take The Collector down once more.


    13 April 2010 at 16:42

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: