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The Magus - John Fowles, Page 1

John Fowles


  Even so powerful a first novel as The Collector does not prepare the reader for the manifold, compulsive fascination of John Fowles's eagerly awaited second novel, The Magus.

  The Magus (which may be translated Magician or Juggler) is remarkable not only for the way in which it enlarges and develops the underlying themes of The Collector; it is in itself a towering accomplishment of entertainment, a virtuoso feat of storytelling. As the elaborate tableaux of The Magus unfold, from fin de siecle propriety to wartime atrocity, from modern bohemian London to the lovely yet somehow sinister Greek island of Phraxos, Fowles never loses sight of the artist's prime responsibility to delight as he sheds light, to give pleasure as he sounds the well of reality for its darker meanings.

  This is not to say that The Magus is a simple book. The Magus is also a love story — a

  love story as tempestuous and compellingly beautiful as love between two human beings can be. Indeed, The Magus is a maze, a dark door. Once through that door, however, the reader is drawn on by the story, by its strangeness, by its fascination, by its intricately woven web of

  suspense until he has followed the labyrinth to its center and its compelling climax. Magnificent entertainment, an unforgettable love story, a brilliant excursion through the mirror of appearance, The Magus will surely confirm John Fowles's place as one of the most gifted and, in the words of Gore Vidal, "one of the most alarmingly original writers to come out of England in this generation."


  John Fowles








  Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to quote Copyrighted material:

  To Hutchinson Publishing Group Ltd. for a passage from THE KEY TO THE TAROT by A. E. Waite.

  To Faber and Faber Ltd. and Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., for lines from "Little Gidding" fro FOUR QUARTETS by T. S. Eliot.

  To New Directions for lines from "The Needle" from PERSONAE by Ezra Pound. Copyright 1926, 1954, by Ezra Pound. Reprinted by permission of the publishers, New Directions. And for lines from "Canto XLVII" from CANTOS by Ezra Pound. Copyright 1934, 1937, 1940, 1948, by Ezra Pound. Reprinted by permission of the publishers, New Directions.

  Published simultaneously in Canada

  by Little, Brown & Company (Canada) Limited


  To Astarte


  Otherwise, Greater Arcana

  The Magus, Magician, or Juggler, the caster of the dice and mountebank in the world of vulgar trickery. This is the colportage interpretation, and it has the same correspondence with the real symbolical meaning that the use of the Tarot in fortune-telling has with its mystic construction according to the secret science of symbolism . . .

  On the table in front of the Magus are the symbols of the four Tarot suits, signifying the elements of natural life, which lie like counters before the adept, and he adapts them as he wills. Beneath are roses and lilies, the flos campi and lilium convallium, changed into garden flowers, to show the culture of aspiration.

  —ARTHUR EDWARD WAITE, The Key to the Tarot

  Part One

  Un débauché de profession est rarement un homme pitoyable.

  DE SADE, Les In fortunes de la Vertu


  I was born in 1927, the only child of middle-class parents, both English, and themselves born in the grotesquely elongated shadow, which they never rose sufficiently above history to leave, of that monstrous dwarf Queen Victoria. 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. I saw very little of my father during the war, and in his long absences I used to build up a more or less immaculate conception of him, which he generally — a bad but appropriate pun — shattered within the first forty-eight hours of his leave.

  Like all men not really up to their jobs, he was a stickler for externals and petty quotidian things; and in lieu of an intellect he had accumulated an armory of capitalized key words like Discipline and Tradition and Responsibility. If I ever dared — I seldom did — to argue with him he would produce one of these totem words and cosh me with it, as no doubt in similar circumstances he coshed his subalterns. If one still refused to lie down and die, he lost, or loosed, his temper. His temper was like a violent red dog, and he always had it close to hand.

  The wishful tradition is that our family came over from France after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes — noble Huguenots remotely allied to Honoré d'Urfe, author of the seventeenth-century bestseller L'Astrée. Certainly — if one excludes another equally unsubstantiated link with Tom Durfey, Charles II's scribbling friend — no other of my ancestors showed any artistic leanings whatever; generation after generation of captains, clergymen, sailors, squirelings, with only a uniform lack of distinction and a marked penchant for gambling, and losing, to characterize them. My grandfather had four Sons, two of whom died in the First World War; the third took an unsavory way of paying off his atavism (gambling debts) and disappeared to America. He was never referred to as still existing by my father, a youngest brother who had all the characteristics that eldest are supposed to possess; and I have not the least idea whether he is still alive, or even whether I have unknown cousins on the other side of the Atlantic.

  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. I was "good" at English, I had poems printed pseudonymously in the school magazine, I thought D. H. Lawrence the greatest human being of the century; my parents had certainly never read Lawrence, and had probably never heard of him except in connection with Lady Chatterley's Lover. 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. By the time I was eighteen and Hitler was dead they had become mere providers, for whom I had to exhibit a token gratitude, but for whom I couldn't feel much else.

  I led two lives. At school I got a small reputation as a wartime aesthete and cynic. But I had to join the regiment — Tradition and Sacrifice pressganged me into that. I insisted, and luckily the headmaster of my school backed me, that I wanted to go to university afterwards. I went on leading a double life in the Army, queasily playing at being Brigadier "Blazer" Urfe's son in public, and nervously reading Penguin New Writing and poetry pamphlets in private. As soon as I could, I got myself demobilized.

  I went to Oxford in 1948. In my second year at Magdalen, soon after a long vacation during which I hardly saw them, 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 on filial charity, but I was strong on the discipline in vogue.

  At least, along with a group of fellow odd men out at Magdalen, I thought I was strong in the discipline. We formed a small club called Les Hommes Révoltés, drank very dry sherry, and (as a protest against those shabby dufflecoated last years of the forties) wore dark gray suits and black ties for our meetings; we argued about essence and existence and called a certain kind of inconsequential behavior existentialist. Less enlightened people would have called it capricious or just plain selfish; but we didn't realize that the heroes, or anti-heroes, of the French existentialist novels we read were not supposed to be realistic. We tried to imitate them, mistaking metaphorical descriptions of complex modes of feeling for straightforward prescriptions of behavior. We duly felt the right anguishes. Most of us, true to the eternal dandyism of Oxford, simply wanted to look different. In our club, we did.

  I acquired expensive habits and affected manners. I got a third-class degree and a first-class illusion that I was a poet. But nothing could have been less poetic than my pseudo-aristocratic, seeingthrough-all boredom with life in general and with making a living in particular. 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. But I did absorb a small dose of one permanently useful thing, Oxford's greatest gift to civilized life: Socratic honesty. It showed me, very intermittently, that it is not enough to revolt against one's past. One day I was outrageously bitter among some friends about the Army; back in my own rooms later it suddenly struck me that just because I said with impunity things that would have apoplexed my dead father, I was still no less under his influence. The truth was that I was not a cynic by nature; only by revolt. I had got away from what I hated, but I hadn't found where I loved, and so I pretended there was nowhere to love.

  Handsomely equipped to fail, I went out into the world. My father hadn't kept Financial Prudence among his armory of essential words; he ran a ridiculously large account at Ladbroke's and his mess bills always reached staggering proportions, because he liked to be popular and in place of charm had to dispense alcohol. What remained of his money when the lawyers and taxmen had had their cuts yielded not nearly enough for me to live on. But every kind of job I looked at—the Foreign Service, the Civil, the Colonial, the banks, commerce, advertising—was transpierceable at a glance. I went to several interviews, and since I didn't feel obliged to show the eager enthusiasm our world expects from the young executive, I was successful at none.

  In the end, like countless generations of Oxford men before me, I answered an advertisement in the Times Educational Supplement. I went to the place, a minor public school in East Anglia, I was interviewed, I was offered the post. I learnt later that there were only two other applicants, both Redbrick, and term was beginning in three days.

  The mass-produced middle-class boys I had to teach were bad enough; the claustrophobic little town was a nightmare; but the really intolerable thing was the common room. It became almost a relief to go into class. Boredom, the numbing annual predictability of life, hung over the staff like a cloud. And it was real boredom, not my modish ennui. From it flowed cant, hypocrisy and the impotent rage of the old who know they have failed and the young who suspect that they will fail. The senior masters stood like gallows sermons; with some of them one had a sort of vertigo, a glimpse of the bottomless pit of human futility . . . or so I began to feel during my second term.

  I could not spend my life crossing such a Sahara; and the more I felt it the more I felt also that the smug, petrified school was a toy model of the entire country and that to quit the one and not the other would be ridiculous. There was also a girl I was tired of.

  My resignation was accepted with resignation. The headmaster briskly supposed from my vague references to a personal restlessness that I wanted to go to America or the Dominions.

  "I haven't decided yet, Headmaster."

  "I think we might have made a good teacher of you, Urfe. And you might have made something of us, you know. But it's too late flow.,'

  "I'm afraid so."

  "I don't know if I approve of all this wandering off abroad. My advice is, don't go. However . . . vous l'avez voulu, Georges Danton. Vous l'avez voulu."

  The misquotation was typical.

  It poured with rain the day I left. But I was filled with excitement, a strange exuberant sense of taking wing. I didn't know where I was going, but I knew what I needed. I needed a new land, a new race, a new language; and, although I couldn't have put it into words then, I needed a new mystery.


  I heard that the British Council were recruiting staff, so in early August I went along to Davies Street and was interviewed by an eager lady with a culture-ridden mind and a very upperclass voice and vocabulary. It was frightfully important, she told me, as if in confidence, that "we" were represented abroad by the right type; but it was an awful bore, all the posts had to be advertised and the candidates chosen by interview, and anyway they were having to cut down on overseas personnel — actually. She came to the point: the only jobs available were teaching English in foreign schools — or did that sound too ghastly?

  I said it did.

  In the last week of August, half as a joke, I advertised: the traditional insertion. I had a number of replies to my curt offer to go anywhere and do anything. Apart from the pamphlets reminding me that I was God's, there were three charming letters from cultured and alert swindlers. And there was one that mentioned unusual and remunerative work in Tangiers — could I speak Italian? — but my answer went unanswered.

  September loomed: I began to feel desperate. I saw myself cornered, driven back in despair to the dreaded Educational Supplement and those endless pale gray lists of endless pale gray jobs. So one morning I returned to Davies Street.

  I asked if they had any teaching jobs in the Mediterranean area, and the woman with the frightful intensifiers went off to fetch a file. I sat under a puce and tomato Matthew Smith in the waiting room and began to see myself in Madrid, in Rome, or Marseilles, or Barcelona . . . even Lisbon. It would be different abroad; there would he no common room, and I would write poetry. She returned. All the good things had gone, she was terribly afraid. But there were these. She handed me a sheet about a school in Milan. I shook my head. She approved.

  "Well actually then there's only this. We've just advertised it." She handed me a clipping.


  The Lord Byron School, Phraxos, Greece, requires in early October an assistant master to teach English. Candidates must be single and must have a degree in English. A knowledge of Modern Greek is not essential. The salary is worth about £600 per annum, and is fully convertible. Two-year contract, renewable. Fares paid at the beginning and end of contract.

  "And this."

  It was an information sheet that longwindedly amplified the advertisement. Phraxos was an island in the Aegean about eighty miles from Athens. The Lord Byron was "one of the most famous boarding schools in Greece, run on English public-school lines" — whence the name. It appeared to have every facility a school should have. One had to give a maximum of five lessons a day.

  "The school's terribly well spoken of. And the island's simply heavenly."

  "You've been there?"

  She was about thirty, a born spinster, with a lack of sexuality so total that her smart clothes and too heavy makeup made her pathetic; like an unsuccessful geisha. She hadn't been there, but everybody said so. I reread the advertisement.

  "Why've they left it so late?"

  "Well, we understand they did appoint another man. Not through us. But there's been some awful mess-up." I looked again at the information sheet. "We haven't actually recruited for them before. We're only doing it out of courtesy now, as a matter of fact." She gave me a patient smile; her front teeth were much too big. I asked, in my best Oxford voice, if
I might take her out to lunch.

  When I got home, I filled in the form she had brought to the restaurant, and went straight out and posted it. That same evening, by a curious neatness of fate, I met Alison.


  I suppose I'd had a good deal of sex for my age; at any rate, devoted a good deal to it. 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 didn't collect conquests; but by the time I left Oxford I was a dozen girls away from virginity. 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. One was covered all round, both when one played and when one didn't. I contrived most of my affaires in the vacations, away from Oxford, since the new term meant that I could conveniently leave the scene of the crime. There were sometimes a few tedious weeks of letters, but I soon put the solitary heart away, "assumed responsibility with my total being" and showed the Chesterfieldian mask instead. I became as neat at ending liaisons as at starting them.

  This sounds, and was, calculating, but it was caused less by a true coldness than by my dandyish belief in the importance of the life style. I mistook the feeling of relief that dropping a girl always brought for a love of freedom. Perhaps the one thing in my favor was that I lied very little; I was always careful to make sure that the current victim knew, before she took her clothes off, the difference between coupling and marrying.

  But then in S—— things became complicated. I started to take the daughter of one of the older masters out. She was pretty in a stock English way, as province-hating as myself, and she seemed rather passionate, but I belatedly realized she was passionate for a purpose. I was to marry her. I began to be sick of the way a mere bodily need threatened to distort my life. There were even one or two evenings when I felt myself near surrendering to Janet, a fundamentally silly girl I knew I didn't love and would never love. Our parting scene, an infinitely sour all-night of nagging and weeping in the car beside the July sea, haunted me. Fortunately I knew, and she knew I knew, that she was not pregnant. I came to London with the firm determination to stay away from women for a while.