The Magus (1965) John Fowles

The Magus (1965) , Daniel Martin (1977) — John Fowles.

Sooner or later, any series of Takeaway posts must get around to John Fowles (1926-2005), particularly The Magus (1965), The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), and Daniel Martin (1977). Fowles is after all—sometimes together with Lawrence Durrell—credited with inventing the postmodern novel. That seems as good a reason as any to begin the Takeaways series with him.

Fowles was an English novelist who had first attempted poetry. At the time in his thirties when he wrote The Magus (pub. 1965, at 240,000 words), the leading edge of American culture was the Beat movement (William Burroughs, Naked Lunch; Jack Kerouac, On The Road) transitioning into the hippie generation (Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Charles Webb, The Graduate), essentially literary protest movements. These were tear-it-all-down movements (“Down With The Establishment!”) and reactionary against the militarist-conformist culture born of the millions of American men returning from service in WWII, many of whom entered the newly emergent corporate sphere. In contrast, the leading edge of British culture was the Mods movement, largely confined to stylistic statements and gave us, among other things, the miniskirt and such television fare as the now classic The Avengers and The Prisoner. That such shows even came to be produced and aired is evidence of how far the Mods had progressed in establishing an alternative culture, as opposed to the tear-it-down protest movements in America.

Fowles did not set out to begin a new era in literature (although he did so). He was well-educated but came from a middle-class family, and simply wanted to write an engaging, indeed exciting book. His second passion in life was horticulture. The Magus reflects an inevitable bit of Mod sensibility, and parts of it have been described as a drug trip without the drugs. But the protagonist narrator Nicholas and his first love interest Alison are both middle-class characters like the author, and seek only authenticity. They are mildly disaffected with their respective cultures—blasé, let us say—Nicholas with the British and Alison with both the British and her native Australian middle-class cultures. They’re trying to be more genuine than the environments they come from. The Magus sought only to be experimental, not iconoclastic, a thought exercise perhaps—something stimulating.

Any discussion of Fowles must of course include The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), about which more below.

At one time in my relative youth, I wrote publicly that Daniel Martin was my favorite novel of all time. I have trouble comprehending that choice today—and the statement may have been in part deliberately provocative—but I suppose it owed in part to the novel’s experimentalism, in particular the shifts in narrative tense and style, and the psychological intimacy of the relationships it depicts. It was also relatively gritty for its time, and dealt with complex relationship issues and choices that I related easily to.

Today, however, I’m here to focus primarily on The Magus. Fowles himself was ambivalent about the quality of the novel, which he considered sprawling, poorly focused, and full of other beginner’s mistakes. It was the first he wrote, though he published it only after the relatively compact The Collector (1963), which Wikipedia calls a thriller but I perceived more as a novel of ideas about the conflict between the Creative and the Acquisitive and Critical principles in personality—between the butterfly, the collector, and the taxonomist.

In The Magus, protagonist Nicholas gets unknowingly drawn into a production of meta-theater that is bizarre and confusing to both protagonist and reader. No psychedelic drugs are involved, but it nonetheless embodies that element of the 1960s experience. Nicholas comes ever so gradually to realize that he is an actor in a play he did not sign up for, one that has no fixed script, merely certain scenarios including a stochastic element guided by his own actions and choices. It takes place in real life, though much of the action plays out within a villa and grounds controlled and prepared by the director. Eventually we learn that the witting participants in the drama called it the godgame.

Takeaway One (these are in no particular order) is that the ending is indeterminate. Have Nicholas and his Alison reunited or have they parted for a final time? So yes, one can do that—Fowles paved the way. Personally, I’ve never doubted which it is, but I keep hearing from Serious People that it’s obviously the other, or just as plausibly could be.

He took the technique even further in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, writing two endings into the book and thereby creating a kind of shibboleth: I’ve since seen many times that naturally literary readers love the dual ending of the book, while devotees of popular fiction detest it. The film with Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons was similarly experimental meta-cinema, a movie about making a movie of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, with parallels between the main character actors’ relationships in-role and in real life, and in which one ending appears in the period film while the other concludes the real-life plot. Fowles went even further in the book, giving himself a cameo appearance as a passenger in a 19-century train carriage in which the protagonist is also traveling to London. He also cameoed prominently as a gruff small-boat captain in the opening scene of the godawful and horrendously cast film adaptation of The Magus, a film he ended up hating despite having written the screenplay himself.

This is the thing about Fowles. Any competent discussion of The Magus or any of his other novels tends to get drawn into repeated digressions about the others.

Takeaway Two has to do with dialogue. Let me first state that Fowles’s dialogue is masterful. I frequently revisit it simply for the pleasure of reading it—but also to recalibrate my own impulses as a frequent writer of close dialogue. He minimizes speech tags and comes close to eliminating speech verbs, relying instead on what writers of popular fiction call body beats, mere statements about one participant or another from which we impute the written speech to them. I would not say that he minimizes direct dialogue, but he does use plenty of indirect dialogue and dollops of free indirect style. He makes frequent, effective, and natural use of ellipses in dialogue.

In my opinion, Fowles is dialogue-done-right, and any literary writer ought at least to read The Magus and Daniel Martin with an eye specifically to how they handle dialogue. It’s possible to get a sense of that from mere excerpts. Chapter 1 (1,700 words) of The Magus strikes many readers as unpromising, and you really don’t miss a thing if you skip it—certainly no dialogue, as it contains none. Chapter 2 is a mere 600 words, and introduces the premise of the plot. In Chapter 3, protagonist Nicholas meets his first love interest Alison, and the first phase of their relationship plays out in Chapters 3-6 (9500 words). Apart from some letters they exchange, Alison does not appear again until the beautifully written Chapters 38-42 (12,500 words). The last three of these are a rhapsodic account, based in part on a real-life experience Fowles had, of hiking up Mount Parnassus, spending a night in a shepherd’s hut, and hiking back down. Takeaway Three must be the ways in which Fowles captures the beauty of the experience, embedding it in the grittiness of a foundering relationship.

Fowles writes masterfully both in-the-moment and above-the-moment. When Nicholas and Alison are anywhere together, the writing is intimate and true. But Fowles’s exposition in describing Parnassus, or the Greek island Spetsai, fictionalized as Phraxos, where most of the book takes place, is unsurpassed. His free narrative covering stretches of time in the story is similarly outstanding.

Takeaway Four, a minor one, is the way Fowles’s writing exemplifies the tacit 1900s rules for name repetition. This is something that new writers often get wrong. It’s also something that (in consequence, probably) has been shifting since 2000 or so. Repeating a name risks iconizing a character, reducing our personal identification with them in a particular moment. For nearly all of 20th-century writing, it was understood that once a page or less was sufficient for repeating a name, with a considerable list of exceptions like a shift of focus, mention of some other character, the need to make a general statement such as “Mike Parker was nobody’s fool” or “Mike was never taken in by such things.” I’m not aware that anyone ever published a definitive compilation of the rules for name repetition, but every editor and every accomplished writer of the 1900s knew them in their bones.

As readers, we adopt a character’s point of view. We identify with characters so closely that we experience narrated moments as a character experiences them. A writer should introduce as little disruption to that as possible. “Invisible” pronouns like he and she serve perfectly to maintain identification. When a writer uses a name like Sally or Mike, it’s a bit of a prod. We waken momentarily from complete identification, so that the moment or the experience is no longer ours but this other person Sally’s or Mike’s. Skillful writers use that impact to good effect. With a writer like Fowles, it’s beneficial to pay attention to name repetition, because there’s nothing haphazard about it. At times he’ll go several pages using only “she” and “I.” At others, names reappear frequently. There’s always a reason, and one comes to understand the reasons at least intuitively by studying such carefully crafted writing. One can only shake one’s head at the loss of subtlety in some books appearing today in which character names are used at nearly every mention. What a squandering of opportunity!

Takeaway Five: literary sex. Before Fowles, Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller gained notoriety writing about sex and erotic life generally in a high-literary context. Both embraced and milked their notoriety. Fowles took the opposite approach. At the time of the Magus, he was a stealthy innovator. None of the people who controlled his access to the literary marketplace suspected how thoroughly he would change their world once he gained admission.

Nicholas tells us in the first line of Chapter 3, “I suppose I’d had, by the standards of that pre-permissive time, a good deal of sex for my age.” He tells us about a number of affaires de coeur, and Alison at one point accuses him of being more the affaire de peau type, which appears from Internet leavings to have confused many readers with its obvious meaning, in idiomatic translation, of “affair of the flesh” (in distinction from “affair of the heart”). I’ve found no indication that affaire de peau has ever been idiomatic anywhere—it was just a clever ad hoc coinage by Alison in the moment. Beyond early chapters’ uncontroversial mention that sex took place between Nicholas and Alison, Fowles progressively introduces more and more narration of sexual moments and acts themselves. In the first, Nicholas and a character named Julie are swimming and wading in a cove of the Aegean Sea. Apparently a few inattentive readers didn’t even realize they’d just witnessed an overt non-coital sexual act underwater, so obliquely did he describe it. Later he writes with similar discretion about an autoerotic encounter between Nicholas and himself. He becomes more explicit as the book progresses, but never in a way that would have disturbed most literary readers even of the 1960s.

It’s no longer necessary to be quite so discreet, quite so . . . literary about sex in literary writing. But before Erica Jong, before Philip Roth, before others of the late sixties and early seventies, John Fowles opened the portals so that later writers could follow.

In the interest of brevity, I’ll stop at five takeaways for now. If there were to be a sixth, it would probably be the complexity of plot, which nobody fully understands. Oh, we get the one about Nicholas and Alison, even if some debate the couple’s ultimate fate. It’s all the wrinkles of the godgame that no one entirely groks. But ambiguity and ambivalence are thematic elements of the book, indeed part of its overall message to the protagonist. Takeaway Six would be that some writers can get away with that. Literary readers tend to be broad-minded and forgiving in that respect, but popular readers will rip you in online reviews over whatever they don’t comprehend.

If in the course of sampling or reading The Magus or any of Fowles’s other works, you develop a hunger to know more about the real-life background(s), I can recommend the authorized biography:
John Fowles: A Life in Two Worlds, by Eileen Warburton. I was fortunate enough to stumble across a decommissioned library copy on Amazon.