Tuesday, June 12, 2018

John Fowles’s The Magus

Today I started reading The Magus (1965) by John Fowles, and I have finished the novel’s part one. Fowles’s prose is impressive. It is easy to empathize with the novel’s protagonist Nicholas Urfe, a callous and cynical Oxford graduate, who is convinced that he is going out in the world “handsomely equipped to fail.” He is depressed by the self-realization that he is not a talented poet. "I acquired expensive habits and affected manners. I got a third-class degree and a first-class illusion that I was a poet."

Here’s an excerpt from the final section of the novel’s part one:
Years later I saw the gabbia at Piacenza; a harsh black canary cage strung high up the side of the towering campanile, in which prisoners were left to starve to death and rot in full view of the town below. And looking up at it I remembered that winter in Greece, that gabbia I had constructed for myself out of light, solitude and self-delusions. To write poetry and to commit suicide, apparently so contradictory, had really been the same, attempts at escape. And my feelings, at the end of that wretched term, were those of a man who knows he is in a cage, exposed to the jeers of all his old ambitions until he dies.  
But I went to Athens, to the address the village doctor gave me. I was given a Kahn test and Dr. Patarescu's diagnosis was confirmed. The ten days' treatment was very expensive; most of the drugs had been smuggled into Greece, or stolen, and I was at the receiving end of a Third Man network. The smooth young American-trained doctor told me not to worry; the prognosis was excellent. At the end of the Easter holidays, when I returned to the island, I found a card from Alison. It was a garishly colored thing with a kangaroo on it balloon-saying "Thought I'd forgot?" My twenty-sixth birthday had taken place while I was in Athens. The postmark was Amsterdam. There was no message. It was simply signed Alison. I threw it into the wastepaper basket. But that evening, I took it out again.  
To get through the anxious wait for the secondary stage not to develop, I began quietly to rape the island. I swam and swam, I walked and walked, I went out every day. The weather rapidly became hot, and during the heat of the afternoon the school slept. Then I used to take off into the pine forest. I always went over the central crest to the south side of the island if I could, away from the village and the school. There, was absolute solitude: three hidden cottages at one small bay, a few tiny chapels lost among the green downward sea of pines and deserted except on their saint's days, and one almost invisible villa, which was in any case empty. The rest was sublimely peaceful, as potential as a clean canvas, a site for myths. It was as if the island was split into dark and light; so that the teaching timetable, which made it difficult to go far except at weekends or by getting up very early (school began at half-past seven) became as irksome as a short tether.  
I did not think about the future. In spite of what the doctor at the clinic had said I felt certain that the cure would fail. The pattern of destiny seemed pretty clear: down and down, and down.  
But then the mysteries began.

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