The Summer of Rereading 1: The Magus, by John Fowles
A summer of rereading, that's what this one has been for me. Let me tell you about it.
Note: contains spoilers
Early on – maybe it was still spring – when we booked our holiday to Greece, I decided it was time to reread The Magus. I read it something like thirty years ago, when I was at university. I remember enjoying it, but being annoyed by the ending.
So I was expecting that annoyance to still be there. On occasions between then and this rereading, I have looked at the last couple of pages. I did so again before starting it this time; it was no clearer for doing so. Fowles himself recognised problems with the ending. In his foreword to the revised edition, he acknowledges that the novel has flaws, not least that it is a novel of adolescence, both his and that of his protagonist. (I found Nicholas to be annoyingly adolescent and spoilt, especially at the start, on this reading.) He goes on to say:
The other change is in the ending. Though its general intent has never seemed to me as obscure as some readers have evidently found it -- perhaps because they have not given due weight to the two lines from the Pervigilium Veneris that close the book -- I accept that I might have declared a preferred aftermath less ambiguously… and have now done so.
(Ellipsis the author’s, incidentally.) The thing is, he hasn’t done so. Not really. Not if you want to know whether or not Nicholas and Alison get back together, which seems to have been what his correspondents regarding the original edition were concerned about.
But that’s not what bothered me, either then or now. I don’t mind an ambiguous ending. And I actually kind of like the way you can think of it as a freeze-frame, like the ending of a film (Bonnie and Clyde ends like that, if I remember correctly – though in a more dramatic event).1
No, what annoys me is that we never really learn what Conchis and the others were up to. They called their project “The Godgame” (it was also Fowles’s proposed title for the novel at one point); but what was the point of it? What were they trying to achieve?
Ultimately I suppose that can be answered in part by Fowles’s argument regarding people asking about the “meaning” of the novel:
If The Magus has any "real significance", it is no more than that of the Rorschach Test in psychology. Its meaning is whatever reaction it provokes in the reader[.]
So the Godgame’s meaning or purpose may be simply the reaction it provokes in Nicholas; but that still leaves us wondering, as I said above, why did Conchis do it? Was it just the whim of a rich man? He did it because he could? And yet mere whim feels weak alongside all the discussion of freedom and what it means.
In the end the mild sense of frustration remains, because we never find that out.
Back when I first read it, there was no immediately obvious way to find discussions of it. No doubt there were some in academic journals and theses, but finding those would have been difficult. Now, of course, such discussions are easy to find. And the most interesting one I found recently was by Jo Walton on Tor.com: Twists of the Godgame: John Fowles’s The Magus. As Walton says, the ending “twists at just the wrong moment and sends it away from metaphysics into triviality and romance.”
She goes on to compare it to Ted Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life”, which I haven’t read. But the argument that “Fowles doesn’t know what he’s doing, that the underlying reality that is never explained doesn’t make sense” rings true for me. And so when she says that “what Chiang’s ‘The Story of Your Life’ does is what Fowles may have wanted to do”, I’m inclined to suspect that she’ll be proved right when I come to read the Chiang.
I still loved the book, though: you can enjoy the journey even if you’re not entirely happy with the destination. Walton’s conclusion gives a hilarious suggestion for how it could have been improved, though:
It’s beautifully written. The characters are so real I’d recognise them if I saw them at the bus-stop. And there’s nothing wrong with it that couldn’t be fixed by having them go off in an alien space ship at the end.
Now that would have been an ending.
Apparently there was a film of the book made. It’s considered to be so bad that (according to Wikipedia) Woody Allen said if he had his life to live again he’d do everything the same, except he wouldn’t see The Magus. ↩︎