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John Fowles: The Magus

This novel is somewhat more autobiographical than the previous one. It tells the story of Nicholas Urfe, an Oxford graduate, now teaching at a public school. Looking for a change, he takes a job as a teacher on the Greek island of Phraxos (based on Spetsai where Fowles had taught ten years before). Shortly before his departure he meets and has a fling with a trainee Australian air hostess, Alison Kelly. His first six months are fairly mundane, the only major event being contracting venereal disease in an Athens brothel.

However, he soon lands up in a nearby villa, the home of the recluse Maurice Conchis, where he finds, to his surprise, he is expected. He returns to Conchis’ home, admires his art collection, hears his story of his early love for Lily and loses at dice – the price being his (Nicholas’) life but he refuses to take the cyanide pill. Gradually, Nicholas starts to hear and see things – a seventeenth century man, after reading a seventeenth century pamphlet, Conchis’ old lover, Lily, a nymph being chased by a satyr who is then shot by an arrow. Nicholas is gradually being drawn in – willingly – to a strange set of mysteries.

Nicholas meets Alison in Athens but they have a row, particularly when Nicholas tells her he is falling for Lily. Back at the villa, Nicholas learns that Lily is, in fact, two twin sisters hired by Conchis. The plot gets more and more complicated as Nicholas seems to be rejected by Conchis, Alison commits suicide and Nazi soldiers appear. Conchis tells him of a key story during the War – that may or may not have happened – when he, Conchis, as local mayor is told the lives of eighty local people would be spared if Conchis clubs the guerrilla leader to death. Conchis refuses but, while the execution takes place, Conchis escapes with his life. Conchis and Co. disappear, after an elaborate charade, Alison seems to be alive and Nicholas is fired. He tries, with only limited success, to find about Conchis and may or may not end up with Alison.

The plot is horribly complicated and messy but don’t let that put you off for this is a superb story on the nature of reality and identity. Fowles drags us further and further in. Just when you think you have got the hang of the plot, there is another layer. Does Conchis exist? Is Alison dead or alive? Who are the twins and who is Lily? What happened with the Nazis? You probably won’t end up finding out but you will be dragged along with the complications of this novel.

Publishing history

First published 1965 by Little Brown