Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Three books With The Word "Magus" in the Title: Part I: The Magus

I know that many people have looked at their bookshelves and said to themselves, "What my collection really needs is a book with the word "magus" in the title to really round it off. But - " (they think) "- can someone please recommend me one, because I surely don't know where to start!"

You're in luck. I have three books with the word "magus" in the title in my estimable book collection, and I read them all recently so I could bring you thrilling, hands-on reviews!


The first book on my shelf with the word "magus" in the title is "The Magus" by John Fowles. I get the impression John Fowles is a clever bloke who is highly renowned by what my usual group of friends call mundanes. (I believe the rest of the world calls them literary types.). He won a prize for "The French Lieutenant's Woman", which was made into a popular movie. That film made me decide never to read a John Fowles book. I could not stand the title. It's the sort of title I wouldn't even poke with a stick to see if it's dead. However, when I started my "read 'em and most likely weep" magus-reading project, I realized I would have to put my feelings about the Woman Who Had a French Lieutenant (see, isn't that a better title?) to one side, bite the bullet as it were and get on with it.

It took me seven weeks to read The Magus all the way through. It's a 'can't pick it up' book. This edition is only 604 pages – I read the original edition, although there's some sort of Special Director's Cut edition of it also on the shelves in my house – but every page was a hard slog. Each one was remarkably similar to the last one and contained so much whining on the part of the narrator that I couldn't take him in doses larger than about three pages.

I eventually buckled down to it because the waiter at the Argentine restaurant in Valencia – the one who looked like a Satyr – made a remark about the book that meant I felt compelled to finish. (He was the waiter who alarmed me when I first got talking to him since at that time I was reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (long book, short read) and the Satyr said he'd grown up with Harry: the first book had come out when he was in 5th grade. This made this apparent adult (the waiter, and for that matter Harry) young enough to be my son.) Of course, my stint in Valencia is long over, now, and so I'll probably never get back there to tell him I finished it.

Warning: Major spoilers below.

The Magus is ostensibly about A Man With A Meaningful Name, Urfe, and his
whiningrelationship with women. After various bruising encounters with the female of the species, he goes to be a teacher on a remote island in Greece. He meets a strange man, Conchis, who introduces him to another woman. She may be a spirit, or an amnesiac, or a 'schizophrenic' (split personality), or an actress, or a twin. Conchis, the woman/women and a few other characters who may also be actors, go through an elaborate charade, using many layers of deception and revelation, to loosen Urfe's grip on reality, break down his personality and initiate him into something or other vaguely magical-orderish that remains irksomely unexplained at the end of the book.

I will guess that Fowles thought of Conchis while contemplating the idea of Aleister Crowley on Cefalu, a magus in his island abbey, wrecking the egos of spiritual seekers who get caught up in his sphere of influence in order to make something greater out of them. I did spot the name Crowley once, but it was so sudden and unlikely in its context it seemed to me that it was overlooked during editing and he had planned to substitute something else. Then again, I was skipping entire paragraphs by that point.

Whatever. Crowley himself wrote a book touching on the same theme, which was rather more compelling, and it includes free instruction in Thelema, which you certainly don't get from Fowles. Crowley's book is called Diary of a Drug Fiend. There are actually a fair number of death/rebirth as initiate novels around. If that's what you're after I'd recommend Illuminatus! which hit all my sweet spots and entertained me mightily, although it's probably a bit dated. If you want something more, I'd recommend the astonishing A Scanner Darkly by Philip K Dick, in which a young man's personality is ablated to nothing, leaving *him* too attenuated to be devastated, but leaving the reader quite wrecked enough on his behalf. Why this happens and whether anybody wins in the end, I won't say, as I have no intention of spoiling *that* book.

People have often told me that men and women are different inside; that men do not brood. If there is a troubled relationship, I'm told, it doesn't occur to men to think about why that may be or if things could have been different. If they look troubled during these times, they say, it's because they've run out of beer, or there's no football on the TV. I've never wholeheartedly subscribed to that view, and this book certainly blows it out of the water. The narrator obsesses like a teenage girl over his perceived errors with the opposite sex from the first page all the way through the last. It's like a soap opera only with longer words and the occasional passage in Greek.

The Magus is the sort of book you'll like if you like this sort of book. I don't. I saw enough web pages saying it was "gripping" or a "powerful experience" to see that I'm in the minority though. If you still want a copy, you can have mine . . .

Synopsis here.

Next: Another book with "magus" in the title!

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Sis

Came to the same conclusion when I read The Magus for the first time about 7 years ago. We had it on the bookshelf for about 20 years, but only got around to reading it when we had 3 weeks in Kefalonia doing nothing but relaxing. Didn't really ring my bell and quickly moved on to one of the other 7 books I took with me. You were also right about finding it hard work I can remember re-reading passages over again just to make sure I hadn't missed something that hadn't sunk in first time.

Bruv

Peromyscus said...

Estebanovitch said pretty much the same about the The Special Director's Cut Edition. It's not just me, then!

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