Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Fowle Play

I recently re-discovered a cache of mass-markets squirreled away for a rainy day; lots of stuff I've not read, mostly by famed, well-regarded literati like Graham Greene and John Gardner and Chaim Potok. I saw The Magus there, had just read a blurb about the recently deceased Fowles, and thought "Why the hell not?"

Indeed! The Magus is great fun despite its wholly despicable central character--most of the relish with which I consumed this novel came from watching Nicholas get sorely abused by a bevvy of creepy co-conspiracists out to humiliate him. In its forward Fowles pooh-poohs the novel and claims a bit of embarrassment over its success. I can see why he finds it adolescent (a lot of the contrivences don't work so well, and at least one major clue was far too obvious far too soon), but I can also see why it made such a smashing success nonetheless.

Fowles is up to a merry game, the same one Henry James devised in The Turn of the Screw. James, of course, was all about subtlety of effect, and his Governess is given Henry's own paranoid authorial consciousness with disastrous results for her young charges. Fowles decides to toss subtlety out the window, and puts characters into the novel who use Nicholas in a sort of real-life play designed to entertain themselves and teach his sorry self-centered ass some life lessons. If you've seen that silly Michael Douglas movie with the creepy clown doll, this trope might sound familiar. What interested me most is Fowles' hostility to his central character. Why is Nicholas so obtuse, so hateful, and so untrainable? Is this a sly reference to Fowles' view of his readers? Apparently the first edition of The Magus was more sympathetic to its narrator. Why the change more than a decade later?

I must admit to getting bogged down for a couple hundred pages--James would've called this a "loose, baggy monster" of a book. But it's interesting, and full of Classical references, Jungian ideas, and Tarot/Alchemical symbols galore--in other words, right up my particularly dorky alley! Worth a look.

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