“The Magus” (Post 1/9)

Magus 01

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

“The Magus” Month – Introduction

[1] The differences begin immediately. In the first edition, there are two pages before Part One opens: a dedication and a description of the Magus card of the tarot.

The dedication reads: To Astarte.

Astarte is the Hellenized (Greek) form of the Middle Eastern goddess Ishtar. She was connected with fertility, sexuality, and war.

The specter of Astarte looms over the second half of The Magus. She is the force Nicholas must come to terms with in order to become a whole person.

In the description of the Magus, Fowles quotes Arthur Edward Waite from The Key to the Tarot):

On the table in front of the Magus are the symbols of the four Tarot suits, signifying the elements of natural life, which lie like counters before the adept, and he adapts them as he wills. Beneath are roses and lilies, the flos campi and lilium convallium, changed into garden flowers, to show the culture of aspiration.


The Magus is Conchis, who will introduce Nicholas to the twins Rose and Lily. This is a bold clue to give so early but a first-time reader will likely forget about it by the time the characters are introduced a hundred pages down the line.

[2] Both versions begin Part One with a quote from the Marquis de Sade’s Les Infortunes de la Vertu (1791). The quote, according to this thread on Goodreads can be translated as: “A professional philanderer is rarely a man to be pitied.” It’s a good introduction to our narrator, Nicholas Urfe.

Each of the three parts in The Magus opens with a quote from Les Infortunes de la Vertu, so let’s give it some context.

The Marquis de Sade (1740 – 1814) was a French aristocrat, revolutionary, politician, philosopher and writer. He is best known for his erotic works, which combined philosophical discourse with pornography, depicting sexual fantasies with an emphasis on violence, criminality, and blasphemy against the Catholic Church. The words sadism and sadist are derived from his name.

In Les Infortunes de la Vertu (The Misfortunes of Virtue, better known in English as Justine) a young woman describes the events leading to her moral downfall. De Sade revised the book multiple times, adding more graphic scenes.

This gives it an interesting unintentional link to The Magus. In the Forward to the revised edition, Fowles tells us: “The erotic element is stronger in two scenes. I regard that as merely the correction of a past failure of nerve.” (r.o.p.7)

[3] Also in the six-page Forward, explaining the revision:

Though this is not, in any major thematic or narrative sense, a fresh version of The Magus, it is rather more than a stylistic revision. A number of scenes have been largely rewritten, and one or two new ones invented.


[4] And now, we’ve entered the story. Good quote with a bonus vocabulary word:

Like all men not really up to their job{s}, he was a stickler for externals and petty quotidian things; and in lieu of an intellect he had accumulated an armory of capitalized key words like Discipline and Tradition and Responsibility.

(p.11 / r.p.15)


adjective – of or occurring every day; daily.

ordinary or everyday, especially when mundane

(medicine) – denoting the malignant form of malaria.

[5] Vocabulary:

If I ever dared (…) to argue with him, he would produce one of these totem words and cosh me with it.

(p.11 / r.p.15)


noun – (British, informal) – a thick heavy stick or bar used as a weapon; a bludgeon

verb – hit (someone) on the head with a cosh.

[6] References:

The wishful tradition is that our family came over from France after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes – noble Huguenots remotely allied to Honore d’Urfe, author of the seventeenth-century best-seller L’Astree.

(p.11 / r.p.15)


The Edict of Fontainebleau (October 22, 1685) was an edict issued by Louis XIV of France, also known as the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The Edict of Nantes (1598) had granted the Huguenots the right to practice their religion without persecution from the state.

Honore d’Urfe (1568 – 1625) was a French novelist and miscellaneous writer.

L’Astree is a pastoral novel published between 1607 and 1627. Possibly the most influential work of 17th century French literature. It consists of six parts, forty stories, sixty books in 5,399 pages and was successful throughout Europe. The main thread of the story is the perfect love between a shepherd and shepherdess of fifth-century Forez.

Much later in the book, Nicholas tells us:

The story of L’Astree is: The shepherdess Astree, hearing evil reports of the shepherd Celadon, banishes him from her presence. A war breaks out, and Astree is taken prisoner. Celadon manages to rescue her, but she will not forgive him. He does not gain her hand until he has turned the lion and unicorns who devour unfaithful lovers into statues of stone.

(p.531 / r.p.581)

[7] Reference:

If one excludes another equally unsubstantiated link with Tom Durfey, Charles II’s scribbling friend – no other of my ancestors showed any artistic leanings whatever.

(p.11 / r.p.15)


Thomas D’Urfey (1653 – 1723) was an English writer and wit. His plays include The Fond Husband (1676) and The Virtuous Wife (1680). Ten of the sixty-eight songs in The Beggar’s Opera were D’Urfey’s.

[8] A possible warning from Fowles about taking out present narrator too seriously:

We didn’t realize that the heroes, or anti-heroes, of the French existentialist novels we read were not supposed to be realistic. We tried to imitate them, mistaking metaphorical descriptions of complex modes of feeling for straightforward prescriptions of behavior.

(p.13 / r.p.17)

[9] A typo (?) in the original is fixed in the revised, giving a markedly different meaning (all cynicism no longer “asks” a failure to cope, it “masks”).

I was too green to know that all cynicism [m]asks a failure to cope – an impotence, in short; and that to despise all effort is the greatest effort at all.

(p.13 / r.p.17)

[10] Reminder: {Words like this} are in original, not revised. [Words like this] are in revised, not original.

This passage shows how Fowles was indecisive with his “that”s. (Ha! Glad I’m not the only one.)

The truth was {that} I was not a cynic by nature; only by revolt. I had got away from what I hated, but I hadn’t found where I loved, and so I pretended [that] there was nowhere to love.

Handsomely equipped to fail, I went out into the world.

(p.13 / r.p.17)

It’s also a good quote.

[11] Reference:

I learnt later that there were only two other applicants, both Redbrick.

(p.14 / r.p.17)


adjective – (of a British university) founded in the late 19th or 20th century and with buildings of brick, as distinct from the older universities built of stone.


Boredom, the numbing annual predictability of life, hung over the staff like a cloud. And it was real boredom, not my modish ennui. From it flowed cant, hypocrisy and the impotent rage of the old who know they have failed and the young who suspect {that} they will fail.

(p.14 / r.p.18)

[13] Translation/Reference:

“My advice is, don’t go. However… vous l’avez voulu, Georges Danton. Vous l’avez voulu.”

The misquotation was typical.

(p.14 / r.p.18)

A quote from Molier’s French play Georges Dandin (1668), translated on wikiquote as: “You would have it so, George Dandin. You would have it so.” The misquotation Nicholas refers to is the last name of the title character.

[14] Reference:

I (…) was interviewed by an eager lady with a culture-stricken mind and a Roedean voice and vocabulary.



The Roedean School is a girls’ school in Roedean Village on the outskirts of Brighton, East Sussex, England, established in 1885. It is among the most expensive girls’ schools in the United Kingdom.

Interestingly, this reference to Rodean doesn’t appear in the original. Instead:

I (…) was interviewed by an eager lady with a culture-ridden mind and a very upperclass voice and vocabulary.


[15] Reference:

I sat under a puce and tomato Matthew Smith in the waiting-room.

(p.16 / r.p.19)


Sir Matthew Smith (1879 – 1959) was a British painter of nudes, still-life and landscape. This is a good example of a “puce and tomato” Smith.

[16] Fowles’s revisions strengthen the sentence structure and language but, because this is a story told in the first person, he’s altering the personality and voice of the narrator. Most changes are subtle but adjusting Nicholas subtly over the course of six-hundred pages adds up. Fowles ultimately creates a different narrator.

Nicholas in the original is young, unsure and naïve. You get the feeling that he’s only a few years removed from his tale. In the revision, he’s clearly speaking from the other end of the 1960s and comes off as a bastard telling us about his bastardly ways in a precise, sure manner. He no longer has the excuse of adolescence for his stupidities; he is a mature, grown man acting like a prick.

Imagine a revision of Catcher in the Rye taking out Holden Caulfield’s conversational quirks and uncertainties. You’d lose Holden’s personality – the point of the whole damned thing.

This example might seem a very minor thing but it illustrates the point I’m trying to make. Nicholas in the original:

I suppose I’d had a good deal of sex for my age; at any rate, devoted a good deal to it.



I suppose I’d had, by the standards of that pre-permissive time, a good deal of sex for my age.


There’s a bumbly and apologetic quality in the first; the second is spoken snootily by a man with his nose up.


I wasn’t ugly; and even more important, I had my loneliness, which, as every cad knows, is a deadly weapon with women.

(p.17 / r.p.21)


I found my sexual success and the apparently ephemeral nature of love equally pleasing. It was like being good at golf, but despising the game. One was covered all round, both when one played and when one didn’t.

(p.17 / r.p.21)

[19] Reference:

I soon put the solitary heart away, “assumed responsibility with my total being” and showed the Chesterfieldian mask instead.

(p.17 / r.p.21)


Of, relating to, or befitting the writings or the attitudes of Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield (1694 – 1773), distinguished for his elegant manners and for his Letters to His Son in which he expounded the principles of conduct said to reflect sharply the pragmatic morality of the age (basically, a book on manners, including such gems as: “In my mind, there is nothing so illiberal, and so ill-bred, as audible laughter”).

[20] Nicholas does not tell us his first name when giving us his autobiography. We don’t get it until several chapters in, through dialogue. I think this is a delightful trick by Fowles.

“Alison, this is…”


(p.19 / r.p.23)

[21] Fantastic terseness:

Alison reappeared with the clothes she wanted, and we went up.

“Oh Jesus,” she said. “Australians.”

“Where’ve you been?”

“All over. France. Spain.”

We went into the flat.

(p.20 / r.p.24)

[22] Translation:

She gave me a little bitten-in grin. “Je vous plais?”

“Very much.”



French: “I please you?”


She gave me a little bitten-in grin. “I pass?”

“The belle of the ball.”



A girl with spectacles, myopic eyes in an insipidly {pretty} [soft] face, one of those soulful-intellectual creatures born to be preyed on and exploited by {artistic} phonies, smiled coyly from the other side of the room.

(p.22 / r.p.26)


“I’m {so} glad you returned tonight.”

{“Yes?”} She sipped her gin and gave me a small {grey} [sizing] look.

{I tried again.} “Ever read this?”

“Let’s cut corners. To hell with literature. You’re clever and I’m beautiful. Now let’s talk about what we really are.”

The grey eyes teased; or dared.

(p.22 / r.p.26)


She had a very un-English ability to {suddenly} flash out some truth, some seriousness, some quick surge of interest.

(p.24 / r.p.28)

[26] Reference:

“You’re the first Australian girl I’ve ever met.”

“Poor Pom.”

(p.24 / r.p.28)


Australian/New Zealand slang (informal; derogatory) for a British person.

[27] Translation:

“Half an hour after I first saw you last night, I thought, if I was really vicious I’d get into bed with him.”

“Thank you very much.”

“I could tell about you from the way you talked.”

“Tell what?”

“You’re the affaire de peau type.”

(p.25 / r.p.29)


French: business of skin

I’m guessing, from context, Alison is telling Nicholas that he’s a one-night-stand man (in it for the physical experience).

[28] Translation:

I went and bought food, and we talked and slept and made love and danced and cooked meals at all hours, sous les toits, as remote from ordinary time as we were from the dull London world outside the windows.

(p.27 / r.p.31)


French: under the roofs

Could be an allusion to the 1930 Rene Clair film Under the Roofs of Paris, which deals with a young couple. It could also be an idiom, but I can’t find any information on it.

[29] Reference:

She put the pen in my pocket. “There. Now you’re a cassowary after the crime.”

(p.29 / r.p.32)


Cassowaries are flightless, ostrich-looking birds. They are native to northeastern Australia (among other places). They are shy, but will attack humans if provoked.

This phrase seems a play on “accessory after the crime.” I’m not sure if it is actually an Australian saying or if Alison is playing with the sounds of the words. Later in the book, there are more examples of her enjoying word-play and puzzles.

[30] References:

One evening we went to see Carne’s old film Quai des Brumes. She was crying when we came out and she began to cry again when we were in bed.

(p.30 / r.p.34)


Marcel Carne (1906 – 1996) was a French film director. Along with Quai des Brumes (Port of Shadows), he also directed Children of Paradise (1945).

Port of Shadows (1938) was one of the first films to be called a “film noir.” The plot involves an army deserter and 17-year-old runaway falling in love, and the deserter dying in the girl’s arms after saving her.

I find it strange what characters will call “old” in books. Nicholas and Alison are seeing Port of Shadows in 1952, which makes it fourteen years old. This would be like me saying in 2016, “We went to see the old Scorsese film, Gangs of New York.” Fourteen years doesn’t seem long enough to call something old. Maybe it’s because in the pre-internet (and especially the pre-home video) age, it was much harder to see a film in the years after its original release. If I hadn’t seen or heard about Gangs of New York at all since its release, maybe it would seem old if was put into theaters again…?


She didn’t fall for the solitary heart; she had a nose for emotional blackmail. She thought it must be nice to be totally alone in the world, to have no family ties. When I was going on one day in the car about not having any close friends – using my favorite metaphor: the cage of glass between me and the rest of the world – she just laughed. “You like it,” she said. “You say you’re isolated, boyo, but you really think you’re different.” She broke my hurt silence by saying, too late, “You are different.”

(p.31 / r.p.35)

[32] Definition:

“You treated me as if I didn’t really belong to you.”

“Don’t be silly.”

“As if I’m a bloody abo.”

(p.33 / r.p.36)


An offensive reference to Aboriginal Australians.

There are several examples of racist shit-talk in The Magus that I won’t excuse. Later on a black character is handled incredibly offensively by Nicholas and you don’t get the sense that Fowles knew he was being outrageously offensive – which makes it so much worse. This is another reason I don’t go around recommending The Magus. Fowles claimed to be a feminist but I think he had a very skewed idea of what that meant. He also wouldn’t have considered himself racist or prejudiced against homosexuals, but terrible touches of those slip through. Different times, etc., but it wasn’t so long ago. He should have known better with some of this. Having Alison tossing around phrases that are probably really offensive in Australia is another smudge on things. It just isn’t necessary to the narrative.

[33] Reference:

“It’s like those Hogarth pictures. Love a la mode. Five weeks later.”

(p.38 / r.p.41)


William Hogarth (1697 – 1764) was an English painter, printmaker, pictorial satirist, social critic, and editorial cartoonist who has been credited with pioneering western sequential art. In 1734 – 1745, he painted six pictures of Marriage a-la-mode. In each piece, he shows the young couple and their family and acquaintances at their worst. The pictures tell a story of a failed marriage, arranged for money and prestige.

The story and sequence are worth looking at. It’s incredibly intricate; a very interesting read.


“You know what I thought today?” She said it across the room.


“If I killed myself, you’d be pleased. You’d be able to go round saying, she killed herself because of me. I think that would always keep me from suicide. Not letting some lousy shit like you get the credit.”

(p.38 / r.p.42)

[35] Vocabulary:

He wore a dark-blue blazer, with a regimental tie. He reeked mufti.

(p.39 / r.p.43)


noun – plain clothes worn by a person who wears a uniform for their job, such as a soldier or police officer. (Can also refer to a Muslim legal expert who is empowered to give rulings on religious matters.)

[36] Vocabulary:

He was very glib with his Xans and his Paddys and the Christian names of all the other well-known condottieri of the time.

(p.39 / r.p.43)


A leader or a member of a troop of mercenaries, especially in Italy.

[37] Vocabulary:

He had tried hard to acquire the triune personality of the philhellene in fashion – gentleman, scholar, thug.

(p.39 / r.p.43)



adjective – consisting of three in one (used especially with reference to the Trinity).


noun – a lover of Greece and Greek culture.

[38] Reference:

He spoke with a second-hand accent and the clipped, sparse prep-schoolisms of a Viscount Montgomery.

(p.39 / r.p.43)


Viscount Montgomery of Alamein is a title in the Peerage of the United Kingdom, created in 1946 for the military commander Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery. His victory in the Second Battle of El Alamein (1942) in Egypt sealed the fate of Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Montgomery was nicknamed “Monty” and the “Spartan General.” He was notorious for his lack of tact and diplomacy.

[39] I noted this passage from the first edition because I liked it very much. While checking it against the revised version, I found another example of the negative changes in Nicholas between the two.

This takes place as Nicholas leaves the flat he has been sharing with Alison for the last time. In the first edition, he begins singing because he wants to sing. In the revised he hums, consciously celebrating his “release.” The first makes him seem clueless and aloof; the second pointedly a bastard.

The thing I felt most clearly, when the first corner was turned, was that I had escaped. Obscurer, but no less strong, was the feeling that she loved me more than I loved her, and that consequently I had in some indefinable way won (…) I began to sing, and it was not a brave attempt to hide my grief but a revoltingly unclouded desire to sing.



The thing I felt most clearly, when the first corner was turned, was that I had escaped; and hardly less clearly, but much more odiously, that she loved me more than I loved her, and the consequently I had in some indefinable way won (…) I began to hum, and it was not a brave attempt to hide my grief, but a revoltingly unclouded desire to celebrate my release.


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