“The Magus” (Post 2/9)

Magus 02

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

“The Magus” Month – Introduction

[40] The first description of Phraxos is fantastic:

Phraxos was beautiful. [There was no other adjective; it was not just pretty, picturesque, charming – it was simply and effortlessly beautiful.] It took my breath away when I first saw it, floating under Venus like a majestic black whale in an amethyst evening sea, and it still takes my breath away when I shut my eyes now and remember it. Its beauty was rare even in the Aegean, because its hills were covered with pine trees, Mediterranean pines as light as greenfinch feathers. Nine-tenths of the island was uninhabited and uncultivated: nothing but pines, coves, silence, sea. Herded into one corner, the north-west, lay a spectacular agglomeration of snow-white houses around a couple of small harbors.

(p.46 / r.p.50)

[41] Some passages burn into my head like melodies from favorite songs. This is one. It’s also an essential key to the end of the first edition.

(From Alison’s first letter to Nicholas after he has left her to go to Phraxos):

I love you, you can’t understand what that means because you’ve never loved anyone yourself. It’s what I’ve been trying to make you see this last week. All I want to say is that one day, when you do fall in love, remember today. Remember I kissed you and walked out of the room. Remember I walked all the way down the street and never once looked back. I knew you were watching. Remember I did all this and I love you. If you forget everything else about me, please remember this. I walked down that street and I never looked back and I love you. I love you.

(p.49 / r.p.53)

[42] Reference:

I rejected my own age, yet could not sink back into an older. So I ended like Sciron, a mid-air man.

(p.52 / r.p.56)


A bandit (in Greek mythology) killed by Theseus on the way from Troezen to Athens.

I’m not sure what Fowles means by calling Sciron a “mid-air” man. He was a robber who lived on cliffs and it seems some cliffs are named after him, so perhaps that’s what’s going on.

[43] Reference:

(This is one of the passages in The Magus that some people point to as a reason to dislike it. Without a doubt, it’s a weird thing for Fowles to stick in here.)

The island women were of Albanian stock, dour and sallow-faced, and about as seducible as a Free Church congregation. Much more tempting were some of the boys, possessors of an olive grace and a sharp individuality that made them very different from their stereotyped English private-school equivalents – those uniformed pink {termites} [ants] out of the Arnold mold. I had Gide-like moments, but they were not reciprocated, because nowhere is pederasty more abominated than in bourgeois Greece; there at least Arnold would have felt thoroughly at home. Besides, I wasn’t queer; I simply understood (nailing a lie in my own education) how being queer might have its consolations.

(p.53 / r.p.57)


Andre Gide (1869 – 1951) was a French author and winner of Nobel Prize in Literature in 1947. His writing spanned many genres and he is considered one of the most important figures in French literature.

What Fowles is referencing here is Gide’s categorization of himself as a pederast (a man who falls in love with young boys as opposed to a man who desires mature men).

Pederasty and homosexuality are two very different things; Fowles, through Nicholas, is blithely assuming one leads to/equates the other, which is where the offense lies. It’s along the same lines as assuming all homosexuals are voyeuristic, mad deviants (an idea that predominated the mainstream through the 1980s. See The Onion Field, every sort of Dirty Harry-type film or, hey, any interaction between a police officer and homosexual in popular culture during that time).

[44] Vocabulary:

My face set into a stiff {fierce} mask, like that of an acroterion.

(p.54 / r.p.58)


An architectural ornament placed on a flat base and mounted at the apex of the pediment (a triangular/arched gable) of a building in a classical style.

[45] Reference:

A person who has opted out has only his ability to express his disengagement between his existence and nothingness. Not cogito, but scribo, pingo, ergo sum.

(p.54 / r.p.58)


Cogito ergo sum is Descartes’s good old: “I think, therefore I am.” Scribo, pingo, ergo sum translates to: “I write, I describe, therefore I am.” In the past, Nicholas proved his existence and worth to himself through his poetry (which he has now decided to abandon).

[46] Translation (a conversation between Nicholas and a doctor):

Felicitations,” he said.


On va voir ca a Athenes. Je vous donnerai une adresse. C’est bien a Athenes que vous l’avez attrape, oui?” I nodded. “Les poules la-bas. Infectes. Seulement les fous qui s’y laissent prendre.”


I stood in his doorway, still foolishly trying for his sympathy.

Je suis maudit.”

(p.55 / r.p.59)


French (I’m just punching this into Google translate. It’s choppy, but the point comes across):

“Congratulations,” he said.

“It is…”

“We will see in Athens. I will give you an address. It is in Athens that you caught this, yes?” I nodded. “Chickens there. Infected. Only fools let it take.”


I stood in his doorway, still foolishly trying for his sympathy.

“I am damned.”

[47] References:

The world around me took wing, and I was stuck to the ground; a Catullus without talent forced to inhabit a land that was Lesbia without mercy.

(p.56 / r.p.60)


Gaius Valerius Catullus (~84 – 54 BC) was a Latin poet of the late Roman Republic. Lesbia was the pseudonym he used to refer to his lover. She is the subject of twenty-five of his 116 surviving poems.

[48] Translation:

I had created nothing, I belonged to nothingness, to the neànt.

(p.56 / r.p.60)


French: nothingness.

Having a character toss in foreign words for flair is irritating. Tossing in foreign words that mean exactly what he just said is infuriating.


I knew I would never kill myself, I knew I would always want to go on living with myself, however hollow I became, however diseased.

I raised the gun and fired it blindly into the sky. The crash shook me. There was an echo, some falling twigs. Then the heavy well of silence.

–           –           –

“Did you {shoot} [kill] anything?” asked the old man at the gate.

“One shot,” I said. “I missed.”

(p.58 / r.p.62)

[50] Translation:

Part Two opens with another quote from de Sades’ Les Infortunes de la Vertu (see Post 1; note [2]). This one is harder to find a translation for. This thread suggests:

Irritated by this first crime, the monsters don’t stop there; they lay her out naked on a large table, they light tapers, they place pictures of Our Savior at its head and dare to consummate in the loins of this poor girl, the most redoubtable of our mysteries.

(p.61 / r.p.65)

… I am not entirely sure how to connect this to the narrative of The Magus. Part Two contains the bulk of Conchis’s “godgame,” and it also deals with the total break of Alison’s and Nicholas’s relationship. Is Fowles using the de Sade quote to describe Alison’s plight (Nicholas has committed the “first crime” by not recognizing her worth; he continues to hurt her by leading her along, then refusing her again)?

[51] Reference:

Four lines had been underscored in red ink; from “Little Gidding.”

(p.65 / r.p.69)


Fourth and final poem of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, a series of poems that discuss time, perspective, humanity, and salvation. It was first published in September 1942. The title refers to a small Anglican community in Huntingdonshire.

[52] Vocabulary:

The sea stretched like a silk carpet (…) under the vast bell of the empyrean.



adjective – belonging to or deriving from heaven.

noun – heaven, in particular the highest part of heaven.

[53] Reference? Typo? No idea:

Yet must thou sail after knowledge

Knowing less than drugged beasts. {phthengometha thasson.}

(p.65 / r.p.70)


This last bit doesn’t show up in the revised version. I don’t know what it means. It looks like a typo or printing mistake in the original, coming at the end of an Ezra Pound poem. Searching the first word only leads to references to The Magus. Thassos (not quite thasson, but close) is a Greek island. This might be an attempt to spell out a Greek word or phrase. Nicholas is looking at a book that has been notated, so it’s possible these words were written in the margins of the poem and Fowles failed to make it clear.

[54] Reference:

I guessed immediately that this was the villa of the collaborationist he had quarreled with; but I had pictured a shifty, rat-faced Greek Laval rather than someone cultured.

(p.67 / r.p.71)


Pierre Laval (1883 – 1945) was a French politician. After the liberation of France in 1944, Laval was arrested by the French government and found guilty of high treason. He was executed by firing squad.

[55] Reference:

It was all peace, elements and void, golden air and mute blue distances, like a Claude.

(p.67 / r.p.71)


Claude Lorrain (~1600 – 1682; traditionally just Claude in English) was a French painter, draughtsman and engraver of the Baroque era. He is admired for his achievements in landscape painting.

[56] Reference:

Demetriades was small, very plump, frog-faced, a corfiot.

(p.68 / r.p.72)


Corfiot Italians are a population from the Greek island of Corfu.

[57] Reference:

His hero in history was Casanova. He lacked the Boswellian charm, to say nothing of the genius, of the Italian.

(p.68 / r.p.72)


James Boswell (1740 – 1795), a Scottish biographer and diarist. The terms Boswell/Boswellian/Boswellism have entered the English language to refer to a constant companion and observer, especially one who records those observations in print. (Think Watson to Holmes.)

[58] Reference:

In some places there were nagging clouds of black flies, so that I climbed through the trees like a new Orestes, cursing and slapping.

(p.73 / r.p.77)


A figure in Greek mythology. Several myths and plays deal with his madness and purification.

I assume Nicholas makes the reference to Orestes because he looks mad cursing and slapping at himself.

Fowles background as a poet is betrayed by more than his biographical similarities to Nicholas. His references to mythological figures seem more the habit of a poet than a novelist. I’m not sure how helpful it is to a reader when an author continually describes his characters by comparing them to mythological figures. Locating this book in Greece gives Fowles some justification (and I’m poorly read in mythology, so it’s my fault these references go above my head) but I think it weakens his narrative. When we’re told a character feels like Clytemnestra at dawn or Agamemnon at death, we’re not really being told how they feel. Emotion is kept at bay. Tell me someone is vindictive or mad or passionate, don’t compare them to another’s story.

[59] This is the silliest sexy talk I’ve encountered in a while. Which is strange, because Fowles usually handles this sort of thing well:

The sun moved, came on me, and made me erotic. I thought of Alison, of sex things we had done together. I wished she was beside me, naked.

(p.73 / r.p.77)

[60] Reference:

The house abashed me. It was too reminiscent of the Cote d’Azur, too un-Greek.

(p.74 / r.p.78)


Translates to “Azure Coast.” Often known in English as the French Riviera.

[61] Reference:

The quintessential Mediterranean man, who had discarded everything that lay between him and his vitality. A monkey-glander, essence of queen bees; and intense by choice and exercise as much as by nature.

(p.77 / r.p.81)

From context, both “monkey-glander” and “essence of queen bees” sound like alternative/experimental treatments to stay young. Searching around, I was pointed (from this thread) to a Wikipedia article about Serge Voronoff (1866 – 1951) :

A French surgeon of Russian extraction who gained fame for his technique of grafting monkey testicle tissue onto the testicles of men for purportedly therapeutic purposes in the 1920s and 1930s. He also more generally transplanted glands from chimpanzees to humans.

While typing up notes for this post, I was reading the book Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us, by Jesse Bering (2013). The subject of grafting testicular monkey glands to human males came up in another context:

Leading the charge for this monkey-testicle cure for male homosexuality was a medical professor from the University of Madrid named Gregorio Maranon (…) in 1930, Maranon writes: “Several [physicians] have endeavored to combat homosexuality by replacing the testicles of the invert by those of a healthy man; or by grafting upon him the testicle of a monkey… with results that are favorable, though still subject to criticism.”

(Perv, page 212, footnote)

Maranon’s Wikipedia entry has no mention of monkey gland treatments, though he did specialize in endocrinology.

I don’t think Fowles was linking Conchis to the homosexual treatments, I just thought this was a strange enough blip in history to share with you.

[62] Reference:

Again and again I thought of it (…) during the weary hours of plodding through Eckersley’s purgatorial English Course.

(p.86 / r.p.90)


Charles Ewart Eckersley (1892 – 1967) was an English teacher best known for his book Essential English for Foreign Students. He began writing course books for students while working at the Polytechnic Boys’ School in Regent Street, London in the 1930s. Wikipedia doesn’t have much about him but there’s a nice bio here.

[63] Translation:

“And have you read L’Astree?”

“For my pains. Terrible bore.”

Oui, un peu fade. Mais pas tout a fait sans charmes.”

(p.88 / r.p.92)


French: Yes, a little bland. But not entirely without charm.

[64] Reference:

“Now. In your honor. Today I will play Rameau.”

(p.88 / r.p.92)


Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) was a French composer and music theorist of the Baroque era.

[65] Conchis gets the best one-liners of the book. Behold, a sampling:

“Greece is like a mirror. It makes you suffer. Then you learn.”

“To live alone?”

“To live. With {things are they} [what you] are.”

(p.95 / r.p.99)


“There comes a time in each life like a point of fulcrum. At that time you must accept yourself. It is not any more what you will become. It is what you are and always will be. You are too young to know this. You are still becoming. Not being.”

(p.105 / r.p.109)


“I do not want politeness. Politeness always conceals a refusal to face other kinds of reality.”

(p.106 / r.p.110)


“If a person is intelligent, then of course he is either an agnostic or an atheist. Just as he is a physical coward. They are automatic definitions of high intelligence.”

(p.106 / r.p.110)


“Duty {consists} largely [consists] of pretending that the trivial is critical.”

(p.109 / r.p.112)


“Sixteen is a bad age at which to know one will never be a genius.”

(p.110 / r.p.114)


“He was one of the most supremely stupid men I have ever met. He taught me a great deal.”

(p.117 / r.p.120)

[66] References:

“I should like to say that I recognized his genius. But I did not. No one did. Not even the clever Mr. Zbrorowski.”

“You knew him?”

“Modigliani? I met him. Many times. I knew Max Jacob, who was a friend of his. That was in the last {year} [phase] of his life. He was quite famous by then. One of the sights of Montparnasse.”

(p.89 / r.p.93)


Leopold Zborowski (1889 – 1932) was a Polish poet, writer and art dealer. He was Modigliani’s primary art dealer and friend during the artist’s final years.

Max Jacob (1876 – 1944) was a French poet, painter, writer and critic. Was a lifelong friend of Picasso, as well as friends with Jean Cocteau and Modigliani.

Montparnasse is an area of Paris on the left bank of the river Seine. Students in the 17th century nicknamed it after the Greek Mount Parnassus.

[67] References:

“Do you like this?” He touched the bronze of a young man beneath the Modigliani. “This is a maquette by Rodin.” (…) He turned to the other characteristically skeletal bronze. “And this is by {the Italian sculptor} Giacometti.”

(p.89 / r.p.93)



noun – a sculptor’s small preliminary model or sketch.

Alberto Giacometti (1901 – 1966) was a Swiss sculptor, painter, draughtsman and printmaker. His sculptures are elongated, thin, and intensely distinctive.

The town Giacometti was born in, Borgonovo, is in Switzerland, but very close to the Italian border. I’m not sure if it was part of Italy when he was born or if Conchis/Fowles made a slight mistake in the original version by saying Giacometti was Italian. (There is also a Borgonovo in Italy, which could add to confusion.)

[68] Reference:

I looked over his shoulder and saw Fra Angelico’s famous Annunciation; and at once knew why the colonnade outside had seemed so familiar. There was even the same white-edged floor of red tiles.

(p.91 / r.p.94)


Fra Angelico (born Guido di Pietro ~1395 – 1455) was an Early Italian Renaissance painter. His nickname means the “Angelic friar.”

The Annunciation is a fresco by Angelico in the Convent of San Marco in Florence, Italy, painted around 1450.

There are many references to pieces of art and paintings throughout The Magus (and all of Fowles’s work). These details are used to much better effect than the mythological references. You can still understand the book without having an image of the art in your head but if you have the patience to look photographs of these works up, it expands the experience of the book. Having such a vivid, visual idea of what Conchis’s house looks like is really incredible.

[69] Reference:

“My harpsichord is very rare. It is one of the original Pleyels.”

(p.91 / r.p.94)


Ignace Joseph Pleyel (1757 – 1831) was an Austrian-born French composer and piano builder of the Classical period. He founded piano manufacturing firm Pleyel et Cie (“Pleyel and Company”) in 1807. They provided pianos to Chopin. Pleyel pianos were the choice of composers such as Debussy, Saint-Saens, Ravel and Stravinsky.

[70] In my allegorical interpretation of The Magus, Nicholas is the Author and Conchis represents the Creation come alive. (Ironically, Conchis claims to be opposed to fiction, though he is the result of fiction and all of his power comes from it.) Conchis shows how the creation, once given life, controls the situation. The author (Nicholas) can try to exert influence, but once the story takes off it behaves on its own, sometimes in ways the creator can’t fathom and didn’t plan for.

“I have not a single novel here.”


“The novel is no longer an art form (…) The novel is dead. As dead as alchemy (…) I realized that one day before the war. Do you know what I did? I burnt every novel I possessed (…) I even burnt something I wrote myself when I was too young to know better (…) I have been happier and healthier ever since (…) Why should I struggle through hundreds of pages of fabrication to reach half a dozen very little truths?”

“For fun?”

“Fun!” He pounced on the word. “Words are for truth. For facts. Not fiction.”

(p.92 / r.p.96)

[71] Reference:

In {one} [a far] corner, {there was} a triangular cabinet full of pale-blue and green Isnik ware.

(p.93 / r.p.97)


Brilliantly colored pottery or tile originally made in Turkey from the 15th to 17th centuries.

[72] Reference:

Its tone was really set by its two paintings: both nudes, girls in sunlit interiors, pinks, reds, greens, honeys, ambers (…)

“You know him?” I shook my head. “Bonnard. He painted them both five or six years before he died.”

(p.93 / r.p.97)


Pierre Bonnard (1867 – 1947) was a French painter and printmaker, as well as a founding member of the Post-Impressionist group of avant-garde painters Les Nabis.

[73] Reference:

The young girl in the picture had a massed pile of light hair, and a sharp waist, and that plump-softness of skin and slightly heavy Gibson-girl handsomeness of feature that the age so much admired.

(p.94 / r.p.98)


Charles Dana Gibson (1867 – 1944) was an American graphic artist, best known for his creation of the Gibson Girl, an iconic representation of the beautiful and independent American woman at the turn of the 20th century. He contributed to Life magazine, which led to his becoming an editor, then the owner.

[74] References:

The ghost stories purported to be true (…). The list of contents – “Borley Rectory”, “The Isle of Man Polecat”, “No. 18 Dennington Road”, “The Man with the Limp.”

(p.97 / r.p.101)

The Isle of Man is in the Irish Seas between Great Britain and Ireland. I couldn’t find anything about a polecat haunting but did (on this site) find a story about apparitions of black dogs haunting the island’s Peel Castle. Also, I assumed a polecat was some sort of… well, cat, but it’s actually another word for skunk.

There is a Dennington Park Road in London, but I couldn’t find any stories of hauntings there.

The Man with the Limp” is too vague a ghost-story title to know what it could be referring to. Though there were two films with that title, one released in 1917 (part of the series, “Grant, Police Reporter”) and one in 1923 (part of the series “The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu.”)

[75] Reference:

I opened The Beauties of Nature. The nature was all female, and the beauty all pectoral.

(p.97 / r.p.101)

Not a real book. There is a book by John Lubbock called “The Beauties of Nature and the Wonders of the World We Live In” (1892), but it’s a proper nature book.

[76] Reference:

The crickets chirped monotonously, with a Webern-like inconsistency yet precision of rhythm.

(p.98 / r.p.101)


Anton Webern (1883 – 1945) was an Austrian composer and conductor. He was an exponent of atonality and twelve-tone technique.


He {quite definitely} frightened me. It was the kind of illogical fear of the supernatural that in others made me sneer.

(p.98 / r.p.102)

[78] References:

There was a rhyton in the form of a human head, a black-figure kylix on one side, and small red-figure amphora on the other.

(p.99 / r.p.103)


A rhyton is a roughly conical container from which fluids were intended to be drunk or to be poured in some ceremony. They are typically formed in the shape of an animal’s head, and were produced over large areas of ancient Eurasia.

A kylix is the most common type of wine-drinking cup in the pottery of ancient Greece. It has a broad, relatively shallow body raised on a stem from a foot and usually two horizontal handles disposed symmetrically.

An amphora is a type of container descending at least as early as the Neolithic Period. It has two expansive handles joining the shoulder of the body and a long neck. For the most part, it was tableware or sat close to the table.

[79] Vocabulary:

I looked closer at the clock. It was mounted in ormolu with an enameled face.

(p.100 / r.p.103)


noun – a gold-colored alloy of copper, zinc, and sometimes tin, cast into desired shapes and often gilded, used especially in the 18th century for decorating furniture and making ornaments.

[80] Reference:

Beneath the lid was enacted, in Boucheresque eighteenth-century terms, exactly the same scene as some ancient Greek had painted in the kylix.

(p.100 / r.p.104)


Francois Boucher (1703 – 1770) was a French painter, draughtsman and etcher. His Wikipedia entry has examples of nudes with cupids, sprawled out in forest clearings (which I think is what Fowles is going for).

Post 3/9


15 thoughts on ““The Magus” (Post 2/9)

  1. Φθεγγόμεθα θασσον is a line from Homer’s Odyssey, Book 10, 228. Roughly, Let’s call out to her, quickly. The witch Circe is soon to deprive the men of speech, so in a sense they are making noise that will soon lead to their own misfortune.


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