“The Magus” (Post 3/9)

Magus 03

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

“The Magus” Month – Introduction

[81] Translation:

Sas efcharistoume, Maria.” (…)

He poured a drop of ouzo into our glasses. We raised and clinked them.

Eis ’ygeia sas, Nicholas.”


(p.103 / r.p.107)



“Thank you, Maria.”

“In your health, Nicholas.” (In the context: “To your health.”)

It looks like the last line should be “S’ygeia,” which would mean, “Here’s to us/ To ours.”

[82] Reference:

The light flowed downwards, concentrated on the white cloth, and was then reflected up, lighting our faces strangely, Caravaggio fashion, against the surrounding darkness.

(p.103 / r.p.107)


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610) was an Italian painter. His paintings combine a realistic observation of the human state, both physical and emotional, with a dramatic use of lighting.

His work is amazing. Especially this one. (Warning: the word Beheading is in the title for a reason).

[83] Translation:

“Later in my life – ça sera pour un autre jour – birds led me into a very unusual experience.”

(p.110 / r.p.113)


French: it will be for another day

[84] Vocabulary:

“As I entered my fourth luster, it became evident that I was not going to fulfill my early promise.”

(p.110 / r.p.113)

As well as being a noun meaning “gentle sheen or soft glow,” luster is another term for lustrum:

noun – (historic, literary) – a period of five years.

Conchis is fancily saying, “As I turned sixteen.”

[85] Translation:

“Unkempt, but very green. {Ombreux.}”

(p.110 / r.p.114)


French: shadowy

[86] Reference:

“{Do you know that image} [There is a line] from Seferis – ‘The broken pomegranate is full of stars’? It was like that.”

(p.111 / r.p.114)


Giorgos Seferis (1900 – 1971) was a Greek poet-diplomat. The line quoted from Conchis is from one of his haikus.

This essay about the history of Haiku in Greece gives the full haiku as:

a naked woman

the broken pomegranate

was full of stars

[87] Reference:

“Through Bruneau he met Dolmetsch, who interested him in the recorder.”

(p.111 / r.p.115)


Bruneau is a character created for The Magus but Dolmetsch refers to Eugene Arnold Dolmetsch (1858 – 1940), a French-born musician and instrument maker who spent much of his working life in England.

[88] Vocabulary:

“I remember {so well} Lily playing her first solo on a flat-sounding descant recorder made by Dolmetsch.”

(p.111 / r.p.115)


noun – (music) – an independent treble melody usually sung or played above a basic melody.

verb – (literary) – talk tediously or at length

[89] References:

“We discovered a whole new continent of music. The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, Arbeau, Frescobaldi, Froberger – in those years people suddenly realized that there had been music before 1700.”

(p.111 / r.p.115)


The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book is a primary source of keyboard music from the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods in England. It takes its name from Viscount Fitzwilliam. At the time of the book the word virginals or virginal was used to denote virtually any keyboard instrument.

Thoinot Arbeau is the pen name of French cleric Jehan Tabourot (1519 – 1595) who is most famous for his Orchesographie, a study of late sixteenth-century French Renaissance social dance.

(This is a strange addition for Conchis/Fowles to include in this list; Arbeau’s work isn’t actual music, it’s a text about ballroom behavior and the interaction of musicians and dancers.)

Girolamo Alessandro Frescobaldi (1583 – 1643) was a musician from Ferrara. He was one of the most important composers of keyboard music in the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods.

Johann Jakob Froberger (1616 – 1667) was a German Baroque composer, keyboard virtuoso, and organist.

[90] Reference:

“I surreptitiously read certain books I found on his shelves. I saw La Vie Parisienne.”

(p.112 / r.p.116)


A French weekly magazine founded in Paris in 1863 and published until 1970. In the early 1900s it evolved into a mildly risqué erotic publication.

[91] References:

“Such a summer, that year – to hear Chaliapin in Prince Igor.”

(p.113 / r.p.116)


Feodor Ivanovich Chaliapin (1873 – 1938) was a Russian opera singer.

Prince Igor is an opera written and composed by Alexander Borodin. It recounts the campaign of Rus prince Igor Svyatoslavich against the invading Cuman tribes in 1185. London saw a production of the play in 1914, with Chaliapin as Galitsky.

[92] References (by this point, I feel like a real idiot for not knowing anything):

“It never crossed my mind that I might one day have to fight. Moltke, Bulow, Foch, Haig, French – the names meant nothing.”

(p.113 / r.p.117)

Conchis is speaking of the impending First World War. I’m using that context to pin down who is he referring to.

Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke (1848 – 1916) served as the Chief of the German General Staff from 1906 to 1914.

Bernhard von Bulow (1849 – 1929) was a German statesman who served as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs for three years and then as Chancellor of the German Empire from 1900 to 1909.

Ferdinand Foch (1851 – 1929) was a French general and Marshal of France, Great Britain and Poland and the Supreme Allied Commander during the final year of the First World War.

Douglas Haig (1861 – 1928) was a senior officer of the British Army. During the First World War he commanded the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front.

John French (1852 – 1925) was a senior British Army officer.

[93] References:

“But then came the somber coup d’archet of Mons and Le Cateau. That was totally new. The efficiency of the Germans, the horror stories about the Prussian Guards, the Belgian outrages, the black shock of the casualty lists. Kitchener. The Million Army. And then in September the battle of the Marne.”

(p.113 / r.p.117)


coup d’archet

noun – a stroke of the bow in violin playing

Battle of Mons (August 23, 1914) was the first major action of the British Expeditionary Force in the First World War. Took place in Mons, Belgium.

Battle of Le Cateau (August 26, 1914) was fought after the British and French retreated from Mons. Took place in Le Cateau-Cambresis, France.

Herbert Kitchener (1850 – 1916) was a senior British Army officer. He played a central role in the early part of the First World War. His image appeared on recruiting posters. He drowned when HMS Hampshire hit a German mine and sank west of the Orkey Islands, Scotland.

I can’t find the term The Million Army in direct reference to the First World War. I assume it was part of Britain’s recruiting campaign.

The First Battle of the Marne (September 5 – 12, 1914) resulted in an Allied victory against the German Army. Took place at the Marne River near Paris, France and set the stage for four years of trench warfare stalemate on the Western Front.

[94] Translation:

“I had not then heard the famous phrase. But this was le consentement fremissant a la guerre.”

(p.114 / r.p.117)


French: the quivering consent to war

[95] Reference:

“All the way she hummed (…) a song of the day.”

He paused, then half sung it:

We shall miss you, we shall kiss you,

But we think you ought to go.

(p.114 / r.p.118)

This song appears to be an invention of Conchis/Fowles but, interestingly, it’s used in a Call of Cthulu “Shadows of War” scenario book. The story the song is worked into is damn close to the one Conchis tells Nicholas. The entire campaign, Isle of Lost Souls, is based around names and events from The Magus (even taking place at Phraxos and Bourani). It’s a cool nod to the book in a totally unexpected place.

[96] Reference:

“With him it was the offensive a outrance – the headlong attack. Foch’s great contribution to the human race.”

(p.117 / r.p.121)


offensive a outrance

French: excessive offensive

See note [92] for Foch.

[97] Reference:

“The others were dupes of the reality of war, of the ultimate Totentanz.”

(p.118 / r.p.121)


German: Dance of the Dead

The French phrase Danse Macabre means the same thing and is more commonly used. Also, Franz Liszt composed a symphonic piece titled Totentanz.

[98] Reference:

“Montague, at the periscope, cried, ‘They’re up!’ And then – ‘The Boches are done for!’ ”

(p.119 / r.p.123)



noun – (dated, offensive) – German; especially a soldier.

It would be made plural as “The Boche,” not usually by adding an “s”.

[99] Vocabulary:

“Many of them were yellow with lyddite.”

(p.120 / r.p.123)


noun – Picric acid (a chemical compound). Yellow crystalline solid. Acidic. Explosive.

[100] A certain mentality appeared in post-Gulf War, pre-9/11 fiction (Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs and Generation X; Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, for starters): “Woe is me. I am a middle/upper-class white American male with no war to fight. Therefore, I can’t prove my manliness. Therefore, I have no identity or worth. Women don’t understand; without a place in history a man is aimlessly drifting.”

I don’t buy it and I can’t feel bad for characters who blame their ennui on the security of their life. People can be depressed for all sorts of reasons; just say that your character is depressed despite having what, on paper, looks like a good life. Don’t blame it on a lack of war/strife/not living in physical fear. If these characters were really looking for/needing a war, they could get off their ass and fight for a cause which would put them in a terrifying situation. And I bet they’d still be as depressed and dissatisfied at the end. If they survived.

Anyway, Conchis pretends to play into this myth with Nicholas (War is the only way a man can prove himself):

“I am going to explain to you why we went to war. Why mankind always goes to war. It is not social or political. It is not countries that go to war, but men. It is like salt. Once one has been to war, one has salt for the rest of one’s life. Do you understand?”

“Of course.”

(p.121 / r.p.124)


“A young man who will not risk his life even once is both a fool and a coward.”

(p.122 / r.p.125)

[101] After getting Nicholas to agree that all men need war, Conchis calls bullshit:

“The craving to risk death is our last great perversion.”

(p. 123 / r.p.126)


“Another means society employs to control hazard – to prevent a freedom of choice in its slaves – is to tell them that the past was nobler than the present.”



“What the lie was, I had too little knowledge of history or science to know then. I know now it was our believing that we were fulfilling some end, serving some plan – that all would come out well in the end, because there was some great plan over all. Instead of the reality. There is no plan. All is hazard. And the only thing that will preserve us is ourselves.”

(p.124 / r.p.129)

[104] Vocabulary:

“I accustomed myself to the mephitic stench.”

(p.125 / r.p.129)


adjective – (especially of a gas or vapor) foul-smelling; noxious.

[105] Translation:

“What I thought was fever was the fire of existence, the passion to exist. I know that now. A delirium vivens.”

(p.125 / r.p.129)


Latin: dream alive (A living delirium?)

[106] Conchis claims to hate fiction (see Post 2, Note [70]) but the autobiographical tales he tells Nicholas are fictions. He has no tragically dead fiancé in his past, no soldiering in World War I. So Conchis is saying, “Look how convincing I can be without ever living these things,” and in this way, he is the tale. He knows all, he manipulates people and situations, he travels through time (living in different eras as different people). He reveals truth to Nicholas by telling lies. Nicholas is the stand-in for Fowles; weaving a narrative from Conchis’s words and actions.

Conchis explains the power of the Author by stating:

“The human mind is more a universe than the universe itself.”

(p.126 / r.p.131)

[107] Translation:

“I caught the leave ship while he, poor man, was still snoring in a room above an estaminet near the station.”

(p.127 / r.p.131)


French: tavern

[108] Nicholas, thinking about Conchis in the revised version:

Calculating frankness is very different from the spontaneous variety; there was some fatal extra dimension in his objectivity, which was much more that of a novelist before a character than of even the oldest, most changed man before his own real past self. It was finally much more like biography than the autobiography it purported to be; patently more concealed lesson than true confession.


The original version of this section is very different, showing that, with his revision, Fowles was teasing out some of the allegorical aspects of his characters. And again, this original version of Nicholas is more humanly uncertain:

There was a kind of professionalism, an air of having rehearsed the narrative, or at any rate, of having told it before – to Leverrier and Mitford? – that took away a little from the frankness and impact of the confession. I knew that I must be getting close to his real purpose in inviting me. For some reason he wanted me to hear these things, to be impressed by them. They were not casual reminiscings.


[109] Reference:

I knew beyond doubt what was being sung up there. It was “Tipperary.”

(p.129 / r.p.133)


It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” is a British music hall song written by Jack Judge in 1912. (Originally called “It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary.”) It became popular among soldiers in the First World War and is remembered as a song of that war.


Someone was knocking at the door. Through the shadowy air of the open window, the burning sky. A fly crawled across the wall above the bed.

(p.131 / r.p.134)

[111] Vocabulary:

The dark figure on the raised white terrace; legate of the sun facing the sun; the most ancient royal power.

(p.132 / r.p.136)


noun – (1) a member of the clergy, especially a cardinal, representing the pope

(archaic) – an ambassador or messenger

            (2) a general or governor of an ancient Roman province, or their deputy.

[112] Conchis to Nicholas:

“I am not offended, Nicholas. I do not ask you to believe. All I ask you is to pretend to believe. {Just pretend to believe.} It will be easier.”

(p.133 / r.p.137)

[113] Another revision addition that alludes to literature and also shows Nicholas being a smarmy ass who’s way more hip to what’s going on than he should be:

In some obscure way, one I was to become very familiar with, it flattered me: I was too intelligent not to be already grasping the rules of the game we played. It was no good my knowing that old men have conned young ones like that ever since time began. I still fell for it, as one still falls for the oldest literary devices in the right hands and contexts.


[114] Reference:

I sat back against a pine {trunk} [stem] and became lost in the pamphlet. It contained the posthumous confessions and letters and prayers of a Robert Foulkes, vicar of Stanton Lacy in Shropshire. Although a scholar, and married with two sons, in 1677 he had got a young girl with child, and then murdered the child; for which he was condemned to death.

(p.136 / r.p.140)

Conchis invents several stories in this book but Foulkes is not one of them. This is a true story. Foulkes wrote a confession before his execution in 1679.

[115] Reference:

He wrote the fine muscular pre-Dryden English of the mid-seventeenth century.

(p.136 / r.p.140)


John Dryden (1631 – 1700) was an English poet, literary critic, translator, and playwright who was made England’s first Poet Laureate in 1668. He is seen as dominating the literary life of Restoration England to such a point that the period came to be known in literary circles as the Age of Dryden.

[116] Vocabulary:

But of the girl he denied that he had “attempted to vitiate her at Nine years old.”

(p.136 / r.p.140)


verb – (formal) – spoil or impair the quality of efficiency of.

[117] Reference:

I suddenly felt like Candide.



Candide, ou l’Optimisme is a French satire by Voltaire, first published in 1759. It begins with a young man, Candide, who is living a sheltered life and being indoctrinated with optimism by his mentor. After the dissolution of the lifestyle, the book follows Candide’s slow, painful disillusionment.

[118] Vocabulary:

“Perhaps he {thought} [considered] it more important to warn you against venery than venality.”

(p.141 / r.p.145)



adjective – showing or motivated by susceptibility to bribery.


“But you and I! We live, we are this wonderful age. We are not destroyed. We did not even destroy.”

“No man is an island.”

“Pah. Rubbish. Every one of us is an island. If it were not so we should go mad at once. Between these islands are ships, airplanes, telephones, {television} [wireless] – what you will. But they remain islands. Islands that can sink or disappear forever. You are an island that has not sunk. You cannot be such a pessimist. It is not possible.”

(p.142 / r.p.146)

[120] Reference:

It was a stone head (…) The nose had been broken short. The hair was done in a fillet, with two side-pieces. But the power of the fragment was in the face. It was set in a triumphant smile (…) The eyes were faintly oriental, long, and as I saw, for Conchis put a hand over the mouth, also smiling.


“It’s Cycladic, isn’t it?”

(p.142 / r.p.146)


Cycladic culture, located in Syros, and Keros, Greece, circa 3,200 B.C. – 2,000 B.C. The faces of their sculptures are rather beautiful; all smooth, all detail suggested.

[121] Vocabulary:

The little sunlit thing had some numen – or not so much a divinity, as a having known divinity.

(p.142 / r.p.147)


noun – the spirit or divine power presiding over a thing or place.

[122] Reference:

“I wonder if it would have that smile if it knew of Belsen.”

(p.143 / r.p.146)


The Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was located in Lower Saxony, Northern Germany and liberated in April 1945. The name “Belsen” became emblematic of Nazi crimes in general in public opinion.

[123] Translation:

“For the first time for a century woman discovered that men wanted something more human from them than a nun-like chastity, a bien pensant idealism.”

(p.144 / r.p.148)


French: good thinking

As a saying, bien pensant means “Right-thinking, orthodox, conformist”; “someone who accepts and/or espouses a fashionable idea after it has been established and maintains it without a great amount of critical thought.”

[124] Vocabulary:

He stopped speaking for a moment, like a man walking who comes to a brink; perhaps it was an artful pause, but it made the stars, the night, seem to wait, as if story, narration, history lay imbricated in the nature of things; and the cosmos was for the story, not the story for the cosmos.

(p.145 / r.p.149)



verb – (zoology, botany) – arrange (scales, sepals, plates, etc) so that they overlap like roof tiles.


“It is possible, even normal, to feel right in front of history and very wrong in front of those one loves.”

(p.147 / r.p.151)


“I walked back beside her, in silence. I said goodbye to her under a street lamp. By a garden full of lilac trees. We did not touch. Not a single word. Two young faces, suddenly old, facing each other. The moment that endures when all the other noises, objects, all that dull street, have sunk into dust and oblivion. Two white faces. The scent of lilac. And bottomless darkness.”

(p.148 / r.p.152)

[127] If I had to choose one passage in The Magus to exemplify Fowles’s style, it would be this one. Do you find the fragments irritating? The dialogue too dramatic? Then I’d tell you to stay away from him. But if you find something compelling, if you want to know more, then find a copy of The Collector and get started.

“The dead live.”

The blackness of the trees. I listened for footsteps, but none came. A suspension.

“How do they live?”

And yet again he let the silence come, as if the silence would answer my questions better than he could himself; but just when I had decided he would not answer, he spoke.

“By love.”

(p.149 / r.p.153)

[128] Fowles’s physical descriptions are lovely:

The eyes especially were beautiful; very large, their ovals faintly twisted, a cool doe’s eyes, almond eyes, giving a natural mystery to a face otherwise so regular that it risked perfection. {Perfectly beautiful faces are always boring.}

(p.151 / r.p.155)

[129] Vocabulary:

Half by desipience, half by proclivity, he had come to live in a world where the only significant leisure activities were coupling and consuming.

(p.156 / r.p.160)


noun – silliness, folly

[130] Vocabulary:

He was holding by its middle a cane with a meerschaum handle.

(p.157 / r.p.161)


noun – something (commonly a pipe) made from the mineral sepiolite. Meerschaum (German for foam of the sea) is sometimes found floating on the sea and suggestive of sea foam.

[131] This slight change is another example of changing Nicholas for the worse with very subtle alterations (see Post 1, Note [16]):


I suppose our accepting what we are must always inhibit our being what we ought to be.



No doubt our accepting what we are must always inhibit our being what we ought to be.


Usually, the rule in fiction is to choose the strongest, most efficient path. But in first person, where conversational tics give us personality, it is a much more human Nicholas who “supposes” rather than asserts (taking my agreement for granted) that there’s “no doubt” about something.

[132] Translation:

There was another book in French – a sumptuously produced limited edition: Le Masque Francais au Dix-huitieme Siecle.

(p.161 / r.p.165)


French: The French Mask of the Eighteenth Century

(This doesn’t appear to be a real book.)

Post 4/9

13 thoughts on ““The Magus” (Post 3/9)

  1. Another thing about phtheggometha thasson. Since Circe was a witch, the phrase later came to be used as an incantation to summon up magical forces, I think. Intere sting thread to follow up.

    Liked by 1 person

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