“The Magus” (Post 5/9)

Magus 05

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

“The Magus” Month – Introduction

[180] Vocabulary:

Demetriades (…) began being obscene, dreadful stock Greek facetiae about tomatoes and cucumbers.

(p.231 / r.p.242)


noun – (dated) – pornographic literature.

(archaic) – humorous or witty sayings.

How much time has to pass for the dictionary to move something from “dated” to “archaic”? I’ve never seen both listed in definitions for the same word.

[181] Translation:

He said more or less the same as Conchis. “Il avait toujours l’air un peu triste, il ne s’est jamais habitue a la vie ici.”

(p.231 / r.p.243)


French: He still looked a little sad, he never got used to life here.

[182] Vocabulary:

The saffron dress, the buskins and the silver bow.

(p.232 / r.p.243)


noun – a knee- or calf-length boot made of leather or cloth which laces closed but is open across the toes.

[183] Translation:

I {set out for my faute de mieux} [embarked for my lack of a better].

(p.232 / r.p.244)


French: for lack of anything better


Alison could stand for past and present reality in the outer world.


There’s no “could”; reality is exactly what Alison stands for.

[185] Translation:

Toujours the done thing.”

(p.235 / r.p.247)


French: always

[186] Reference:

It was Greece again, the Alexandrian Greece of Cavafy.

(p.237 / r.p.249)


Constantine P. Cavafy (1863 – 1933) was a Greek poet, journalist and civil servant. He drew his themes from personal experience, along with a deep and wide knowledge of history, especially of the Hellenistic era.

[187] Reference:

Bars, multilingual neon signs, photos of strippers and belly dancers, sailors in lounging groups, glimpses through bead curtains of Lautrec-like interiors.

(p.238 / r.p.250)


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864 – 1901) was a French painter, printmaker, draughtsman and illustrator. He was known for elegant and provocative images of the modern, sometimes decadent, life of late 19th century France.

Embarrassingly, my knowledge of de Toulouse comes from John Leguizamo playing a highly fictionalized version of him in Moulin Rouge.

[188] Reference:

“Well, there’s Parnassus. Apparently, it’s a very easy climb.”

(p.239 / r.p.251)


Mount Parnassus is a mountain of limestone in central Greece. Sacred to some figures in Greek mythology.


“I could even cry because we keep [on] using each other’s names.”

“Shouldn’t we?”

“We never did. We were so close we didn’t have to.”

(p.240 / r.p.252)

[190] Reference:

Everything interested Alison – the people, the country, the bits in my 1909 Baedeker about the places we passed.

(p.240 / r.p.252)


Verlag Karl Baedeker (founded 1827) is a German publisher and pioneer in the business of worldwide travel guides.

[191] Vocabulary:

A vernally cool wind blew.

(p.244 / r.p.256)



adjective – of, in, or appropriate to spring.

[192] Vocabulary:

The refuge (…) was tucked away above the tree line in a goyal.

(p.245 / r.p.257)


noun – a ravine or other depression.

[193] Vocabulary:

At the top of it we came to a col.

(p.246 / r.p.257)


noun – the lowest point on a mountain ridge between two peaks. It may also be called a notch, a gap or a saddle.

[194] Vocabulary:

The clouds thinned, were perfused by oblique sunlight.

(p.246 / r.p.257)



verb – permeate or suffuse (something) with a liquid, color, quality, etc.

(medicine) – supply (an organ, tissue, or body) with a fluid, typically treated blood or a blood substitute, by circulating it through blood vessels or other natural channels.

[195] Reference:

“What was that Sartre play we say?”

Huis Clos.”

“This is Huis even closer.”

(p.250 / r.p.262)


Huis Clos is the French title for No Exit (translated from French, it means “behind closed doors”). Alison is making a joke with the sound of the words, not the literal meaning (which is: “This is doors even closer”).

No Exit is an amazing play and an apt reference for Alison to make. In the play, three people (a man and two women) are trapped in hell, two of them attracted to the one they cannot have. It contains one of my favorite quotes: “You are your life, and nothing else.”

[196] Alison speaking to Nicholas:

“That reminds me. A crossword clue. I saw it months ago. Ready?” I nodded. “ ‘[She’s] All mixed up, but the better part of Nicholas’… six letters.”

I worked it out, smiled at her.

(p.254 / r.p.266)

Our answer, of course is Alison (the letters of her name are contained in the name “Nicholas”). Clever. Did Fowles choose their names for this connection or was it a happy accident? Alison’s name is later revealed to have more significance, in its Latin translation and as a name of a flower (Post 8, note [373]).

Sometimes in writing, you plan these symbolic touches ahead of time. But what’s fascinating is when it rises on its own. You name your characters, give them backgrounds and find, down the road, some coincidence to play with. That’s the greatest feeling. It gives the sense of excavating rather than creating.

[197] Translation:

“I mean England’s impossible, it becomes more honi soit qui smelly pants every day, it’s a graveyard.”

(p.256 / r.p.267)


The beginning of an Anglo-Norman maxim, Honi soit qui mal y pense, meaning “Shame on whosoever would think badly of it,” or “May he be shamed who thinks badly of it.” The saying’s most famous use is as the motto of British chivalric Order of the Garter, the third most prestigious honor in England and the UK.

Alison is implying uptight, proper social constraint.

[198] Vocabulary:

There was a little cliff with a shallow cave, outside which some shepherd had pleached an arbor of fir-branches.

(p.256 / r.p.268)



verb – entwine or interlace (tree branches) to form a hedge or provide cover for an outdoor walkway.

[199] Some authors get so hung up on descriptions of nature that they neglect their characters (I will never read The Lord of the Rings again because of this), but Fowles is amazing at giving swift, vivid descriptions of the setting and linking it to his characters’ thoughts and feelings. They all exist together.

The water was jade green, melted snow, and it made my heart jolt with shock when I plunged beside her. And yet it was beautiful, the shadow of the trees, the sunlight on the glade, the white roar of the little fall, the iciness, the solitude, the laughing, the nakedness; moments one knows only death {can} [will] obliterate.

(p.257 / r.p.268)

[200] Reference:

“I’m Queen of the May.”

(p.257 / r.p.268)


Another term for May Queen (all right, that’s obvious), a personification of the May Day holiday. In festivals, the May Queen is a girl who must ride or walk at the front of a parade for May Day celebrations. She is generally crowned with flowers (which is what Alison has done in the scene where she announces this).

[201] Reference:

She did not know it, but it was at first for me an intensely literary moment. I could place it exactly: England’s Helicon.

(p.257 / r.p.268)


An anthology of Elizabethan pastoral poems first published in 1600. The most celebrated poem is Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.”

I think the Marlowe poem is the one Nicholas is thinking of:

Come live with me and be my love,

And we will all the pleasures prove,

That Valleys, groves, hills and fields,

Woods, or steepy mountain yields



And we did make love; not sex, but love; though sex would have been {so much} [far] wiser.

(p.258 / r.p.269)


I had chosen the worst of all possible moments to be honest, and like most people who have spent much of their adult life being emotionally dishonest, I overcalculated the sympathy a final being honest would bring.

(p.258 / r.p.269)

[204] Another fantastic touch by Fowles teetering on the edge of metafiction (which he would explore so well in The French Lieutenant’s Woman and The Maggot). This is our narrator, Nicholas, speaking at nearly the halfway point of the book he exists in:

“This experience. It’s like being halfway through a book. I can’t just throw it in the dustbin.”

(p.261 / r.p.273)

[205] Alison (mostly) comes across as a modern and intelligent young woman. She calls Nicholas out; she sees through and recognizes his bullshit. But she is still Fowles’s creation and it’s strange to watch him call himself out through her. He’s aware of his own faults and he lets Alison be the mouthpiece.

My issue with Alison (because of course there’s one) is: Why does she like Nicholas? Why is she drawn to him, other than his looks?

Here are some arguments between the two after Nicholas tells Alison about Conchis and Lily/Julie (and Alison is so completely, utterly in the right):

“If I met this girl tomorrow, okay, I could say, I love Alison, Alison loves me, nothing doing. But I met her a fortnight ago. And I’ve got to meet her again.”

“And you don’t love Alison.”

{I looked at her, trying to show her that, in my fashion…} She stared away. “Or you love me till you see a better bit of tail.”

(p.259 / r.p.271)


“Holy Jesus, don’t you talk of twisting. You can’t even tell a simple fact straight.”

I looked round at her. “Meaning [what]?”

“All that mystery balls. You think I fall for that? There’s some girl on your island and you want to lay her. That’s all. But of course that’s nasty, that’s crude. So you tart it up. As usual. Tart it up so it makes you seem the innocent one, the great intellectual who must have his experience. Always both ways. Always cake and eat it.”

(p.263 / r.p.274)

[206] Vocabulary:

Down in the street monotonous Macedonian folk-music skirled from some café loudspeaker.

(p.261 / r.p.273)



verb – (of bagpipes) make a shrill, wailing sound.

[207] Reference:

I recognized {Conchis’s almost copperplate writing} [the handwriting at once].

(p.268 / r.p.279)


A style of calligraphic writing. Often misused as an umbrella term for all forms of pointed pen calligraphy.

[208] Conchis:

“Never think of your mind as a castle. It is an engine room.”


[209] Conchis continues the lie of Julie as mental patient for much longer in the revision:

“Always remember that one side of her split mentality (…) has a great deal of experience of making fools of doctors whose technique is to humor ad absurdum.”


Julie also wears modern clothing in front of Nicholas sooner in the revised than the original (in the revised, on page 284, Nicholas gathers that “Lily’s dead”). 

The revised version drags the back-and-forth of Nicholas receiving conflicting information for far too long. It’s irritating, especially once you know that Conchis and Lily/Julie are on the same side and the whole thing is orchestrated to teach Nicholas a basic lesson: Don’t be an asshole when it comes to love. The original is more tolerable for not dwelling on this ultimately useless area for so damn long.

[210] The same scene, the same beats and similar rhythms, but greatly altered. In this case, I can’t see why and I have no real preference for either version. (Original on left side; revised on right. Shared lines in the middle.)

“Nicholas calls himself an agnostic. But then he went on to say that he does not care.”

{She switched her eyes back to me.}      [She raised her eyes politely at me.]

{“Why do you not care?”                                                 [“No?”]                                                             We had returned to uncontracted forms.}

“More important things.”

{“Is anything more important?”}          [She touched the small spoon in the saucer                                                                                       beside her cup. “I should have thought nothing                                                                              was more important.”]

{“Practically everything, I should         [“Than one’s attitude to what one will never                                           have thought.”}             know? It seems to me a waste of time.”]

(p.276 / r.p.295)


“I think she knows, as all {intelligent} [true] women do, that all profound definitions of God are essentially definitions of the mother. Of giving things. Sometimes the strangest gifts. Because the religious instinct is really the instinct to define whatever gives each situation.”

(p.277 / r.p.296)

[212] References:

“I had even begun a small scientific correspondence with men like Dr. Van Oort of Leiden, the American A.A. Saunders, the Alexanders in England.”

(p.277 / r.p.297)


Eduard Daniel van Oort (1876 – 1933) was a Dutch ornithologist.

A.A. Saunders does not have a Wikipedia entry, but looking up “A.A. Saunders ornithologist,” brings up articles like 1924’s “The Study of Bird Sounds.” In the article “100 Years Ago in the American Ornithologists’ Union” by Kimberly G. Smith his name is given as Aretas A. Saunders (1884 – 1970) and his work with bird song is described.

Brothers Christopher James Alexander (1887 – 1917), Wilfred Backhouse Alexander (1885 – 1965), and Horace Gundry Alexander (1889 – 1989) were English ornithologists.

[213] Speech is never perfect in writing. If fiction writers wrote dialogue exactly as it’s spoken, it would be ridiculous, redundant, and boring. But certain authors (including Fowles at his best) manage to catch a rhythm of speaking that feels more real than reality.

“I had fallen in love with it. Above all, with its silences. The evenings. Such peace. Sounds like the splash of a duck landing on the water, the scream of an osprey, came across miles with a clarity that was first incredible – and then mysterious because, like a cry in an empty house, it seemed to make the silence, the peace, more intense. Almost as if sounds were there to distinguish the silence and not the reverse.”

(p.279 / r.p.299)


“After a silence, he said, ‘I think we are all insane here.’ ”

(p.280 / r.p.300)

[215] Vocabulary:

“Seidevarre was a Lapp name, and meant ‘hill of the holy stone’, the dolmen.”

(p.281 / r.p.300)


A type of single-chamber megalithic tomb, usually consisting of three or more upright stones supporting a large flat horizontal capstone.

[216] Translation:

“Especially since, by a surcroit de malheur, he was almost blind.”

(p.282 / r.p.301)


French: addition of misfortune

[217] Reference:

“She had fine eyes. Euripidean eyes, as hard and dark as obsidian.”

(p.282 / r.p.301)


Euripides (~480 – 406 BC) was a tragedian of classical Athens.

[218] Reference:

“I felt sorry for the children too. Brought up, like bacilli in a test tube, on a culture of such pure Strindbergian melancholia.”

(p.282 / r.p.301)


August Strindberg (1849 – 1912) was a Swedish playwright, novelist, poet, essayist and painter. Author of Miss Julie.

[219] Reference:

“Henrik was a Jansenist, he believed in a divine cruelty.”

(p.283 / r.p.302)


Christian theological movement, primarily in France, that emphasized original sin, human depravity, the necessity of divine grace, and predestination. The movement originated from the posthumously published work of the Dutch theologian Cornelius Jansen, who died in 1638.


“He could not see the objective truth, that destiny is hazard: nothing is unjust to all, though many things may be unjust to each.”

(p.283 / r.p.302)

[221] Reference:

“The other was an echo of the same text in the Aprocrypha. Here. From Esdras.”

(p.284 / r.p.304)


A Greco-Latin variation of the name of the scribe Ezra. 2 Esdras is the name of an apocalyptic book in many English versions of the Bible.

[222] Reference:

“These texts reminded me of Montaigne. You know he had forty-two proverbs and quotations painted across the beams of his study roof.”

(p.284 / r.p.304)

Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592) was one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance, known for popularizing the essay as a literary genre.

Of interest in connection to The Magus, one of Montaigne’s most famous declarations was: “I am myself the matter of my book.”

[223] Reference:

“But there was none of the sanity of Montaigne in Henrik. More the intensity of Pascal’s famous Memorial – those two crucial hours in his life that he could afterwards describe only by one word: feu.”

(p.284 / r.p.304)

Wikipedia lists the following as “dubious”:

Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662) had an intense religious vision on November 23, 1654 between the hours of 10:30 and 12:30 at night (what Conchis is referring to as “those two crucial hours”). Pascal recorded the experience in a brief note to himself, then sewed the note into his coat, always transferring it between clothing until his death, when a servant happened to find it. This note is now known as The Memorial. (Apparently, the religious vision was prompted by a carriage accident, which seems to be the “dubious” or disputed part of this story.)


French: fire

[224] Reference:

“Sometimes rooms seem to imbibe the spirit of the people who have lived in them – think of Savonarola’s cell in Florence.”

(p.284 / r.p.304)


Girolamo Savonarola (1452 – 1498) was an Italian Dominican friar and preacher active in Renaissance Florence. When popular opinion turned against him, he was imprisoned. Under torture, Savonarola said he had invented his visions and prophecies. He was hanged and burned in the main square of Florence in 1498. In his prison cell, he composed meditations on Psalms 51 and 31. His cell can still be visited.

[225] Vocabulary:

“And what eyes! They were slightly exophthalmic, of the most startling cold blue.”

(p.285 / r.p.304)


adjective – (medicine) – having or characterized by protruding eyes.


“Living is an eternal wanting more, in the coarsest grocer and in the sublimest mystic.”

(p.289 / r.p.309)


“You never went back there?”

“Sometimes to return is a vulgarity.”

“But you must have been curious to know how it all ended?”

“Not at all. Perhaps one day, Nicholas, you will have an experience that means a great deal to you.” I could hear no irony in his voice, but it was implicit. “You will then realize what I mean when I say that some experiences so possess you that the one thing you cannot tolerate is the thought of their not being in some way forever present.”

(p.290 / r.p.310)

[228] Conchis:

“Death starves us of life. So we learn to fabricate our own immortalities.”


[229] Conchis:

“I am suggesting nothing. There was no connection between the events. No connection is possible. Or rather, I am the connection, I am whatever meaning the coincidence has.”

(p.291 / r.p.311)

[230] I love this sentence. There’s not much to it but the rhythm and structure are satisfaction.

I ran up the steep slope, stumbled once, then stood.

(p.294 / r.p.314)

[231] This bit, which makes Nicholas vulnerable instead of just lustful, is regrettably cut from the revised version:

I was hopelessly in love with her. I had wanted other girls. Alison. But for the first time in my life I wanted desperately to be wanted in return.


Fowles must have known what he was doing to Nicholas’s character. But I can’t figure out why he wanted to make an already difficult character downright despicable. He doesn’t explain or acknowledge these changes to Nicholas in the Forward to the revision. My best theory is that his disdain for his younger self influenced the revised edit. Any warm or sympathetic feeling he had for Nicholas was gone.

The titular lead of Fowles’s later novel, Daniel Martin (published 1977, the same year as The Magus‘ revision) has some extreme resemblances to Nicholas – the revised version of Nicholas. (Fowles would even acknowledge: “Daniel is a grown-up Nicholas Urfe.”)

He may have been so entrenched in the character of Daniel Martin while working on revising The Magus that he (consciously or unconsciously) altered Nicholas to truly become a younger version of Daniel.

[232] Reference:

It was so neat a modulation into the world of Beaumarchais, of Restoration comedy.

(p.295 / r.p.314)


Pierre Beaumarchais (1732 – 1799) was a French… everything. Watchmaker, inventor, playwright, musician, diplomat, spy, publisher, horticulturist, arms dealer, satirist, financier, and revolutionary. He is probably best known for his theatrical works, especially the three Figaro plays (The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro and The Guilty Mother).


The height the dupe has fallen is measured by his anger.

(p.295 / r.p.314)

[234] Vocabulary:

Her face had, under the soubrette part she was playing, the same intelligence as Lily’s.



noun – a minor female role in a comedy, typically that of a pert maidservant.

[235] Lily/Julie’s twin sister, Rose/June, enters the book on page 293 in the original edition (page 314 of the revision). Since she begins with a lie (pretending to be Lily/Julie), Nicholas assumes everything she says is false. First time readers will likely follow suit. A satisfying thing about rereading The Magus is noticing the places where Nicholas is given the truth and still refuses it:

“We’re all three English, yes? The only three English people in this fantastic place. And my sister and I are soft of… well, committed to making a fool of you by our contracts-”



“Nothing here happens by chance. It’s all planned in advance (…) Including my meeting you. But not what we’ve said (…) Or only some of what we’ve said.”


In the revised edition, Rose/June is only ever known to Nicholas as June. Fowles also makes her more consistently deceitful. The above passages don’t appear; she settles for the much coyer: “We really are just two English girls who’ve got themselves into such deep waters these two months that…” (r.p.317; she makes a similar statement on page 299 of the original)

These head games between Nicholas and the twins are tedious. There’s no payoff to stretching out Nicholas’s sense of disorientation. You feel as though you’re watching Fowles spin his wheels as he tries to figure out what to do next. This is the main reason I would recommend the original (which cuts down on this nonsense a little) to a first time reader; I think you’re much more likely to finish the damn thing and not toss it aside in frustration.

[236] Vocabulary:

Force majeure.”



noun – (1) unforeseeable circumstances that prevent someone from fulfilling a contract.

(2) irresistible compulsion or greater force.

From the Latin meaning “superior force.” Also known as “chance occurrence, unavoidable accident.” A common clause in contracts that essentially frees both parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties (war, act of God, etc.) occurs.

[237] Translation:

Elle est fachee.”



French: she is angry.

[238] Halfway through the original, we finally get the twins’ alternate identities (Rose as June and Lily as Julie):

Lily smiled faintly, and said, “Oh June. Stop it.”

I looked quickly at the girl beside me.


She gave a dip of acknowledgement. I glanced back at Lily. Rose-June said, “That’s my twin sister Julie.”


[239] Translation:

“I’m not de trop by any chance?”



adjective – not wanted; unwelcome.

Post 6/9


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