“The Magus” (Post 9/9)

Magus 09

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

“The Magus” Month – Introduction


“I happened – stupidly, I grant you – to fall in love with one of them.”

“As an unscrupulous collector falls in love with a painting he wants. And will do anything to get.”

(p.552 / r.p.601)

Fowles’s first published book (but written after The Magus) was The Collector. It has a similar theme to Nicholas’s “love” story with Lily/Julie: a man falls in love with a woman based on her looks. He assumes he understands her personality and emotions and believes she will also love him. In The Collector, the man goes so far as to kidnap the woman. When she doesn’t act exactly as he imagined (and doesn’t magically fall in love with him), he grows to resent her, yet won’t release her because, ultimately, she is still nothing more than a possession to him.

[398] Reference:

“A girl with as much morality as a worn-out whore from the Place Pigalle.”

(p.551 / r.p.601)


The Place Pigalle is a public square in Paris. The place takes its name from the sculptor Jean-Baptiste Pigalle. The square and the surrounding streets were, at the end of the 19th century, a neighborhood of painters’ studios and literary cafes.


“If Maurice were here he would tell you that sex is perhaps a greater, but in no way a different, pleasure from any other. He would tell you that it is only one part – and not the essential part – in {a} [the] relationship we call love. He would tell you that the essential part is truth, the trust two people build between their minds. Their souls. What you will. That the real infidelity is the one that hides the sexual infidelity. Because the one thing that must never come between two people who have offered each other love is a lie.”

(p.553 / r.p.603)

[400] Vocabulary:

In another minute there was no letter; but, as with every other relationship in my life, {pounded ashes.} [an eschar of ashes. The word is rare, but exact.]

(p.559 / r.p.609)


noun – (medicine) – a dry, dark scab or falling away of dead skin, typically caused by a burn, or by the bite of a mite, or as a result of anthrax infection.

[401] Reference:

“Called me a Nazi, actually.”

“A Nazi!”

“One of the things we were rowing about was Mosley.”

“You’re not a-”

“Of course not, old boy. Good God.” He laughed, then flicked a look at me. “But let’s face it, not all Mosley says is rot.”

(p.563 / r.p.612)


Oswald Mosley (1896 – 1980) was a British politician known principally as the founder of the British Union of Fascists. He moved abroad in 1951, spending most of the remainder of his life in France.

His Wikipedia page has an interesting and unusual section: “In alternative history film and literature.” It seems in all those alternate reality/“Hitler won the war” scenarios, Mosley often becomes Prime Minister of England.

[402] Vocabulary:

“You must have been furious.”

Was slightly chokka. Yes.”

(p.565 / r.p.614)

From the context, I assumed “chokka” meant angry, but this blog entry suggests it means “chock-full,” or “full-up.” So you could say you have to miss the party because you’re chokka or, in this case, you’re chokka with fury.

[403] References:

“You know what Xan – Xan Fielding – used to do to any new chaps who were ‘chuted in when we were up in the Levka Ore?”

(p.566 / r.p.615)


Alexander Fielding (1918 – 1991) was a British author, translator, journalist and traveler who served as a Special Operations agent during World War II.

I could only find one reference to the Levka Ore. From James D Bourchier’s article “The Stronghold of the Sphakiotes” in The Fortnightly Review, Volume 54 (published 1890):

I looked from the bridge of a small Greek steamboat across the Cretan sea, to where a chain of snow-clad peaks rose glistening against the deep azure of the southern sky. Before us towered the splendid mass of the Levka Ore – the “White Mountains” – for centuries the home of liberty and the stronghold of a free and warlike race.

Googling “Greece White Mountains” shows that this mountain range is more commonly spelled “Lefka Ori” in English.

The Lefka Ori had a rich history as a hiding place for rebels during the German Occupation (1941 – 1945).

[404] References:

She was splaying great worms of viridian green with her thumb across murky black and umber explosions of Ripolin.

(p.567 / r.p.617)


A brand of paint.

[405] Reference:

He saw some of the sewing girls at work through an open door. Two or three of them whistled. He waved to them. “Isn’t that nice? Reminds me of Thomas Hood.”

(p.568 / r.p.618)


Tom Hood (1799 – 1845) was an English poet, author and humorist. From his poem, “The Song of the Shirt”:

With fingers worn and weary

With eyelids heavy and red,

A woman sat in unwomanly rage,

Plying her needle and thread –

Stitch! Stitch! Stitch!

In poverty, hunger, and dirt,

And still with a voice of dolorous pitch

She sang ‘The Song of the Shirt!’


He had a relaxed way about him that seemed inculcated by education, by reading some book on How To Be At Ease With Strangers, rather than by any intuitive gift.

(p.569 / r.p.619)

[407] We are nearing the end of the book and Nicholas hasn’t changed much. Which is fine; people don’t always change. But it’s something of a letdown on your first reading, when you really want this character to become a decent non-misogynist and you realize that he’s still mostly him.

And again, the subtle changes to the revision make Nicholas a colder, snootier man.

He produced a wallet and handed me a photo. A {prettyish} black-haired girl smiled rather intensely out at me. She had too small a mouth; {I thought} I detected the ghostly beginnings of the mask of the bitch-goddess Ambition.

(p.570 / r.p.620)

[408] Reference:

“They’ve discovered what he believes to be the foundations of a Mycenean palace.”

(p.571 / r.p.621)


Mycenaen (both versions of The Magus misspell this) Greece was the last phase of the Bronze Age in Ancient Greece (c.1600 – 1100 BC).


“An answer is always a form of death.”

(p.577 / r.p.626)

[410] Reference:

I watched her covertly for a moment, then I said, “I used to think of a story with your daughter, and I think of it even more with you.” She smiled, a little uncertainly. “It’s probably not true, but it’s about Marie Antoinette and a butcher. The butcher led a mob into the palace at Versailles. He had a cleaver in his hand and he was shouting that he was going to cut Marie Antoinette’s throat. The mob killed the guards and the butcher forced the door of the royal apartments. At last he rushed into her bedroom. She was alone. Standing by a window. There was no one else there. The butcher with a clever in his hand and the queen.”

“What happened?”

I caught sight of a taxi going in the wrong direction and waved to the driver to turn.

“He fell on his knees and burst into tears.”

She was silent for a moment.

“Poor butcher.”

“I believe that’s exactly what Marie Antoinette said.”

She watched the taxi turn.

“Doesn’t everything depend {on the tone of voice? And who was the butcher crying for?} [on who the butcher was crying for?]”

I looked away from her {intelligent} eyes. “No, I don’t think so.”

(p.579 / r.p.630)

If Fowles didn’t make this fable up, then it’s not a well-known one; I can’t find any stories about Marie Antoinette and a crying butcher. Fowles may have heard it as a story with another female figure and type of workman and shifted it to Marie Antoinette. I’d be interested if anyone knows anything more about this.

[411] Translation:

She had set herself on the queen’s side; or perhaps, truer to her role, and sunt lacrimae rerum, on no side.



Latin: there are tears

The phrase can be translated to mean that things feel sorrow for the sufferings of humanity: the universe feels our main. Others translate the passage to show that the burden human beings have to bear is what defines the essence of human suffering.

[412] Vocabulary:

There were dragons enough in the forest, from the farded old bags in the doorways of Greek Street to the equally pickupable but more appetizing “models” and demidebs of the King’s Road.

(p.581 / r.p.632)



noun – (archaic) – facial cosmetics.

verb – (used with object) – to apply cosmetics to (the face).

[413] Reference:

I went late one afternoon to see an old Rene Clair. I sat without thinking next to a humped-up shape and watched the film – the immortal Italian Straw Hat.

(p.583 / r.p.634)


The Italian Straw Hat (Un chapeau de paille d’Italie) is a 1928 French silent film comedy written and directed by Rene Clair, in his feature debut.

[414] Reference:

“An air of such solitary sloppiness that I saw in her (…) someone worthy of a modern Mayhew.”

(p.584 / r.p.634)

This seems to be a reference to a painter/artist, but the only Mayhew I could find who would have been known in the fifties (and would have “modern” work at that time) is Nell Brooker Mayhew (1876 – 1940). She painted landscapes and I suppose someone could think of them as “sloppy,” but I’m not certain I have the right Mayhew here.

[415] Vocabulary:

Jojo was a strange creature, as douce as rain.

(p.585 / r.p.636)


adjective – (Scottish) – sober, gentle, and sedate.

[416] The saving grace of the last section of this book is Jojo, a Scottish teen who Nicholas befriends and spends time with in a platonic way. Nicholas grows more during these ten pages than from anything that happened to him with Conchis. He’s almost likeable.

Nicholas is most interesting when describing Alison or Jojo or any of the side characters other than Lily/Julie. This proves Fowles’s point in a weird way, though, doesn’t it? Even we can see that Nicholas is at his worst with Lily/Julie.

Often we sat for hours at the same table reading magazines and newspapers and never exchanging a word. After seven days I felt I had known her for seven years.

(p.585 / r.p.636)

[417] Vocabulary:

We drove down to Stonehenge and walked around the looming menhirs.

(p.585 / r.p.636)



noun – (archaeology) – a tall upright stone of a kind erected in prehistoric times in western Europe.

[418] Reference:

Light from outside distorted the shadows round her figure, isolated her face, so that she looked like a Munch lithograph. Jealousy; or Envy; or Innocence.

(p.587 / r.p.638)


Edvard Munch (best known for The Scream, 1893) also made lithographs, some with names like Love, Anxiety, Death. They’re fantastic.

[419] Reference:

“You just want to keep your beautiful Sassenach coddies clean.”

(p.588 / r.p.639)


(Scottish, Irish; derogatory)

noun – an English person

verb – English


There were minutes of silence then and in {it} [them] I thought about {pain, about hurting people. It was} the only truth that mattered, {it was} the only morality that mattered, the only sin, the only crime. {Once again, I had committed the one unforgivable: I had hurt an innocent person.} (…)

Thou shalt not inflict [unnecessary] pain.

(p.590 / r.p.641)

[421] References:

So there I was, between the Scylla of Lily de Seitas and the Charybdis of Kemp; bound to be sucked down.

(p.594 / r.p.644)


In Greek mythology, Scylla was a monster that lived on one side of a narrow channel of water, opposite its counterpart Charybdis. The two sides of the straight were within an arrow’s range of each other – so close that sailors attempting to avoid Charybdis would pass too close to Scylla and vice versa. Later myth gave Scylla an origin story as a beautiful nymph who gets turned into a monster; and made Charybdis the daughter of Poseidon and Gaia, living as a loyal servant to Poseidon.


The smallest hope, a bare continuing to exist, is enough for the antihero’s future; leave him, says our age, leave him where mankind is in its history, at a crossroads, in a dilemma, with all to lose and only more of the same to win; let him survive, but give him no direction, no reward; because we too are waiting, in our solitary room where the telephone never rings, waiting for this girl, this truth, this crystal of humanity, this reality lost through imagination, to return; and to say she returns is a lie.

But the maze has no center. An ending is no more than a point in sequence, a snip of the cutting shears. Benedick kissed Beatrice at last; but ten years later? And Elsinore, that following spring?

So ten more days. But what happened in the following years {is} [shall be] silence; {is} another mystery.

(p. 595 / r.p.645)

[423] Reference:

The colors softened by the imperceptible mist of autumn, as simple and pleasing in its way as a Boudin beachscape.

(p.596 / r.p.646)


Eugene Louis Boudin (1824 – 1898) was one of the first French landscape painters to paint outdoors. His specialty was marine subjects.

[424] Translation:

Her manes all drank coffee.

(p.596 / r.p.646)


noun – (in Roman mythology) the deified souls of dead ancestors.

[425] Vocabulary:

Jojo had passed it to me wrapped in a toffeepaper, her pawky joke, one evening in a cinema.

(p.599 / r.p.650)


adjective – (British) – having or showing a sly sense of humor.


[426] Even if Fowles intends for Alison and Nicholas to end up together, I don’t want them to. I can’t imagine them building trust again. Alison deserves better; Nicholas hasn’t changed enough to be satisfied or honest with her. She’d be expected to forever repent and show gratitude. Whenever he wanted to hurt her, he’d dig it all up again – himself always the victim. They both need to find a mate with no connection to Conchis’s game.

I wish Alison would have stuck with this thought instead of giving Nicholas any further chance:

“Oh, you’re nice now. You’re nice now. So bloody nice. For a week, for a month. And then we’d start again.”

(p.602 / r.p.652)

[427] And here are the troubles. These are Nicholas’s thoughts in the closing pages as he looks at Alison:

I stood there at her shoulder, with my meanest expression. It was not a difficult part to play. That bruised face, very near tears, but not in tears. I thought, I will get her on a bed and I will ram her. I will ram her and ram her, the cat will fall and fall, till she is full of me, possessed by me. And I thought, Christ help her if she tries to shield herself with the accursed wall of rubber. If she tries to put anything between my vengeance and her punishment. Christ help her.


Fowles might say, “It’s the heat of the moment and I am brave enough to show this character thinking what any young warm-blooded man would actually be thinking in this situation,” but I don’t buy it. It’s a disgusting unjustifiable passage for any protagonist.

Thankfully, Fowles made the right choice in the revision by taking this paragraph out. Though Nicholas still slaps Alison in the face as hard as he can in both versions.

[428] This cements note [426]. As a reader, I’m hoping for Alison to walk away from Nicholas. He’s still more concerned with himself than anyone else. He’s setting this groundwork so if he leaves for a more exciting prospect, he can say, “It’s not like I didn’t warn you.”

“If Lily walked down that path behind us and beckoned to me, I would follow. I think I would follow. The fact that I don’t know is what I want you to remember. And while you’re at it, remember that she isn’t one girl but a type of encounter. And the world’s full of that sort of encounter.”


Revised (Fowles realized he needed to shift the tone of this final scene if he wanted the audience to be at all behind Nicholas and Alison reuniting):

“If Lily walked down that path behind us and beckoned to me… I don’t know. The fact that I don’t know and probably never shall is what I want you to remember. And while you’re at it, remember she isn’t one girl, but a type of encounter.”


After six hundred pages of a revised, colder Nicholas, this isn’t enough to make a relationship between Alison and Nicholas is in any way healthy or to be encouraged. See also:

I do not know why I did what happened next. It was neither intended nor instinctive, it was neither in cold blood nor in hot; but yet it seemed, once committed, a necessary act; no breaking of the commandment. My arm flicked out and slapped her left cheek as hard as it could. The blow caught her completely by surprise, nearly knocked her off balance, and her eyes blinked with the shock; then very slowly she put her left hand to the cheek. We stared wildly at each other for a long moment, in a kind of terror.


He inflicted pain, you see (breaking his “commandment” of note [420]), but it’s all right – it was “necessary”. What the hell. I give up.

In the original Nicholas also slaps Alison but he tells her it is to fool Conchis, if he is watching. Still a nasty move but at least it makes some sort of sense.

[429] The final paragraph of the original:

I gave her bowed head one last stare, then I was walking. Firmer than Orpheus, as firm as Alison herself, that other day of parting, not once looking back. The autumn grass, the autumn sky. People. A blackbird, poor fool, singing out the season from the willows by the lake. A flight of gray pigeons over the houses. Fragments of freedom, an anagram made flesh. And somewhere the stinging smell of burning leaves.


We understand: Nicholas walks away without looking back because he loves Alison. He now understands the love she was speaking of (Post 2, note [41]) and the anagram puzzle she told him (Post 5, note [196]).

The end of the revision is extended and spells things out so much that it feels like cheating:

“Then why wouldn’t you let me walk away?”

She shook her abruptly lowered head, as if the question was unfair.

“You know why.”


“I knew within two seconds of seeing you.” I went closer. Her other hand went up to her face, as if I might hit her again. “I understand that word now, Alison. Your word.” Still she waited, face hidden in her hands, like someone being told of a tragic loss. “You can’t hate someone who’s really on his knees. Who’ll never be more than half a human being without you.”

The bowed head, the buried face.

She is silent, she will never speak, never forgive, never reach a hand, never leave this frozen present tense. All waits, suspended. Suspend the autumn trees, the autumn sky, anonymous people. A blackbird, poor fool, signs out of the season from the willows by the lake. A flight of pigeons over the houses; fragments of freedom, hazard, an anagram made flesh. And somewhere the stinging smell of burning leaves.


Nicholas hasn’t earned the right to say any of this and we lose the elegance of the original ending.

The last paragraph of the revision is amazing, though. The book tells us it is a book; it understands the power and limits of the written word. The story can never continue, the question will never be answered because the book is over.

[430] The last page (in both versions) has two lines in Latin, translated and explained on Fowles’s site as:

“Let those love now who’ve never loved; let those who’ve loved, love again.”

…which gives weight to the interpretation that Nicholas and Alison will reunite. In the Forward, Fowles explains why he changed the ending in the revision:

Though its general intent has never seemed to me as obscure as some readers have evidently found it – perhaps because they have not given due weight to the two lines from the Pervigilium Veneris that close the book – I accept that I might have declared a preferred aftermath less ambiguously… and now have done so.


I still don’t understand the orchestration of The Magus: who knows what, who’s doing what, how things were planned and why. But I still love this book. I believe in the characters’ existence, despite their flaws. I believe in their world, despite its perplexing corners, and I always regret leaving when the experience is over. That’s exactly the type of reading experience I hope for every time I open a book.

The Magus is a combination of dream, allegory, and whatever you bring to it. You can reach a meditative state with this one – don’t think too hard on the first reading, just let it wash over you.

For anyone curious about Fowles, start with The Collector. It’s a swift read with a straightforward plot but is just as immersive as The Magus (though, man… be careful of The Collector if you’re not prepared to walk around in a depressed, existential haze for a couple of days).

This Friday: Stephen King’s Pet Sematary.


6 thoughts on ““The Magus” (Post 9/9)

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