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John Fowles (Photo by Oliver Morris/Getty Images)

The second summering of a lost classic

Essay | 7 minute read
'The Magus' was an instant hit when it was published more than five decades ago but had since been forgotten or overlooked - until now when fevered praise of the novel is back. And not before time, argues one writer

You wait ages for a single newspaper mention of John Fowles’s 1965 novel, The Magus, and then three come along at once.

In the last few weeks, the Almeida Theatre’s artistic director Rupert Goold selected it in a round-up of summer reading; author Anthony Horowitz name-checked it in a travel piece about Spetses, the Greek island which inspired it; and the audio book was recommended in a literary guide to Greece.

This cluster of references in a short period of time represents a highly unusual spike in activity. Those of us who monitor these things are wondering if a literary reputation long dormant – indeed virtually extinct – is about to become active again. The Magus was an instant hit when it was published more than five decades ago. The expression ‘rave review’ might be overused but there’s no other way to describe the New York Times’s critic’s assessment:

The Magus is a stunner, magnificent in ambition, supple and gorgeous in execution. It fits no neat category; it is at once a pyrotechnical extravaganza, a wild, hilarious charade, a dynamo of suspense and horror, a profoundly serious probing into the nature of moral consciousness, a dizzying, electrifying chase through the labyrinth of the soul, an allegorical romance, a sophisticated account of modern love, a ghost story that will send shivers racing down the spine. Lush, compulsive, richly inventive, eerie, provocative, impossibly theatrical…’

A haunting fever dream of a book, it sold an astonishing four million copies within a decade and was part of an early body of work that saw the British writer acclaimed as a genius and a visionary. In 2015, Sotheby’s offered for sale Fowles’s own typescript of the revised version of the novel he produced eleven years after the first edition. The auction house expected the manuscript, with handwritten changes on almost every page and a foreword in which the author set out his refusal to explain the meaning of the book, to fetch up to £20,000.

It was a reasonable estimate given that Fowles in his heyday was viewed by many as the world’s greatest contemporary novelist in English. Yet it failed to sell. Keepers of the Fowles archive, held at the University of Texas, lacked the funds to buy it and no private collector was sufficiently interested to snap it up. To add imprint insult to auction-house injury, Fowles’s publisher was all but indifferent to the book’s fiftieth anniversary. There was no sumptuous new edition with specially commissioned cover artwork and an introduction from a leading literary luminary.

John Fowles (Photo by Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Getty)

Random House had no plans to mark the occasion beyond, its press department said, ‘hopefully having some activity on social media’. A couple of grudging tweets, then. If that. Note the ‘hopefully’. It was the same story in America where Fowles was at one time even more revered than in Britain. No plans.

It was so different once; Fowles’s books were taught in American universities. In one week in 1977 he earned half a million dollars: an advance for one of his novels and options for a film of another. Shortly before his death at the age of 79 in 2005, the Washington Post suggested that ‘a case can be made for John Fowles as the greatest living writer of suspense novels’.

The Magus still makes lists of the best novels of the twentieth century but it seems extraordinary that he now barely merits a mention on social media. Bob Goosmann, a book-dealer and Fowles expert who runs the website www.fowlesbooks.com, thinks he knows why. ‘Fowles has taken a hit with the literary establishment in recent years for several reasons. Firstly, he was never good at playing nice with reviewers and other people in the industry. Although he was actually a very kind and gentle man, he often came across as a cantankerous recluse. Most of the people in a position to write or talk about him today probably perceive him as that,’ says Goosmann.

‘Then, not long before his death, he allowed the publication of his complete diaries, and in them he pulled no punches. The reviewers seemed to delight in highlighting the few parts that reflected poorly on Fowles and his character. Finally, it’s fairly typical in the years immediately after a well-known author dies for there to be a negative shift as he recedes from the public consciousness.’

The author Christopher Priest believes that The Magus is ‘one of the finest and most influential novels of the last century’, and also thinks the journals were a mistake. ‘They revealed his naivety, narrow-mindedness, racial prejudices and attitudes to women,’ he says. ‘They are fascinating to read and for future biographers and students they are a goldmine of interesting material, but in terms of him being taken more seriously by his contemporaries, a PR cock-up.’

Although all of Fowles’s seven novels remain in print, Priest points out that his reputation rests largely on the first three. The Collector, published in 1963, is about a psychopath who abducts and holds prisoner a young woman, and it set the template for a whole genre of crime fiction. The French Lieutenant’s Woman, an experimental postmodern historical novel published in 1969, was another huge critical and commercial success. But it was The Magus that cast the most powerful spell over readers.

Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman (Photo by Hulton/Getty)

It is ostensibly the story of Nicholas Urfe, an arrogant and callous young Englishman bored by teaching at a school on a Greek island. When he chances upon the villa of reclusive millionaire Maurice Conchis, he is drawn into a series of increasingly elaborate and bewildering masquerades which leave him doubting his own sanity.

Fowles always insisted the novel was not autobiographical but in the early 1950s he had taught at a school on the Greek island of Spetses where, one day, he chanced upon a remote villa and befriended its charismatic owner (a man named Petros Botassis – his granddaughter now rents out the house).

Also during this period, he fell in love with the wife of a colleague: the woman he later married. It is not difficult to imagine that this experience would have informed some of the sexual drama of The Magus. Its pungent blend of Shakespearean allusion, mythological symbolism, Tarot, mysticism and psychoanalysis chimed with the 1960s countercultural zeitgeist but its appeal was wide and enduring.

Michael Caine and Candice Bergen on the set of The Magus, 1967 (Photo by Terry O’Neill/Iconic Images/Getty)

Priest says it ‘glued me to a chair for an entire weekend and overall had a profound impact on me, both as a reader and as a young writer’. Nick Hornby ‘read it in eighteen hours straight, with an open mouth’. Sebastian Faulks cites it as one of the books that has most influenced his own writing. Julie Walters said she would take it to Radio 4’s Desert Island; it is Judi Dench’s favourite novel; and Woody Allen felt so let down by the deeply disappointing 1968 film version starring Michael Caine, Anthony Quinn and Candice Bergen, that he once remarked: ‘If I had to live my life again, I’d do everything the same except that I wouldn’t see The Magus‘. (The Magus’s influence on a far better film, David Fincher’s The Game, is clear but unacknowledged. Fowles apparently considered legal action.)

Its only other dramatisation – as an atmospheric three-part Radio 4 play in 2016 – was rather more successful. The writer Adrian Hodges, best known for his screenplay of the film My Week With Marilyn, leapt at the chance of adapting it and bringing it to a new audience. ‘I can remember vividly the first time I read it,’ he says. ‘I was 15 and on holiday in Eastbourne. I drove my mum round the bend because I didn’t want to go out or do anything until I had finished it. It took me three days. It’s a very, very special book to me and I’m staggered when I meet people who don’t know it at all.’

As Goosmann says, many readers became ‘absolutely obsessed’ with it. I can still vividly recall the dizzying, vertiginous sensation of my first reading, caused by a revelation towards the end of the story. When I talk to Hodges, he references the same plot point.

‘It got me hook, line and sinker,’ he says. ‘I never saw it coming – I was so consumed by the narrative. Fowles was such an extraordinary storyteller.’ I bought a new copy of the book three years ago to mark the fiftieth anniversary. The woman behind the counter in Waterstones nodded approvingly. ‘We sell a couple of these a week,’ she said. ‘People usually say they’re buying it because someone else has told them they really must read it.’

Priest believes it is ripe for rediscovery. Goosmann agrees. ‘I strongly believe there will be a re-evaluation by critics in the coming years,’ he says.

And now, three newspaper references in the space of a few weeks. That is a measurable disturbance in the force… perhaps not unrelated to the fact that The Magus is an ideal read for a long, sultry summer.