Playing the Godgame in Greece: Book Review of John Fowles’ “The Magus”

Happily nestled between spot 92 and 94 on the Modern Library’s list of 100 Best Novels, The Magus by John Fowles is a disorienting psychological thriller detailing the misadventures of Nicholas Urfe and his time in Greece.

The Magus, Fowles

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Urfe—a pressurized caricature for everything British and mid-20th century—is a hyper-logical, fantastic flop of an Oxford-educated poet, whose cynicism and insensitivity force him into a teaching post on the Greek island of Phraxos. There he falls headlong into the psychedelic web of Maurice Conchis, a reticent and inscrutable millionaire who may – or may not – have aided the Nazis during WWII and, via something he calls the “godgame,” maliciously tampers with Urfe’s psyche.

Fowles infuses the chapters with personal warnings about the futility of cynicism and the desperate human need for intimacy and romantic bonding, as well at what happens when those relationships are unexpectedly deleted from our lives. Fowles manages to touch on what seems like the whole of human experience–love, pain, loss, failure, elation, depression, war, fatalism, what have you. Among its ubiquitous cultural satires is a thoughtful and poignant analysis of Freudian psychology, done in the most outlandish and extreme way possible.

“Should I Read This Book?”: I recommend this book to anyone who thinks they can stomach it’s length, verbosity, and occasional pretentiousness; but doubly so to those who are interested at all by the ethics of psychology, existentialist and cynic philosophy, and of course, post-modernist literature.

However, to those who enjoy unambiguous prose and straight-forward, single interpretation conclusions to their novels: stay far, far away from The Magus. You could, with equal textual evidence to support your claim, classify The Magus as a book about romance, war, science, or the nature of existence (I think it’s a combination of all four);  you could also explain the ending of the book in two fundamentally opposing ways–again, with convincing and ample evidence to bolster both.

Analysis (SPOILERS): From the onset of the book, I had a lurking premonition that Fowles was somehow making fun of Urfe. The godgame later confirmed my hunch. Nicholas Urfe thought himself a handsome and alert young man, with an intellect sharp enough to discern true from false and keen enough to see through other people’s surreptitious plans. Conchis happily exploits this arrogance by giving Urfe the love of his life, Lily, who quickly becomes one of Urfe’s sexual and emotional ‘conquests’.

Conchis waits until Nicholas is frothing from the mouth with desire and love and virile impulsion, then he rips Lily away in the most grotesque manner imaginable. Conchis convinces Nicholas that he is a cutting-edge psychologist/psychiatrist and that Lily is a schizophrenic patient of his; Conchis makes Urfe believe that the love of his previous life (Alison) back in the UK is dead—again, all in the name of science! After countless permutations of this sort of deception, Urfe STILL maintains that his mind is sound and his logic is true—Fowles’ remark on the irony of being overly-logical. The godgame culminates in the horrific yacht scene, where Urfe is held captive and forced to listen to a shattering Freudian/Pavlovian analysis of his psychology, which Fowles clearly intends to be correct.

In addition to the godgame being Fowles’ way of mocking Urfe, it was also a testament to the power of behaviorist psychology, and our knee-jerk reaction to dismiss it as bunk. Throughout the novel, Urfe scoffs at any and all explanations of his psyche, only to realize at the end that everything Conchis predicted would happen or has happened–thus confirming the Skinner/Freud/Pavlov interpretation of the mind to be correct.

In conclusion, The Magus is an incredible tour-de-force of the human mind under duress and confusion. My analysis doesn’t even scrape the surface of the novel’s genius and hidden meanings. So go read it, and live the Greek adventure!

Leo Kozachkov (Staff Writer, Rutgers University)
Leo KovachkovLeo Kozachkov is an undergraduate at Rutgers University, studying physics and mathematics. He is currently working as an Aresty Research Assistant under Professor Thomas V. Papathomas. He enjoys writing, drawing, creating/playing music, going on long walks with his beloved dog, and reading/hoarding books.His grandest hopes are to discover a new physical law, have a mathematical theorem feature his last name, and to write many books.

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