Book review: The Magus / John Fowles (1966)

I saw a number of readers on the web named this the best novel they had ever read, so I thought I better try it.

Great story, a contemporary classic, which grabbed me right away. The first 50 pages is probably my favourite part of the book. In my opinion a book that can recapture your desire for reading. An excellent twentysomething novel full of colourful characters and surprises. A bestseller when it was initially released.

This is the most recent addition into my current top 10 novels, I read it over the summer, it’s a long read of over 600 pages. But then again so is Harry Potter.

Suitable for vacation time, the story is like taking a journey to a foreign country, most of the plot takes place on a remote Greek island, 8 hours south of Athens. Author Fowles has created a world I looked forward to immerse myself into and savour. I really felt like I had been to the island, even though it was obviously only in my mind I had travelled.

The book begins in the UK. Set in 1953, the richly described protagonist is 25-year-old English teacher Nicolas Urfe. He is emotionally detached, struggling to find his place in life both in terms of his work, and relationships. He is unsure if he wants to continue teaching. Without giving too much away, on his trip to a Greek island he befriends Maurice Conchis, a mysterious recluse, who is likewise vividly described. Conchis becomes a mentor figure and shapes Nicolas in a way he couldn’t have predicted.

A story about the opposite sex and the difficulties of growing into an adult. But also about secrets, psychological games, manipulation, seduction, trust, the difference between truth and illusion, and the dark side of human nature. Much like the main character Nicolas, the reader must try to interpret what is real and what is not, which is half the fun.

A quote from page 477:
“Wasn’t going to buy it. You weren’t really expected to. She gave me another quick smile. If you can imagine playing chess, but not to win...merely to see what moves the other person makes”
If you are unaware of the term, a magus is a sorcerer or magician. I never felt the novel was written 50 years ago, I felt it has aged remarkably well. John Fowles himself wrote the story based on personal experiences of teaching at a boarding school on a Greek island in 1952-53, which is probably why the novel felt so personal.

The 1968 movie version was poorly received and Fowles himself was unhappy with the result. Maybe one of those books which is un-filmable and consequently works better as a novel.

It probably inspired the movies Sleuth (1972) and The man with the golden gun (1974), which I really like, although The Magus is streets ahead of both in my mind in terms of plot twists. I will never forget The Magus. Unlike anything I have ever read before, a hypnotic read, very original. Knowledge of literary references and Greek mythology is helpful, but not essential.

It’s in "1001 books you must read before you die", and so it should be. Highly recommended. 9/10. The only reason I'm not giving it 10/10 is because the book could have been shorter with some better editing.

Readers, any thoughts?


  1. Just have to say that I absolutely LOVE the Magus - i found your blog because I just finished watching "After Hours" and wanted to see if anyone had compared it to The Magus - though you didn't mention them in the same context, I find your site very interesting.

    Regarding The Magus - this was a hard book to keep to myself while I was reading it. I kept wanting to share bits of it with everyone, quotes, passages, anything - it's really beautiful, definitely startling. I kept telling everyone they had to read it.
    After finishing it myself, however, I realized how the book would be sort of cheapened if it were totally mainstream and adored by all the people who would adore it if they'd read it (i don't think anyone has neutral or mixed feelings on this book). Anyway, now I think of it as something I want to keep to myself, and maybe share with a few special friends.

    Nevertheless, did you see any similarities between "The Magus" and "After Hours"?

    I like your blog, will try to follow and will definitely bookmark (some people still use bookmarks?)

  2. Also: Another book I am in the process of reading and totally love but already know I would NOT recommend to everyone: The Piano Teacher, by Elfriede Jelinek.

    If you aren't up for reading it, Michael Haneke made a french film of it a few years back, under that title - The Piano Teacher (or "La Pianiste"). Check that out, too. The book's great so far but Isabelle Huppert's acting is still some of the best I've seen.

    Hope all is well.

  3. Thanks for following my blog, glad you enjoy it. Appreciate your thoughts on The Magus, and the recommendations. Haven’t yet seen "The piano teacher"

    I think people with mixed feelings probably didn’t care for the main character. Or perhaps were turned off by 600+pages, or maybe that everything is not what it seems got on their nerves. Also, some were confused by the open-ended last part.
    I have seen on the web there is a love it or hate it kind of feeling towards Fowles’ book. But there’s always someone who liked or disliked something, I feel I need to look at the broader opinion on goodreads/librarything/amazon/etc, before I pick up a novel.

    I see what you mean about "After Hours" and "The Magus" being similar. Both are set in a surreal enviroment that confuses, but is seductive. Never made the connection before you brought it up. I’ll keep that in mind when I revisit After hours.
    If you like this kind of story, I recommend you try the movie Sleuth (1972), the recent remake with Jude Law is crap BTW.

    I’ll be reviewing more of my favourite books (from the sidepanel), so stay tuned. Hope you keep visiting and commenting in future ( : Do you have a blog yourself?

  4. This review has definitely got me interested in this book. Thanks for the rec, Chris!

    1. @Jaina: If you read the book, let me know what you thought!

    2. I will do! I'm a bit of a slow reader (easily distracted by my tablet at times!) but this is the next book on my list after I'm done with The Lies of Locke Lamora.


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