John Fowles Fowles, John (Vol. 2)

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Fowles, John (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Fowles, John 1926–

Fowles, a highly competent British novelist, is the author of The Collector and The French Lieutenant's Woman. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

[John Fowles'] The Magus is a shrewd and lively, brilliantly visualized, continuously provoking and entertaining novel; above all, a prodigy of ingenuity. In plot and structure it is an immense charade, organized from within the novel by "the Magus," Maurice Conchis, a Greek multi-millionaire who seems, ultimately, to have suborned the world in the service of his "godgame." Whatever "happens" to Nicholas Urfe, a young Englishman teaching in a school on a small Greek island, turns out to have been planned by Conchis, with a precise and ineluctable calculation of "hazard" that deprives Nicholas of any power except, if he will take it, the power to understand. Mr. Fowles' contrivance of astonishing "events" (everything here requires hedges of quotation marks to set off its deliberate choreographic strangeness), his skill at conjuring up stagefuls of unexpected appearances, is unapologetic and inexhaustible. Many of the special charades within the grand one are [also] impressive….

The Magus may well be, when it sticks to its job of mystification, one of the best "mystery stories" ever written, and unlike most such it is most of its length no soporific or insult but an incitement to consciousness. Mr. Fowles won't, however, be content with his machinery and its often dazzling effects, or the customary normalizing disclosures at the end. He wants much more; his Aristos-avatar is bursting with judgments of the modern world (we are instructed, for instance, that the Nazis were inhuman and mad, though some Germans were not)….

Marvin Mudrick, in Hudson Review, Summer, 1966, pp. 305-07.

"The French Lieutenant's Woman" is immensely interesting, attractive and human.

Fowles had already demonstrated his expert command of the traditional resources of the English novelist: from paying an initiated deference to the weather and decorating the literary landscape with flora and fauna whose names range over the intimidatingly scientific and the folksy-whimsical, to knowing how many of the solid continuities of English life are underpinned by one simple law—never let people ask why they are being punished.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, though, Fowles wasn't a Little Englander. Both the way he saw the world and the way he presented it flaunted, not his ignorance, but his knowledge of the postwar philosophical and literary scene. One's only doubt was how much he meant it all. Was there any deeper commitment than a currently fashionable nastiness behind the trapped isolation of the protagonists in "The Collector" or the mind-blowing manipulations of "The Magus"? "The French Lieutenant's Woman" largely exorcises this doubt: it is both richly English and convincingly existential.

Ian Watt, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 9, 1969, pp. 1, 74-5.

An ambitious and accomplished example of the [mythic] mode is John Fowles's The Magus, published in 1966. This is a long and elaborate fiction set on the Greek island of Phraxos, where a rather caddish young Englishman called Nicholas Urfe has gone to teach in a boys' school. He gets into the clutches of a sinister, elderly Greek, Conchis, and a succession of appalling things happen to him. Fowles writes with stylistic brilliance, and there are some fine descriptive passages. But the whole novel is not much more than a highly inventive series of fantastic or cruel episodes, comprising such varied elements as black magic, occultism, brainwashing techniques, lush Mediterranean travelogues, forgery, flagellation, Nazi atrocities, voyeurism, hypnotism, battle scenes, fin de siècle naughtiness, and venereal disease. The mixture is too rich, and as the novel develops the mystification gets more and more involved; Fowles likes tormenting the reader as well as the characters,...

(The entire section is 1,656 words.)