Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The End of The Magus

In an odd coincidence, on Saturday, the day I finished reading The Magus, its author John Fowles died. The New York Times obituary can be found here. The Magus is the only book of Fowles's that I have read, and my hat is off to him for writing a book of great interest, great influence, and sustained moral seriousness — although his ultimate viewpoint on life is not one that I share. (Another odd feature is the rare link from a major news outlet to "Ralph" via Fowles's passing.)

I find it interesting that many people find the ending of the book frustratingly obscure or deliberately ambivalent. (Caution: Spoilers ahead.) The Times review says:
And in "The Magus," the story of a young Englishman who gets caught up in the frightening dramatic fantasies of a strangely powerful man on an Aegean island, he again wrote an ending of self-conscious ambiguity, leaving the hero's future an open puzzle that readers are challenged to solve for themselves.
Well, as much as one hates to disagree with the New York Times, I did not find the ending all that ambiguous. In terms of plot (though not of metaphysics or of morals) the biggest question is: Will Nicholas and Allison get back together? When they meet, at the end of the book, that is the issue before them. Although no explicit resolution is given, Fowles gives a rather broad hint, by ending with a famous quote from an ancient Latin poem, the Perevigilium Veneris:

cras amet qui numquam amavit
quique amavit cras amet

I would translate this, rather literally, as "tomorrow let him love who never yet loved / and may whoever has loved love again tomorrow." The Loeb edition has "To-morrow shall be love for the loveless, and for the lover tomorrow shall be love." Finally, Eugene Ehrlich in Amo Amas Amat and More, translates as follows:

May he love tomorrow who has never loved before;
And may he who has loved, love tomorrow as well.

In terms of the plot, this seems pretty clear to me. "The one who has never loved" is Nicholas, who is basically a selfish jerk, who, by the end of the novel, is learning what it means to love; while "the one who has loved" (quique amavit) is Allison, who (with all her many faults) has loved Nicholas better than he deserved. Surely the implication is that they both will finally find mutual love and together have a future (cras)?

Have people found the resolution ambiguous because they were unable to read Latin? In fact, in the foreword to the revised edition of The Magus, Fowles suggests as much, saying that the "general intent [of the ending] 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 Perevigilium Veneris that close the book ..."

In my opinion, then, the "deliberate ambiguity" is just not there (or is less than usually supposed), and this leads me to see Fowles as a somewhat more traditional storyteller (at least in this case) than others saw him, and perhaps than he saw himself. But it is clear, in any case, that the world has lost a thoughtful and thought-provoking artist.

10 comments:

Pilgrim at First and Lake said...

This is now the second time in as many days that mention is made of The Magus (... the prior one was in Robert Nozick's Philosophical Explanations.)

I'll have to find myself a copy.

Anonymous said...

I literally just finished reading the book right now (2:40 am) and now knowing what the translation of the last lines of the book mean i couldn't agree more...

Alex said...

I just finished the book myself, literally five minutes ago. Indeed, in consideration of the ending lines in Latin, the future would seem to be clear. Heartening that there are still readers of books like these,

Alex said...

That is to say, the future for Alison and Nicholas, of course.

Hannah said...

Aha! Thanks for the translation. Was thoroughly confused but now I get it! Glad it's an optimistic ending!

Anonymous said...

I'm not so sure about all of this. I read the Magus in one sitting on a 32 hour bus ride, and when I reached the end, I initially misread the present subjunctive amet as a future indicative (an embarrassing mistake for a Latin teacher). Yet it seems to me that it would *need* to be a future indicative to support the unambiguous reading that you guys have been giving it. As a future indicative, it would simply say that they will love. As a subjunctive, though, it expresses a wish -- may they love. To me, the subjunctive combined with the previous paragraph ("she is still standing...") make the ending deliberately ambiguous in terms of its plot. The ambiguity of plot might make it truer in other ways, though.

Anonymous said...

i agree with the ambiguity

also, you need to understand one thing about the latin. sorry, i can't let this slide.

quique is masculine. it cannot refer to alison. it would have to be quaeque. it refers to alex.

the decision about whether alex loves or has ever loved alison is being brought into question here as well.

fowles himself is on record as giving the narrative BOTH an "optimistic" AND "pessimistic" interpretation.

decide yourselves - that's the point.

lipitor said...
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twee said...

I've also just finished the book, i think that whether they get back together is irrelevant. It's more about them both (I assume both from latin at the end) being able to experience and appreciate love and its mysteries, freedom, etc. whether together or with other partners

Kidrites said...

I argue that it is not possible to exclude with certainty that while their love may continue to exist in some metaphysical, eternal place, they are forever separated through the respective tenses assigned to them by Fowles:

Alison: "She is silent, she will never speak, never forgive, never reach a hand, never leave this frozen PRESENT tense."

Nicholas:
"TOMORROW let him love who never yet loved / and may whoever has loved love again TOMORROW"

... meaning that with this newfound ability to love and to recognize it for what it is, he will find it, but in his TOMORROW, away from the shattered crystal she would not, could not, resurrect.

Altogether, I commend Fowles as a master of his craft, and indeed think that part of his ingenuity lies in his ability to place the agency for meaning on the reader. In this vein I tend not to decide so much as entertain every possibility-- not just what I would sentimentally wish to be true.