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.


Unknown 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.

Anonymous 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.

Anonymous 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

Anonymous 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."

"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.

Lorenzo said...

I think Fowles was being a bit self-deceptive when, in his introduction he states about his ending, ' its general intent has never seemed to me as obscure as some readers have evidently found it.' Here Fowles seems to be putting the onus of understanding, or misunderstanding, on the reader. But the original version's ending IS much more obscure than the revised version, and that bit of Latin doesnt clear anything up. The reader can easily read it as a final moral lesson that Fowles is proferring, but that is separate from what happens to Alison and Nicholas. For those readers who haven't read the original ending, I suggest they do for clarification of the ambiguity. There are two major changes: in the original's last scene, Nicholas is portrayed as a far more negative, even repulsive, person, with his interior thoughts imagining himself havi g violent sex with Alison, punishing her with his 'ramming' thrusts. For me, re-reading this ending after a forty-five year hiatus, it was a shocking revelation of how much Nicholas hadn't gained anything from the godgame. In the revised 1977 version Fowles ( perhaps from the recent rise of feminist studies into sexist male fiction ) wisely deleted this. The second, and more relevant change, is: in the last paragraph of the original, Nicholas starts walking away from Alison with his certitude in his own 'understanding' of freedom. The reader, thus, is left to pinder if Alison, after Nicholas hitting her, is going to follow him. In the revised version not only does Nicholas NOT walk away, but Fowles gives him the dialigue that wasnt in the original, telling Alison, 'You cant hate someone who's really on hos knees, who'll never be more than half a human being wihout you.' This bit of humaniizing is absent from the original, and implies that Nicholas has gai ed some understanding. The original version's ending was unsatisfying as well as ambiguous; Nicholas seems to have understood nothing. In the revised version, Fowles himself has seen into his own flaws in writing that ending, and satisfyingly humbled Nicholas just a tad.

Unknown said...

Thank you for the translation. I'm romantic enough to be pleased with this ending, even though Sweet Alison surely deserved better.

I loved this book! Anyone have any suggestions for more like it?

Nicholas said...

Alison did deserve better.

Unknown said...

I think the ending was perfect. All of us will agree that near the end of the novel, Nicholas had already started feeling a "Change".. Alison was blind to see it when she mentioned " I hope you'd change " ..That provoked the anger in Nicholas..After putting himself deliberately through all that..after so much waiting ( which ofcourse we all know he wouldn't have done before Bourani ) ..He gets to hear that? He was the one misjudged! The slap was on point.

Aliroo58 said...

These are helpful comments. I finished the book feeling Nicholas did not genuinely grow up. If anything, I feel he is too scared to have romantic relations with anyone other than Alison now, because he’s still paranoid that Maurice is messing with him. I feel he is settling for Alison, choosing her from a place of practicality, not desire/want. I never felt at any point throughout the book he truly WANTED Alison. He acknowledged settling down with Alison was likely the best choice for him. But she still isn’t what he wanted. In my opinion.

The original ending described above makes more sense to me. I truly wanted Alison to walk away from him. I’m choosing to believe this is what she does.

Similar books:

Andy said...

It is what it is. It's a story believe what you will or end uncertain. Still a cracking read

LadyKisa said...

I just finished listening to this story which is sadly often forgotten. Thanks for clearing up the ending, I feel much happier now :)