Novels Reminiscent of the Magus

Reading The Magus is a powerful experience for many of us, and one that can be repeated several times over a period of years (it’s fun to discover exciting new aspects of the novel during subsequent readings). Another way to further the connection one may have to Fowles’ masterpiece is to seek out other novels that have a similar “flavor.”

To that end, readers are invited to e-mail the title and author of one or two novels they believe fall into this category, along with a brief description of why. Contact us at Magusbooks -at- hotmail -dot- com if you’d like to participate, and please include your name, city and country. I’ll start it off with three novels that I think fit the bill.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992). Tartt’s best-selling debut novel features a young Nicholas-like protagonist (confused, aimless) caught up in a mystery with a sinister group of Greek scholars at a New England university. Like Fowles, Tartt is excellent at weaving classical themes and metaphors into an exciting plot.

In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien (1994). A deeply disturbing mystery about the disappearance of a failed politician’s wife. The tone of the story, O’Brien’s excellent writing and the ending are all reminiscent of The Magus.

The Lost Domain (Le Grand Meaulnes) by Alain-Fournier (1913). This novel–the only one ever written by the author, who died on a French battlefield in 1914–reminds one of The Magus for good reason. Fowles himself has stated that he wrote The Magus “very much under the influence” of The Lost Domain. This was Fowles’ favorite book growing up, and the parallels between the two books are obvious. The 1986 edition includes an afterword by Fowles.

Submitted by Rick Thompson of Sydney, Australia:
The Chymical Wedding by Lindsey Clarke (1989). Quite like The Magus in tone, spirituality and strange things happening. Quite different as a book, but leaves a similar taste.

Submitted by Mark Dollar, a professor at King College in Bristol, Tennessee:
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon (1966). Like The Magus, this involves a young, mostly well-adjusted protagonist (here, Oedipa Maas) who suddenly finds herself in an absurd new world. She goes on a quest to understand Pierce Inverarity, an enigmatic industrialist who seems to want to control her, and she constantly runs across occult symbols for an underground cell of revolutionaries. As in Fowles’ novel, the clues are usually dead ends and the reader ends up feeling just as bewildered as the protagonist. Both novels also contain several sly literary allusions to Greek myth and drama from the English renaissance.

Submitted by Gary Brooks of Berkshire, England:
The Diary of a Drug Fiend by Aleister Crowley (1922). A novel by a real life magus, the story of which concerns a young couple who are captivated by the personality of the enigmatic King Lamus, who invites them to holiday at his Abbey. Filled with many abstractions of meaning, this book is very similar in both tone and content to The Magus, and could even have served as its template.

The Illuminatus Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson (1975). This underground science-fiction classic concerns itself with displaying the psychology of individuals drawn into various levels of conspiracy, and provides a very sharp detail concerning the “god-game” methods employed by some of the shadier characters. Has the same psychological themes of The Magus but explores them in a far greater depth.

Submitted by Richard Johnson of Staffordshire, England:
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1861). Fowles himself alludes to this in the introduction to the revised edition of The Magus. The self-delusion of the protagonist, the grand manipulation going on without his knowledge, the hard-won self-knowledge in the end (if you want to see it that way, and I’m romantic enough to want to.)

Submitted by David Blair of Sacramento, California:
Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse (1929). This novel explores eastern spirituality and western philosophy through the eyes of a an older protagonist, the steppenwolf, who after encountering a younger woman and her friend gains a new understanding of the physical and emotional aspects of life, only to enter into a game wherein the steppe’s views of reality are truly tested.

Submitted by Peter Linn of Brisbane, Australia:
Lempriere’s Dictionary by Lawrence Norfolk (1991). Especially the scenes of the death of Charles Lempriere and the soiree at the de Vere’s. Also Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco (1989). Both books have an air of an unsuspecting protagonist dumped into a disconcerting other universe.

Submitted by Holly Hoffman of Cincinnati, Ohio:
Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton Walsh (1994). Like The Magus, this is set in another world–a fantasy island in Inquisition times. The protagonist is Palinor, an atheist who has washed up on the shores of a Catholic island. His inquisition and judgement by the island’s priest-king Severo involves a strange experiment.

Submitted by Vehbi Inan of Istanbul, Turkey:
The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk (1994). The protagonist wanders all around Istanbul looking for his lost love through signs in the city and through the essays of an author he wants to replace. Istanbul becomes a labyrinth of messages and symbols, a cauldron of architecture and literature. The grey city as well as the mysterious author tell urban stories supplying the clues to find the missing woman.

Submitted by Brendan Doolan of Johannesburg, South Africa:
The Lovers by Morris West (1993). This novel has overtones of The Magus. Principessa Giulia Farnese di Mongrifone is engaged to be married to a wealthy, much older industrialist Declan Aloysius Molloy–a marriage of old and poor Italy to rich new America made not in heaven but on earth by heaven’s representative, Il Papa. “Giulia the Beautiful” meets West’s protagonist, a young Australian, Bryan Cavanagh, during a pre-nuptial Mediterranean cruise on her fiancé’s yacht. Cavanagh is serving as temporary second officer for a post-war, pre university “gap” year. She is indulged a last “fling” with Cavanagh before marrying Molloy. Some critic once wrote of West that he was the last of a dying breed, a writer of “articulate, intelligent best-sellers.” This is certainly one of them.

Submitted by Jeffrey Cox of Los Angeles, California:
The Beach by Alex Garland (1997). A similar set-up in which a disillusioned young man, Richard, travels to an exotic island to experience something “real.” Like Nicholas, Richard is unable to directly “experience” anything, but rather filters everything through logic and almost lives vicariously through his own mind.

Submitted by Terry Weissman of Chicago, Illinois:
Arcadia Falls by Rand Johnson (2001). Spiritually akin to The Magus (and other Fowles novels). A man frustrated by his life finds a cabin in a woodland threatened by development that is occupied by a beautiful but mysterious woman. Falling in love with her, he becomes obsessed with protecting her and her cabin and basically leaves his old life behind–but in the end it’s not at all clear what he’s left it for. Not only are the themes Fowlesian, but the author tips his hand about his own influences with references to both The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

Submitted by Garry Brooks of Surrey, England:
Shuttlecock by Graham Swift (1981). This novel has strong parallels to The Magus: it’s written in the first person, narrated by a not-terribly-likeable male, revolves around the relationship between the tortured narrator (Prentice) and an older God-like figure (Quinn), and the ending leaves something to the imagination of the reader. The setting–an obscure department of the police in London–is very different from Phraxos, but in many ways provides a similar level of absurd and surreal experiences for Prentice as Phraxos does for Nicholas.

Submitted by Drew Dixon of Fort Pierce, Florida:
Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer (1970). Surprisingly, the book that reminds me most of The Magus is this work of non-fiction. The book is very much in a real sense similar to the God Game that Nicko got roped into. While ITR is documentary in nature, we see Speer as the person who is drawn into the game, the deadly game of fascism and its power structure in Nazi Germany, due to his own unbridled ambition which is eagerly fed and seduced by his version of Conchis…Adolph Hitler. Much akin to Nicko’s being drawn further into the God Game because of his own sexual greed. ITR winds through the eddies of rising from humble professor (i.e. teacher as was Nicko) to the peak of power and involvement in the game. Speer, while being drawn further into the game, isn’t always sure who is pulling the strings…Hitler (Conchis) or his subordinates (Nicko’s women). The parallels are there, but obviously Inside the Third Reich has the much more deadly–but none the less psychologically destructive and humbling–end result. Ambition and ego without tether leads to ruin. Now, go pick up the pieces.

Submitted by Adam of London, England:
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (1997). A youngish, disenfranchised protagonist sets off on a quest to find his missing wife. Via exotic travels he encounters two strange, sexual sisters and empathizes with an old soldier who witnessed massacres on the Chinese mainland during the war. Then there’s the precocious schoolgirl with whom he has a hotly unrealized flirtation. Hugely reminiscent of The Magus, with its ambiguous but suggestive ending. Fowles meets Raymond Carver. Magic realism all the way.

Submitted by Benjamin Joplin of Buffalo, New York:
Die Traumnovelle (English translation–The Rhapsody) by Arthur Schnitler (1928). A psychosexual thriller about a paranoid married couple who deal with the issue of fidelity, as do Nicholas and Alison. It became Stanley Kubrick’s film Eyes Wide Shut.

Submitted by Mark Wieczorek of San Diego, California:
The Analyst by Jonathan Katzenbach (2002). This novel tells the tale of a psychotherapist haunted, and hunted, by an unknown former patient from the therapist’s distant past. The patient, now successful, plays the Rumpelstiltskin game with the therapist: the therapist must guess who Rumpelstiltskin is, or the therapist must commit suicide. If the therapist fails, his family will be killed. The mind games played by both sides on each other are quite worthy of The Magus.

Submitted by Torsten Ekelund of Sweden:
The Mind Game by Hector Macdonald (2000). A young man, Ben Ashurst, is voluntarily partaking in an experiment conducted by his charismatic Oxford teacher James Redfield about how human feelings are working. He is sent to Kenya with new girlfriend Cara, where he becomes trapped in a labyrinth and put in prison. Cara is not what he first thought, she is also a part of the experiment. The whole plot is very reminiscent of The Magus. Ben as Nicholas, James as Conchis and Cara as Alison and the other women. Not as good a read as The Magus, but well worth reading anyway.

Submitted by Nicholas Flavell of London, England:
A Deeper Shade of Blue by Paul Johnston (2002). A young protagonist named Alex Mavros, an Athenian private detective, is sent to an island in the Cyclades called Trigono to investigate the disappearance of a young woman. The story involves two major affairs with women and a local Greek millionaire. I find these factors combined with the deepening mystery young Alex finds himself involved in very similar to The Magus.

Submitted by Gore Frey of Johannesburg, South Africa:
Sophie’s World by Joestin Gaardner (1994). A naive–but still thoroughly enjoyable–book about Sophie, a schoolgirl, and a mysterious old man who piques her interest in philosophy. There is a great deal of mystery in the book and although it echoes The Magus, the echoes are very benign. Sophie represents, of course, Wisdom in its primeval state. The book is as delightful as The Magus is involving.

Submitted by Ryan Harding of Knoxville, Tennessee:
Shadowland by Peter Straub (1980). The story line has instantly recognizable similarities to The Magus, including a mysterious older man who relates tales of his experiences in war and life, as well as a duplicitous girl in re-enactments. The main character is an adolescent and the book explores the possibilities of magic in a more supernatural version of Fowles’ novel. Like The Magus, it is extravagantly layered, if less ambivalent.

Submitted by Sam Armour of London, England:
Captain Correlli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres (1994). It evokes the flavor of the tiny Greek island; in particular, the episode in The Magus with the German soldiers is almost identical in mood to the de Bernieres novel. In addition, a television series which for me has strong overtones of the setting and situation of The Magus is the 1967 series The Prisoner. In it, Patrick McGoohan finds himself in a village and has no idea of exactly how he got there or why he is there. He is surrounded by strange figures and a series of scenes are ‘staged’ for him to gauge his reaction and find out more about his motivations. The sensation of having absolutely no idea how or why events are unfolding in this way, both for the protagonist and the audience (as well as the notoriously frustrating ending which gives little or no explanation) is virtually identical to the experience of reading The Magus for the first time.

Submitted by Tamsyn Taylor of Wollongong, Australia:
The Architect by John Scott (2001). Has a certain resonance of The Magus, dealing as it does with a young man, in this case highly successful, who seeks out a reclusive older man about whom there is an aura of almost mythical fame. His life is utterly transformed as the older man plays God. Another of Scott’s books, What I have Written, also reminds of The Magus in the way it juggles worlds both real and imaginary so that neither the reader nor the writer within the story are quite in touch with the truth.

Submitted by Kathy Kreese:
Tropic of Night by Michael Gruber (2003). Only like The Magus in being a totally original mysterious literary thriller and page turner, this an incredible mixture of anthropology, sorcery and murder from Mali to Miami. My top pick in the last five years and that includes a lot of books.

Submitted by Ian Cowan of Omaha, Nebraska:
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. (1957). Most of the comparisons to similar books relate to the “Godgame” aspect.  A novel that is complementary to The Magus in a different way, exploring fundamental questions–such as What is right? What is wrong? How shall a moral man act? What shall be the next step for society and mankind?– is Atlas Shrugged, and essentially the entire Rand bibliography.  Although not identical in their conclusions, they both address the issue that what society generally considers moral behavior, isn’t–particularly for the best and ablest, the most self-aware–all wrapped up in a nifty mystery: Who is John Galt?

Submitted by David Jones of Manchester, UK
As Far As You Go by Lesley Glaister (2004). Set in Western Australia, and, like The Magus, combines glaring sunshine with a menacing atmosphere of sexual tension. There are two victim-subjects here: Cassie, who responds to a job advert for a housekeeper, and Graham, her boyfriend, whom she persuades into going with her. Their employer Larry is the Conchis-figure, and soon Cassie starts to suspect that they are being observed and manipulated…

Submitted by Mark Cowling of Barcelona, Spain
Cocaine Nights by J.G. Ballard (1996). A similar tale of masques and god games. The protagonist initially appears to be the only sensible voice in a surreal mock-paradise where adrenalin levels are kept high by a constant level of orchestrated petty (and sometimes not so petty) crime. In the end, however, he either allows or cannot stop himself from being sucked into the game.

Submitted by Christopher Bott of Machester, UK
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (1996). There is a passage (and a scene in the film adaptation) which mirrors, almost exactly, a scene from The Magus. Whilst on the hunt for his diabolical nemesis, our narrator speaks to a barman in a pub who lets slip a vital clue, revealing a shocking twist. Our narrator, suddenly enlightened, picks up the scent (dashing off, leaving the barman polishing his glasses of course).  Passages in The Magus relating to the execution also remind me of similar scenes in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude (1967), another magical novel which, like The Magus, is far more than the sum of it’s parts. And the psycho-trial in The Magus especially reminded me of the part in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) when Charlie is told he has failed the test. Which is in itself another test. There are other similarities too, especially when it is revealed in The Magus that Conchis is of failing health and that his charades may cease for good. Nicholas seems to think not, could he be Charlie, selected at random to sit a perverse test by which he proves his worth to carry the torch? I do believe that the ending symbolizes Nicholas becoming The Magus and bringing an end to the masque.

Submitted by Rich Gration of Leeds, UK
Satan Wants Me by Robert Irwin (1999). A different setting (late 60s–sex, drugs and rock n roll) but a near identical protagonist, cocky and naïve, thrust into a world that scares and intrigues him, one that he cannot leave even though he thinks he’s in grave danger. Also The Liar (1991) by Stephen Fry. The denouement sets a different tone than in either “The Magus” or “Satan Wants Me,” but the premise is much the same. A protagonist who seems  is young, knowledgeable, superior, bored, cocky…and looking for something more. Drawn into a game whichmore and more dangerous.

Submitted by David of Hong Kong
Night Jasmine Man By David Lambkin (2002). Weird things happen and they all seem to be part of some master plan.

Submitted by Rosa of Raleigh, North Carolina
Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (1947). Some striking similarities to The Magus. A conventional British expat with a haunted past is caught up in an alternate reality: a maze of divided loyalties and strange and frightening customs, all while in the midst of the delirium and hallucinations of advanced alcoholism, and harboring a perpetual sense of loss and alienation. He wanders dazed through a maze of bizarre locations, and realizes that there are secret enemies–political, cultural–all around him. The symbolism and staging is the Day of the Dead, a fatalistic and fantastic orgiastic celebration of death. No one can save him. He is on a one-way journey. The ostensible landmarks are there: bored bureaucrat, exotic country, weird experiences. More important are the senses of dislocation, disorientation, fantasy and fatalism.

Submitted by Andrei Chubukov, Russian Federation
Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins (2015). A contemporary fantasy take on The Magus. Almost as hard-hitting emotionally, if not as complex plot-wise.

Submitted by Tony McLaughlin of Fife, Scotland
Where My Heart Used To Beat by Sebastian Faulks (2016). Structurally and thematically the closest novel to The Magus I’ve ever come across. Both involve an intelligent, disillusioned man rather lost in life and an older, enigmatic mentor/manipulator whose motivations are not always clear. Both have a major setting on a remote Mediterranean island (in this case off the South of France); both use WWII to reflect on issues of love, horror, humanity and reason; both have an enigmatic woman waiting in the wings; and both end with the narrator becoming wiser and humbler. Intriguingly, it can almost be seen as a thematic sequel to The Magus as the protagonist is in his 60s and the older man in his 90s. It’s almost as if Nicholas and Conchis are still playing their mind games with each other 40 years on. I’ve never heard Faulks mention his book as being directly influenced by The Magus but there is no doubt that it is, especially given that Faulks is a known admirer of the book.

Submitted by Jozef Andraščík, Slovakia
Secret Passages in a Hillside Town by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen (2010). The novel is filled with mystery and sexual tension reminiscent of The Magus. The main character falls in love with an old flame turned writer who visits their shared hometown of Jyväskylla to write a tour guide book about it. When they were kids they used to enter secret tunnels hidden under this small Nordic town and when they did, strange things always happened. With its mix of intertwining historical and present day narrative as well as an engaging storyline and palpable psychological depth, the novel at times has an almost uncanny Magus-like feel with a bit of fantasy sprinkled all over it. I have a feeling the author was perhaps complimenting Fowles on a conscious level, as the novel features two different endings similar to The French Lieutenant’s Woman.