Every once in a while a novel will come out and it will be lauded as the takedown of the a certain kind of man — a literary author, a wayward dude, a divorced dad, the fuck boy. And while sometimes the novels are good, they never quite feel the takedown people want them to be, and as if often the case, they weren’t ever really supposed to be a takedown at all. In fact, I would say of course that literature, as it’s always been, is about representation, not argument.
Anyway, this is the actual fuckboy takedown. Well in a way. The issue with this novel is that it’s long and dense at times (though wonderfully written) and I have to tell you ahead of the time, the ending presents more of a question than an answer, so you know, literature.
Nicholas Urfe is born the song of a minor general and comes just slightly of age after the end of World War II. This presents him as kind of lost to the generation defining moment that being born just a little before would have presented to him. It also might have killed him, and I am pretty sure he wouldn’t have wanted that. He goes to university decides to study literature and become a poet. One doesn’t simply become a poet though, so he does what lots of literature students before him have done, and looks for work as a teacher. In the process he becomes a little disillusioned, and does what a lot of young men disillusioned with the world do, tried to get laid. And he does. A lot.
Well, he meets someone and there’s a kind of strong attraction and possible love between them. Allison is a blend of English and Australian and is almost as wayward as Nick. She’s also got another fellow, but no matter. Nick starts to realize this could lead to marriage, so he wants to bolt. He takes posting at an English school on the Greek island of Phraxos, where he befriends a strange man at an estate. Conchis is kind of English, maybe a WWII traitor and murder, and maybe a magician? In their interaction Nick learns more about Conchis’s view of the world and gets slowly drawn into a kind of mystery/conspiracy that seems to reveal more about Nick then Conchis.
In a lot of ways, this novel is a blackly serious (well, to a point) version of all those Iris Murdoch novels about an enchanter of sorts. That happens here, but the focus is entirely on Nick. It’s also a lot like the John Cowper Powys novels of the 1930s where the mysticism and mythology of a geographic location seem to entrance its visitors and inhabitants in different dangerous and intoxicating ways. It’s also about the illusion of outside versus inside. Where something very much looks one way, but is later revealed to be another. Lastly, it’s about the fractures modern culture has gone through in postwar period and what if anything can be used to fill in the gaps broken by the horrors of that world.