Sunday, 8 January 2017

The Magicians

The Magicians by JB Priestley

“I must warn you that whether you think life worth living or not, you will have to live it. There’s no escape, no oblivion round the corner. Time isn’t destroying you, but neither can you destroy it. Life must be lived, but of course you can decide on what level you will live it. That is, if you know enough and are prepared to make the right effort.”
Sir Charles Ravenstreet, finding himself unexpectedly dropped from his position as managing director of the New Central Electric Company, retires to his country house to consider his future

It begins like a novel about a board room “Power Game” (and devotees of that TV series will find similarities), but it moves to a story about drugs, dark forces, and the nature of time.

Ravenstreet is drawn into a very business scheme that is both dangerous and immoral. The head of the scheme,Lord Mervil, seeks to become one of the ruling "elite" by the manufacture of "Sepman 18", a drug much like Huxley's soma, which is used to keep the people satisfied and happy until they die. Mervil has a tame chemist, but needs someone with entreprenial skills to promote the scheme.

Mervil takes a very modern but cynical view of what people want from life:

“Reasonable security, food and clothes and shelter and medical attention, some education but not too much, easy work, no trouble, no worry, no loneliness and fear, mass emotions, mass entertainment, a smooth road from cradle to the grave. They’ve known for some time now that life is essentially meaningless, so they want to get through their share of it as painlessly as possible . . .”

Septman 18 is the way for this to become a reality: “No more worry, no more anxiety, no more queer thoughts and unpleasant feelings. Remember, that’s the freedom they want.”

But Ravenstreet also makes the acquaintance of three strange old gentlemen, Wayland, Perperek and Marot, who take an interest in his life and in his recent dealings with the imperious Lord Mervil, who plans to market a new drug.

There are three of them, and it is clear that Priestly wants us to make a connection between the Magi in the Bible story, and these strange people who seem to have uncanny insights and abilities. The youngest, if such an adjective is correct, is described in this way:

“Wayland was a spare, elderly man, wearing an old-fashioned Norfolk jacket and knickerbockers. Observing him more closely, Ravenstreet saw that he was far older than he first appeared to be, for his deeply-tanned, clean-shaven face was covered with tiny wrinkles and through the tan were visible the dark spots of age. He wore no hat and the immense bald dome of his head shone in the sun.”

And the others are odd too:

“One was immensely tall, thin, beaky; the other short and broad, a tub of butter. The tall one was French, his name Marot. The fat one was called Perperek, and must have originally come from some part of the Balkans. His English was bold but sketchy, and his accent so bad that it took Ravenstreet some time to understand what he was saying; but he seemed to be a friendly soul, his enormous swarthy face wore a rich fat smile, and he continually chuckled and bubbled. Monsieur Marot spoke excellent English but his speech was as spare and gaunt as his giant frame: a man more unlike the typical garrulous Frenchman could hardly be imagined. Like Wayland, these two soon gave Ravenstreet the impression that they were much older than they had at first appeared to be. All three in fact made him feel that they were old men who had somehow contrived to maintain a vitality of mind and body. They made a very rum trio.”

They had their luggage with them and clearly knew the aircraft was about to crash.

“One thing puzzles me,” he said. “How did you come to have your suitcases with you when you were talking in the garden shelter this afternoon, when the hotel was hit? Were you about to leave anyhow?” “We thought better to be ready,” replied Perperek who was deftly chopping onions. “Something happens perhaps.” “But you couldn’t have known there was going to be an accident.” Perperek did not trouble even to look up. “To us not an accident.” Ravenstreet couldn’t pass this. “But it was an accident. Something went wrong with the aircraft, the pilot baled out, and unluckily it crashed into the hotel.”

Later they introduce him to the idea of “time alive”, a way of reliving the past as if you were there, not as if by a dream. It allows Ravenstreet to see key times in his past, relive them, but be able to have that extra detachment of the future, and see the promise and mistakes and joys.

“He wasn’t simply remembering. This wasn’t like memory at all. He was back in September, 1926, and this was the little cottage that Philippa had borrowed for them at Pelrock Bay. He knew this was their tenth day together and that they still had another four to go. He had just come back from bathing, had put on his blue woollen shirt and old flannel bags and was stretched out in the lop-sided basket-chair, smoking a pipe. His body still felt the glow and tingle; his hair was salted, sticky; the sea was still roaring in his ears and even now a smell of seaweed came from somewhere.”

It is the alternative way to happiness, against the promises of the drug Sepman-18, and as he notes:

“When I— remembered that day, went back to it— I felt at once how much richer and warmer my sensations were— I was a lot younger then of course.”

And Perperek wants him about the “tick tock” view of time: “A day is here, is gone. A minute is here, is gone. A second is here, is gone. Past is nothing. Future is nothing. All is thin slice— a tick, a tock— between nothings. You hypnotise yourself believe these things— all follows very, very bad. A life for sheeps.”

There is of course a conflict when Mervil and his team arrive for a business meeting and are confronted by the Magicians. I won't give spoilers, but it is very well done.

In this age of rush and haste, where minutes are consumed, and no one seems to have as much time to spare, Priestley’s book sounds a prophetic note. As Wayland says:

“Every age probably has its own riddle of the Sphinx that it must solve. Marot and Perperek have always said that our riddle is the riddle of Time. Our secret despair, hurrying us into deeper slavery, may come from our inability to solve this riddle.”

How should we use our time wisely? What is important in life - do we value the acquisition of money and power over human relationships? These are deep questions explored in this fascinating novel.

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