The Magicians

If Aldous Huxley can connect the search for a evening suit with 'The Tibetan Book of the Dead' (in Time Must Have a Stop ), J.B. Priestley can be allowed to connect a boardroom coup with an encounter with the Fourth Way.

Charles Ravenstreet is the managing director of an electrical equipment manufacturer until shareholders, some considered to be his friends, depose him for a 'bean counter'. At a loose end and quickly exhausting the casual pleasures of his new leisure, he finds himself dispirited, afloat in an unsympathetic world. Perhaps a new business venture will revive his engagement?

Enter the sinister Lord Mervil and associates who seek him out to help them manufacture a drug purported to quell all anxiety with no apparent side effects. This provides the opportunity of both great profit and the quiescent society that can be guided by the 'elite' that Lord Mervil favours.

But here the fates intervene in the form of three elderly men, holding a conference at a pub, local to Ravenstreet's country manor, which is hit by an aircraft in a freak 'accident'. The three elderly men, following an intuition, have survived but now without a place to stay, find themselves invited by Ravenstreet to stay with him.

The three men are the 'magicians' of the title, practitioners of certain mental arts that give them uncanny insight into Ravenstreet and set him on a path of self-discovery and on to opposing Lord Merrill's scheme.

The magicians are undoubtedly modelled on Gurdjieff (as seen through Maurice Nicoll of whom Priestley was an avid and discerning reader - two of Nicoll's books that were once Priestley's belong to me) and the theme of time resonates through the story. The magicians know, and demonstrate to Ravenstreet, that nothing that is experienced is ever lost. It awaits a particular kind of remembering and with the right attention and feeling, your reality can be changed.

They give Ravenstreet two opportunities, described in separate chapters, coming at significant junctures, to return to critical moments in his life, and relive them with new, renewing eyes, such that future possibility, it is suggested, is indeed changed. These moments are described as 'time alive' that is, in itself, beautifully apt. How do we come to experience our time with a wholly encompassing life? A time that is never lost but often obscured in forgetting. They are both strikingly moving chapters that invite a similar movement - I find myself being considered by similar critical moments and wondering about the effects of one's choices and whether being cast back, concretely, would indeed be transformative. I expect they would be - I can see it glimpsing, glimmering, and will bring myself to its attempt. Rarely do novels have this simple effectiveness.

Meanwhile, the story unfolds, Mervil and his associates are confronted with themselves and as, sadly, is often the way, though disturbed, they fork off either into self destruction or self-defence, finding a way to renewing insight is the narrow gate towards paradise that is difficult to find.

All this is wrapped up in a novel that, at some points, creaks with its particular age. One defect is perhaps its approach to the feminine - their characters are insufficiently drawn and it grates - you stand outside them and a little to the right. Sometimes,  however, it scintillates with as acute a pattern of social criticism as can be imagined.

But, at heart, this is a novel with a metaphysical and practical vision at its heart - awaken to your life as a continuous whole and enter it with awareness at any point on its trajectory for that offers the key to freedom.


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