Contemporary English novels, as a rule, are modest things—modest in their themes, their manner, their physical dimensions. If many an American, Continental, or Latin American novelist attempts, in each new book, to embody a startlingly original vision, to be formally innovative, to stage a linguistic fireworks display, and to make major statements about love, death, history, the nature of reality, man’s life in society, and the function of art, the typical postwar English novelist seeks rather to relate a relatively unambitious story about the subtle pains and pleasures of a single unremarkable life. The characteristic virtues of the postwar English novel, accordingly, have been its exquisite restraint and delicacy of nuance, its ability to convey the significance of everyday reality, the simple beauty of even the most prosaic human soul.
For the past quarter century or so, the major exception to this rule has been John Fowles. He is the author of six novels—The Collector, The Magus, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Daniel Martin, Mantissa, and A Maggot—as well as of a poetry collection (Poems), a volume of short stories (The Ebony Tower), a philosophical treatise (The Aristos),1 and the texts of numerous books of photographs. Though his novels are strikingly different from one another in plot and setting (and even exhibit an unusual variety of style and form), they are all strange and provocative, and—most important—share at bottom a consonance of theme and situation. “My chief concern,” Fowles writes in his preface to the 1968 edition of The Aristos, “is to preserve the freedom of the individual against all those pressures-to-conform that threaten our century.” Elsewhere he has been quoted as saying that the major theme of his work is “[f]reedom. . . . How you can achieve freedom. That obsesses me. All my books are about that.”
But Fowles is also concerned with a number of other, related themes. The words mystery and passion, for instance, recur in his fiction, and time and again they are associated with escape from the confinement and conformity of civilization to the instructive “wild innocence” of some Edenic locale, usually a wood (from which, inevitably, Fowles’s escapists must return to society to apply what they have learned to the conditions of life and love in the real world). Fowles’s principal characters are usually confused and isolated men who are attracted to intelligent and spirited women; his novels are often constructed like Chinese boxes, with one mystery leading into another, one apparent epiphany giving way to another, and an expected sexual consummation interminably postponed; their climaxes often involve the male protagonist being forced to confront long-hidden truths, to make difficult judgments, and to alter himself in some profound manner. References to specific paintings, and to mirrors, fill Fowles’s novels. So do references to certain antitheses, among them innocence and experience, nature and civilization, the Victorian and the modern, paradise and prison, order and chaos, determinism and free will, action and impotence, duty and desire, possession and enjoyment, life and art, reality and illusion, history and fiction, the Many and the Few, the English and the foreign. Fowles possesses a mind that is at once didactic and dialectical; though he is almost constantly pressing some idea or another upon the reader, and holds certain beliefs very strongly—for example, that suffering is evil, and that possession should not be the purpose of life—he is sometimes not easy to pin down. Frequently he strikes one as congenitally self-contradictory; perhaps the most accurate way to put it is to say that, at his best, he is less interested in baldly promulgating ideas than in probing them, exploring them as if they were characters. He is at his weakest when he flat-out sermonizes and when he probes an idea to death, as he does at some point or another in each of his books. Thus Fowles’s novels—though consistently elegant in their style—are by turns mesmerizing and tiresome, brilliant and inane; one is capable of finding his intellectual gamesmanship exhilarating on one page, infuriating on the next, and boring on the page after that. If at times, then, his love of ideas seems a definite asset, at other times—namely, when he allows it to undermine his narrative, and to obscure his very considerable gifts for language and storytelling and his innate sense of human character—his philosophical promiscuity seems by far his greatest liability.
On the subject of political philosophy, in particular, Fowles appears to contain multitudes.
On the subject of political philosophy, in particular, Fowles appears to contain multitudes. Like many Oxbridgeans (he was graduated from Oxford University in 1950), he manages to be both an elitist snob and a “democratic socialist”; also, he is at once an idealist and a relativist, a male chauvinist and a self-proclaimed feminist. But most of the time he does not come across as an extremist of any sort; on the contrary, when he is not being fervidly didactic, the Fowles of the novels and stories generally impresses one as a good Jeffersonian democrat who is honest enough to admit that the highest achievements of any civilized society are the work of an intelligent and gifted minority. Likewise, though he calls himself an existentialist and preaches on the subject every so often, his brand of existentialism seems much more palatable—because more sensible, moderate, intelligent, and humane—than most. He distinguishes, for example, between existential freedom and indulgence in escapist fantasy; indeed, most of his fiction is concerned, in large part, with drawing a clear distinction between the two.
In early February, American television viewers were provided with an introduction to Fowles in the form of an hour-long British dramatization of his 1974 novella “The Ebony Tower.” The program—directed by Robert Knights and written by John Mortimer—was a presentation of the PBS Great Performances series. This novella may well be the best possible point of entry into the world according to Fowles. It offers both a representative example of his fictional method and a precis of his major philosophical interests; it also illustrates the gracefulness of his prose and the foolish didacticism into which he so often wanders. Fowles tells the story of a two-day visit by David Williams, an up-and-coming young English abstract painter and art critic, to Coëtminais (“monks’ woods”), the rural French manoir of Henry Breasley, a legendary seventy-seven-year-old representational artist—and a notorious womanizer and bohemian—who has spent most of his life in self exile from England. An English publisher is planning a volume of Breasley’s work, and David, to his surprise, has been recommended by Breasley to supply the introduction; he has come to Coëtminais, which is located in the heart of a dense wood, to meet the great man for the first time and to interview him for the book.
In its focus upon youth and age and the artist’s vocation, as well as in its wistful tone and atmosphere of mystery, “The Ebony Tower” is rather reminiscent of Cakes and Ale, The Ghost Writer, and other such works. (It also recalls The Aspern Papers.) As in Maugham’s and Roth’s novels, it is in the contrast—and the subtle conflict—between the young artist and the old that much of the story’s drama resides. Thirty-one-year-old David, who counts Braque, De Stijl, and Ben Nicholson among his influences, is a confirmed abstractionist; Breasley, whose house is full of Bonnards, Dufys, and Ensors, and whose own darkly sensuous canvases are in the direct line of descent from Uccello and Goya, considers abstraction the “[g]reatest betrayal in the history of art.” As “Mouse,” one of two enticing young women who live at Coëtminais and attend to Breasley’s sexual and professional needs, explains to David, “Henry feels that full abstraction represents a flight from human and social responsibility.” Or, as Breasley himself puts it, art should have “balls”—humanity, sensuousness—and abstract art doesn’t; it represents the “triumph of the bloody eunuch,” of “traitors” more concerned with “fundamentals” than “fundaments”—i.e., human bodies, sex organs. Breasley: “That’s reality. Not your piddling little theorems and pansy colors. I know what you people are after, Williams. You're afraid of the human body.” David: “Perhaps simply more interested in the mind than the genitals.” Breasley: “God help your bloody wife then.” Breasley sums up the whole phenomenon of abstract art in a single image: the ebony tower. As “Mouse” explains, the phrase refers to “[a]nything he doesn’t like about modern art. That he thinks is obscure because the artist is scared to be clear.” Fowles’s characterization of the two men makes it obvious that he endorses Breasley’s view of things: David is quintessentially English, an extremely reserved, proper young man who, as we learn at the story’s end, is tragically repressed; Breasley, even in his declining years, is randy, outrageous, full of life, and marvelously capable of enjoying it.
But modern art is not the only subject of conflict between David and Breasley.
But modern art is not the only subject of conflict between David and Breasley. There is also “Mouse,” whose real name is Diana, and who proves to be a very fine artist and an admirer of David’s work; looking over her drawings, David finds the representational ones rather cold and unoriginal—inferior imitations of Breasley—but finds the abstract drawings (which remind him of his own work) magnificent. He quickly develops a romantic attachment to her, and the feeling is mutual. Far from being the cold-blooded young tart he had first assumed her to be, Diana turns out to be shy, relatively inexperienced, and afraid of returning to the world outside Coëtminais. For her, the manoir has become at once a sensual paradise, where she can swim and sunbathe and frolic in the glorious altogether, and a monastic retreat where she can feel like a nun, free of the vulgar carnality of the outside world and “the effort of getting to know people.” When David learns that Breasley has proposed marriage to her, and that she is considering the offer, he is shocked; left alone with her on the night before his departure, David (who is married) asks her to sleep with him, but she refuses. He senses that if he presses her, she will give in. But he doesn’t press her, and she retires, leaving him alone with his regrets—upon which Fowles elaborates in a passage that is (to say the least) hyperbolic and unconvincing:
He turned into his room [writes Fowles] and stood in its blackness in a rage of lost chance; made out his faint shape there in the old gilt-framed mirror. A ghost, a no-man. The horror was that he was still being plunged forward, still melting, still realizing; as there are rare psychic phenomena read of, imagined, yet missed when they finally happen. To one part of him—already desperate to diminish, to devaluate—it was merely a perverse refusal; and to another, an acute and overwhelming sense of loss, of being cleft, struck down, endlessly deprived . . . and deceived. He wanted with all his being—now it was too late; was seared unendurably by something that did not exist, racked by an emotion as extinct as the dodo. Even as he stood there he knew it was a far more than sexual experience, but a fragment of one that reversed all logic, process, that struck new suns, new evolutions, new universes out of nothingness. It was metaphysical: something far beyond the girl; an anguish, a being bereft of a freedom whose true nature he had only just seen.
For the first time in his life he knew more than the fact of being; but the passion to exist.
The last five pages or so of the novella constitute a feverish and repetitious account of David’s new realization about himself in the wake of his visit to Coëtminais. It is simply that he, unlike Breasley, has “a fear of challenge,” a fear manifested in his attitude toward both art and sex. “One killed all risk, one refused all challenge, and so one became an artificial man.” To Fowles, it is the lesson of art, not sex, that is patently more important at the end of the story: David’s refusal to seduce Diana and to rescue her from Breasley is ultimately only a metaphor for his refusal to take the “existential chance” in his art the way Breasley does; his returning to his wife is only a metaphor for the “settled-for-the-safe” choice of abstractionism. “Coët had been a mirror,” Fowles writes, a mirror wherein David, a captive of the ebony tower, had been allowed a view of “the old green freedom,” “a glimpse of his lost true self.” Yet David knows that this insight will not change him.
. . . he would go on painting as before, he would forget this day, he would find reasons to interpret everything differently, as a transient losing his head, a self-indulgent folly. A scar would grow over it, then fade away, and the skin would be as if there had never been a wound. He was crippled by common sense, he had no ultimate belief in chance and its exploitation, the missed opportunity would become the finally sensible decision, the decent thing; the flame of deep fire that had singed him a dream, a moment’s illusion; her reality just one more unpursued idea kept among old sketchbooks at the back of a studio cupboard.
It hardly needs to be said that for a writer who is foursquare against abstractionism in art, the hyperbolic ending of “The Ebony Tower” provides an astonishing example of literary abstraction and generalization gone haywire. It is difficult to see why anyone would consider this novella good material for a television program. After all, the story makes no sense without the two crucial passages from which I have quoted—the one in which David, for the first time in his life, knows “the passion to exist,” and the concluding rant on abstract art—and it is not easy to imagine either of these passages being made dramatically effective. Even if it were possible to dramatize them, the novella would still have what is, to my mind, a critical structural flaw: namely, that one never has so much as a clue, before the story’s climax, that David has never known “the passion to exist,” or that his commitment to art is so shallow. Besides, can his marriage possibly be so loveless and banal that a stranger is capable, in the course of a weekend, of leading him to an emotional epiphany that he has never experienced in his thirty-one years? But then, Fowles is less interested here in telling a wholly believable realistic story than in presenting a parable.
John Mortimer and Robert Knights, the writer and director of the television adaptation of “The Ebony Tower,” have avoided some of the story’s inherent problems by focusing, at the denouement, on sex rather than art—by letting David’s inability to take risks in his art function as a metaphor for his inability to take risks in his personal life, rather than the other way around. To be sure, some of David’s final reflections on the hollowness of his vocation crop up, in slightly altered form, as lines of dialogue at various points in the film. For example, his recognition that he has been playing it safe by being an abstractionist becomes a line of dialogue spoken by Breasley (played by Laurence Olivier): “Don’t be so safe, dear boy.” And David’s characterization of Coëtminais as a mirror becomes, in the film, a line spoken by Diana (Greta Scacchi) to David (Roger Rees) about Breasley: “He’s like a mirror. You see exactly who you are—he cuts all your clever little triumphs down to scale.”
But most of David’s dosing thoughts are scuttled by the producers, and the film, rather than ending with his feeble proposition to Diana, his introduction to “the passion to exist,” and his sudden tragic awareness of his “fear of challenge,” concludes with a series of brief scenes in which David—momentarily, at least—shakes off that fear. In the film, he offers Diana not only an evening of sex but an alternative to life with Breasley; apparently willing to desert his wife for her, he begs Diana to leave Coëtminais with him. She refuses. He then takes on Breasley, accuses him of being terrified of age and of change, of wanting “to marry Diana so that you can keep her here in chains.” An unruffled Breasley entreats him to look closely at Pisanello’s St. George and the Princess next time he visits the National Gallery. “The princess has got the dragon on a lead—her pet, her tame companion”: Saint George, the would-be rescuer, is only making a fool of himself. At the fade-out, then, the television version of “The Ebony Tower” is not about the reasons for a young man’s devotion to abstract art but about a young woman’s unwillingness to leave an elderly artist to whom she is passionately devoted.
The film’s shift of emphasis from art to sex works surprisingly well. But many of the smaller changes in the script are less effective. For some reason, John Mortimer has added some awfully stale lines. When Diana first compliments David, he says, “Flattery will get you everywhere”; when Breasleys forward manner stuns David into silence, the old man asks, “Cat got your tongue?”; and when David confronts Breasley about Diana, he says, “She has to lead her own life” and “Being a genius doesn’t give you the right to ruin someone else’s life.” None of these lines appears in the novella. The casting is problematical, too: the viewer is plainly supposed to sympathize with David, to hope that he will overcome his priggery, throw caution to the winds, and leave Coëtminais with Diana in his arms. But Olivier’s Breasley is so winning, and Roger Rees’s David so utterly smug, humorless, and uncharismatic, that one finds oneself wanting Rees to get out of there as quickly as possible and to leave Lord Olivier and his women to their devices.
To follow a reading of “The Ebony Tower” (or even a viewing of the television adaptation) with a brief perusal of The Aristos (1965) is to recognize how many of Fowles’s chief philosophical notions figure in the novella—as they do, I might add, throughout his works. The Aristos, originally subtitled “A Self-Portrait in Ideas,” consists of several hundred related axioms which are organized into eleven chapters with titles like “The Universal Situation,” “The Tensional Nature of Human Reality,” and “ The Importance of Art.” The axioms, some of which consist of a single sentence and only one of which occupies so much as an entire page, are numbered chapter by chapter, like verses of the Bible. The book is nothing less than Fowles’s answer to Plato’s Republic—it represents his notion of what ideas on life, death, art, religion, politics, science, economics, education, and sex should govern a world run by superior men and women. And indeed his primary concern is with the superior individual, the aristos. The word is borrowed from Heraclitus, who, Fowles reminds us, “saw mankind divided into a moral and intellectual élite (the aristoi, the good ones, not—this is a later sense—the ones of noble birth) and an unthinking conforming mass—hoi polloi, the many.” Fowles notes that Heraclitus has been condemned as “the grandfather of modern totalitarianism,” but insists that
in every field of human endeavour it is obvious that most of the achievements, most of the great steps forward, have come from individuals—whether they be scientific or artistic geniuses, saints, revolutionaries, what you will. And we do not need the evidence of intelligence testing to know conversely that the vast mass of mankind are not highly intelligent—or highly moral, or highly gifted artistically, or indeed highly qualified to carry out any of the nobler human activities.
Fowles thus divides mankind into two groups, the Few and the Many. Nonetheless he declares himself to be a socialist: “All my adult life I have believed that the only rational political doctrine one can hold is democratic socialism.” His way of reconciling these two disparate views is to say that “the dividing line between the Few and the Many must run through each individual, not between individuals. In short, none of us are wholly perfect; and none wholly imperfect.” Or, as he puts it at the end of the book, “We are all sometimes of the Many.” If this is true, however, then why posit a “Few” and a “Many” in the first place?2
Fowles sees life in terms of process: to him, everything is ultimately unknowable, indefinite, mysterious.
Fowles sees life in terms of process: to him, everything is ultimately unknowable, indefinite, mysterious. But, though we will never reach perfection of any kind, we can nonetheless strive for it (“We build towards nothing; we build”—1.33). And it is this endless striving that makes life worth living. “Our universe is the best possible because it can contain no Promised Land; no point where we could have all we imagine. We are designed to want: with nothing to want, we are like windmills in a world without wind” (1.34). What human beings need most of all in such a universe—and what David Williams so tragically lacks in “The Ebony Tower”— is freedom of will. It is “the highest human good” (1.64); to be true aristoi, men and women must overcome the “asphyxiating smog of opinions foisted on them by society,” which forces ordinary people to “lose all independence of judgement, and all freedom of action” and to “see themselves increasingly . . . as parts of a machine” (3.29). We must, in short, commit existential acts— existentialism signifying, by his definition, “the revolt of the individual against all those systems of thought, theories of psychology, and social and political pressures that attempt to rob him of his individuality” (7.74). Fowles is not inciting mass revolution, though, for “existentialism is conspicuously unsuited to political or social subversion, since it is incapable of organized dogmatic resistance or formulations of resistance. It is capable only of one man’s resistance; one personal expression of view; such as this book” (7.79). Fowles insists, moreover, on the importance of moral judgment, proclaiming that “[o]ur function is to judge, to choose between good and evil. If we refuse to do so, we cease to be human beings and revert to our basic state, of being matter” (5.45). As for risks, we need to take them in order to improve our lives and ourselves. “The purpose of hazard is to force us, and the rest of matter, to evolve” (2.61).
As “The Ebony Tower” demonstrates, the sort of freedom that usually figures most prominently in Fowles’s fiction is sexual freedom. Fowles has a good deal to say about this subject in The Aristos. He speaks of the twentieth-century emergence of sex “from behind the curtains and crinolines of Victorian modesty and propriety” (9.97) and finds it necessary to say that “[s]exual attraction and the sexual act are in themselves innocent, neither intrinsically moral nor immoral. Sex is like all great forces: simply a force” (9.105). One has the feeling, after reading through Fowles’s oeuvre, that his obsession with freedom has a great deal to do with his complicated feelings about sex; he often seems to be taking on an enemy—namely, the stifling sexual morality of the Victorian period—that no longer exists. Indeed, he has made reference, in several of his novels, to the Victorian notions of morality with which people of his generation were raised. “My contemporaries,” notes the Fowles-like narrator of Daniel Martin, “were all brought up in some degree of the nineteenth century, since the twentieth did not begin till 1945.”
A concept that is of central importance to Fowles is that of the “nemo,” which Fowles defines as “a man’s sense of his own futility and ephemerality; of his relativity, his comparativeness; of his virtual nothingness” (3.7). Fowles says that it is art, above all else, that “best conquers time, and therefore the nemo”; an art object is “as nearly immortal as an object in a cosmos without immortality can be.” Fowles devotes much of his chapter on art to a description of the situation of the modern artist—a situation that, for all his criticism of Victorian vis-a-vis modern culture, he is not at all happy with. He deplores, for instance, “the tyranny of self-expression” (10.35); the narrowing of the artist’s audience to “a literate few” (10.51); and the pressure on the artist to present “a mirror to the world around him” (10.36). He is disturbed by the rise of a type of intellectual that is interested mainly in “colour, shape, texture, pattern, setting, movement,” rather than in “the properly intellectual (moral and socio-political) significance of events and objects”—more interested, in short, in style than in content, which to him is the single most woeful symptom of the modern temperament.
What The Aristos essentially amounts to, then, is a collection of opinions, some of which one agrees with, some of which one doesn’t; there is much in it that is intelligent and thought-provoking, and much that is silly and wrongheaded. Fowles is often guilty of sentimental overgeneralization; in distinguishing between the craftsman and the genius, he says that the former “is very concerned with his contemporary success, his market value,” while the latter “is indifferent to contemporary success.” And Fowles can be unintentionally amusing when he is pretending to be objective about things that are close to him. For example, having decided that mankind should have a universal language, he arrives, by way of an elaborate and (he thinks) purely logical argument, at the conclusion that the language of choice should be—guess what?—English. Likewise, this man who chooses to identify himself at the beginning of the book as “a poet first; and then a scientist,” determines—by means of an equally sophisticated and objective bit of dialectic—that “the great arts” are not equal, and that “[literature, in particular poetry,” is of all the arts “the most essential and the most valuable.”
Despite such weaknesses, however, one cannot help but admire Fowles for his intellectual seriousness, his acute sense of the artist’s dignity as well as of his moral and social responsibility, and his attempt to express and to codify his way of seeing the world. It is rare and admirable for a contemporary British or American novelist to be as intensely and seriously concerned as John Fowles is with the relations between art and ideas, art and morality. But The Aristos is chiefly of interest not as a work of philosophy but as a catalogue raisonné, as it were, of many of the thematic preoccupations of Fowles’s fiction.
The first of Fowles’s novels, The Collector (1963), is in some ways the most uncharacteristic of his books—straightforward, lucid, and relatively short. The collector is a lower-class young English orphan named Ferdinand Clegg who, after striking it rich in the lottery, quits his job, kidnaps a beautiful young middle-class art student named Miranda whom he has long admired from afar, and locks her in his basement. In the first half of the book, Clegg narrates the story of her seven-week imprisonment; the second half consists of the diary that Miranda keeps during her ordeal. The book’s title derives from the fact that Clegg is a butterfly collector; he has what Fowles thinks of as the collector’s mentality, and comes in for much criticism from Miranda on this score: “I hate people who collect things, and classify things and give them names and then forget all about them. That’s what people are always doing in art. They call a painter an impressionist or a cubist or something and then they put him in a drawer and don’t see him as a living individual painter any more.” “I know what I am,” she writes. “A butterfly he has always wanted to catch.”
The irony is that once Clegg has caught Miranda, he doesn’t know what to do with her. He won’t have sex with her, because he thinks that’s dirty. Miranda needles him about that, too:
You’re the most beautiful specimen of petit bourgeois squareness I’ve ever met. . . . You despise the real bourgeois classes for all their snobbishness and their snobbish voices and ways. . . . Did you know that every great thing in the history of art and every beautiful thing in life is actually what you call nasty or has been caused by feelings you would call nasty? By passion, by love, by hatred, by truth. . . . Why do you take all the life out of life? Why do you kill all the beauty?
Later in the story, Miranda cuddles up to Clegg; her purpose, as she explains to him (in a variation on axiom 9.105), is “to show you that sex—sex is just an activity, like anything else. It’s not dirty, it’s just two people playing with each other’s bodies. Like dancing. Like a game.” But Clegg doesn’t understand; all he can see is that Miranda is a filthy-minded little trollop, not at all the nice girl he thought her to be.
The problem with Clegg, Fowles wants to convince us, is not that he’s a screwball; on the contrary, as Miranda observes, he’s “ordinary”—stupid, sluggish, unimaginative. Indeed, “he’s so ordinary that he’s extraordinary.” Miranda spells it out to Clegg: “Everything free and decent in life is being locked away in filthy little cellars by beastly people who don’t care.” For Miranda, as she herself realizes, is a “special person,” a budding aristos (though she doesn’t use the word); she knows that “I am intelligent . . . that I am beginning to understand life much better than most people of my age.” She wants not “to be clever or great or ‘significant’ or given all that clumsy masculine analysis,” but rather “to make beauty,” to paint the “essences” of things, “[n]ot the things themselves.” In case we don’t get the idea of all this, Fowles explains it in his 1968 preface to The Aristos: “My purpose in The Collector was to attempt to analyse, through a parable, some of the results of this confrontation [between the Few and the Many].” In kidnapping Miranda, Clegg commits an evil, “but I tried to show that his evil was largely, perhaps wholly, the result of a bad education, a mean environment, being orphaned: all factors over which he had no control.” Thus he stands not only for the evil of the Many but for “the virtual innocence of the Many.” Miranda is also the product of her environment: “she had well-to-do parents, good educational opportunity, inherited aptitude and intelligence.”
Though The Collector is quite a powerful thriller, it doesn’t work at all as a parable about the Few and the Many. For one thing, Miranda, with her forthright little opinions and her snobbish attitude toward ordinary people, is very unsympathetic. Fowles admits as much in his Aristos preface: she is “arrogant in her ideas, a prig, a liberal-humanist snob . . . . Yet . . . she might have become something better, the kind of being humanity so desperately needs.” But to my mind there is little indication, in The Collector, that Miranda is anything more than just another spoiled and obnoxious art-school type. As for Clegg, it is impossible to think of him as an “ordinary man.” Ordinary men don’t kidnap girls and lock them in cellars. Not that Clegg is an unconvincing character; on the contrary, Fowles’s portrait of him is chillingly believable. Certainly it is possible to imagine a character—particularly an emotionally disturbed kidnapper of young women—who is so antipathetic to sex and so unfamiliar with sexual passion. (In this regard, of course, Clegg is similar to David Williams of “The Ebony Tower.”) But how can Fowles possibly use such a figure as a symbol of the ordinary man? It simply doesn’t wash. And it’s offensive, as well: does Fowles really think that somewhere in every working-class soul there lurks a desperately sick kidnapper? Does he really think that human evil is primarily the result of “poor education” and “mean environment,” and that aptitude and intelligence are to be found exclusively, or even primarily, in the privileged classes? Furthermore, the second half of the book is a good deal weaker than the first—partly because Clegg is a more interesting character than Miranda, partly because the first half is relatively free of symbol-mongering, and partly because the second half forces us to go over ground we’ve already covered. But—to put it mildly—Fowles has never worried overmuch about seeming redundant.
The Magus (1965) is as long and expansive as The Collector is short and claustrophobic. Like Ferdinand Clegg, Nicholas Urfe, the narrator and protagonist of The Magus, is an isolato, an orphaned young man with time on his hands. Though Nicholas, unlike Clegg, is an Oxford graduate and a self-styled poet with a good deal of sexual experience, he shares Clegg’s emotional detachment; he sees love as an ephemeral thing, and likes it that way. “You’ve built your life so that nothing could ever reach you,” complains his latest lover, Alison Kelly, an Australian stewardess who genuinely loves him. Nicholas sees himself as a lone wolf, a rebel. Disgusted with the “mass-produced middle-class boys” that he is forced to teach in an undistinguished East Anglian public school, Nicholas decides in the spring of 1953 to leave smug, predictable old England—and Alison—for a year’s stint at the Lord Byron School on the Greek island of Phraxos. (The school is based upon Anargyrios College on the island of Spetsai, where Fowles taught in 1951 and met his wife, Elizabeth.) Once there, feeling alone and directionless, Nicholas prepares to kill himself, but does not; he lacks the freedom of will to do so, and realizes that he is, “in existentialist terms, unauthentic. I knew I would never kill myself, I knew I would always want to go on living with myself, however hollow I became, however diseased.”
It is then that Nicholas is drawn to Bourani, a wooded estate which is inhabited by a highly cultured and strongly opinionated old man named Maurice Conchis. The house is full of Modiglianis, Rodins, Giacomettis, and the like; Conchis—who will prove to be the magus (magician, sorcerer) of the title—is full of views on art, history, and society. He sounds as if he’s memorized The Aristos: he hates collecting, believes that “destiny is hazard” and “[l]ife is an eternal wanting more,” divides mankind into “the many” and “the few” (or “the elect"), proclaims the essential isolation of each individual, and rhapsodizes about “the passion to exist.” During one of Nicholas’s weekend visits, Conchis hypnotizes him into a state of mind wherein (as Nicholas explains in a feverish eight-hundred-word passage reminiscent of “The Ebony Tower”) he is intensely “aware of existing,” aware “that reality [is] endless interaction,” aware that there is “no meaning, only being.” Suddenly, the “endless solitude of the one, its total enislement from all else, [seems] the same thing as the total interrelationship of all,” and he is possessed of an “enormous and vertiginous sense of the innumerability of the universe; an innumerability in which transience and unchangingness [seem] integral, essential and uncontradictory.”
Odd things begin to happen. Exotic figures —Greek gods one weekend, Nazi soldiers the next—appear on the grounds at Bourani, enacting a pagan masque of sorts with an extremely baffled Nicholas as both actor and audience. One of the players is Lily, an innocent and beautiful young Englishwoman who claims to be Conchis’s long-dead love. Conchis tells Nicholas that she’s a schizophrenic; she confides to Nicholas that she’s an actress named Julie Holmes who has been hired by Conchis to play Lily. (Is this getting complicated enough?) Nicholas and Julie fall in love—which, she tells him, is precisely what Conchis wants: he’s conducting an “experiment in mystification” and is leading Nicholas into “a . . . sort of trap.” And so he is. When Nicholas takes Julie to a hotel room to consummate their love, she flings the door open at the last minute, crying, “There is no Julie,” and admits Conchis and two members of his repertory company, who subdue and narcotize Nicholas. Several days later he is led into a courtroom where Conchis, Julie, and other actors from the masque identify themselves as experimental psychologists, explain to Nicholas that he has been the subject of some behavioral research, and proceed (in a very funny episode) to read their humiliating, jargon-ridden “analyses” of his personality. After refusing the opportunity to whip Julie (who now identifies herself as Dr. Vanessa Maxwell), Nicholas is taken to a room to watch her perform a live sex act with a huge black man. Conchis then tells a totally humiliated Nicholas that he has made it into the “elect and sets him free. “Intolerably alone,” Nicholas returns to England. There—after several months of reflection, and a few more twists of Conchis’s plot, which he learns is called “the godgame”—he again faces Alison. Fowles leaves open the question of whether they are reunited.3
As with The Collector, Fowles means the book to be read as an allegory, a lesson in love and in the proper uses of freedom.
Of course, the story of The Magus is completely ludicrous; as with The Collector, Fowles means the book to be read as an allegory, a lesson in love and in the proper uses of freedom. But what is the lesson? What has Nicholas learned from his harrowing experience at the hands of Conchis and company; what has happened to earn him entry into the elite? The answer, presumably, is that, having been made to recognize Lily/Julie as an unrealistic projection of his own childish fantasies (fantasies not unlike Ferdinand Clegg’s illusions about Miranda), Nicholas has learned to love, and to accept love from, a real woman like Alison. Allegory or not, however, there is much about the novel that is truly disturbing. With every new twist in Conchis’s systematic humiliation of Nicholas, one finds oneself saying, “This is sick.” Yes, the story is absurd, but one’s awareness of its absurdity does not prevent one from being outraged all the same by the cruel and unusual punishments, both emotional and physical, that Conchis devises for Nicholas. These acts would seem unwarranted and indefensible whatever their purpose, but since Conchis’s aim is apparently to teach Nicholas a lesson about love and freedom, they come across as particularly horrible. There is something tyrannical about Conchis’s assumption that he has a right to change Nicholas, to brainwash him into his own way of seeing things. For this is what The Magus amounts to: the fantastic story of a brainwashing.
The more one thinks about it, the more Ferdinand Clegg and Maurice Conchis, the title figures of Fowles’s first two novels, seem two of a kind. Though to Fowles there is indubitably a great difference between them—Clegg is an agent of evil, Conchis an agent of good—both are sadists, tyrants, god-players. And so, in his own way, is Fowles. Reading The Collector, one sometimes feels like a prisoner oneself, with Fowles as the jailer; reading The Magus, one finds oneself identifying with Nicholas Urfe’s confusion and helplessness, and begins to regard Fowles with the same paradoxical combination of wonder, resentment, respect, and hostility with which Nicholas regards Conchis. The Magus is, indeed, largely about the author as magus; Fowles is, in a sense, Maurice Conchis, and every reader of The Magus is Nicholas Urfe, being led through the paces of the godgame toward enlightenment—or Fowles’s version of it, anyway.
Fowles’s finest novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), is set in the late 1860s, primarily in the Dorset coastal town of Lyme Regis (in which Fowles has lived since 1966). The protagonist is Charles Smith-son, a thirty-two-year-old London gentleman who, like Nicholas Urfe, is an “intelligent idler” (he collects sand dollars), a self-styled poet, and a man of the world; like Nicholas, Charles finds “English society too hidebound, English solemnity too solemn, English thought too moralistic, English religion too bigoted.” Though engaged to marry the conventional Ernestina Freeman, Charles finds himself drawn to a mysterious young woman named Sarah Woodruff, whom he first glimpses at the gray, windy seaside while he and Ernestina are in Lyme Regis visiting her aunt. Sarah, a creature of “passion and imagination” who surprises Charles by speaking to him as if she were his intellectual equal, is notorious for her recent scandalous affair with a French lieutenant who, it is said, promised to marry her, took her virtue, and ran away; instead of attempting to make a new life for herself in another part of the country, Sarah has chosen to stay in Lyme Regis—where she is known to everyone as “the French lieutenant’s whore”—and to live with the severely proper Mrs. Poulteney, to whom Sarah is little more than the embodiment of terrible carnal sin. Why has she chosen such a life? Desperate to explain her position to someone who will understand, Sarah persuades Charles to meet her secretly in a large wood (and a lovers’ rendezvous) called the Ware Commons; there she explains that remaining in Lyme Regis and moving in with Mrs. Poulteney was “a kind of suicide,” an “act of despair” which she performed in order to avoid literally killing herself.
On the advice of Charles, who has fallen in love with her, Sarah moves to Exeter; soon afterward, while journeying from London to Lyme Regis, he makes a monumental decision: he will stop in Exeter and spend the night with her. The “moment of choice” (as Fowles calls it) excites him enormously. “He had not the benefit of existential terminology,” writes Fowles; “but what he felt was really a very clear case of the anxiety of freedom—that is, the realization that one is free and the realization that being free is a situation of terror.” Charles also experiences anxiety when, after taking Sarah to bed, he discovers that he has stolen her virginity. Unable to comprehend why she has posed as a fallen woman—or why she has slept with him, an engaged man—Charles speaks to an enlightened doctor, who presents him with a French book of case histories in sexual hysteria. Charles is shocked; the book opens his eyes to a whole world of “perversions” (“and in the pure and sacred sex”!) whose existence the repressed and hypocritical Victorian age could not so much as acknowledge. What Charles has been confronted with in Sarah is the modern era, with its sexual openness, sexual equality, and freedom—an era whose fundamental assumptions and characteristic attitudes were just beginning to emerge at the time of The French Lieutenant’s Woman. The modern era is also, to Fowles, that of the existential man, and Fowles’s novel is, in essence, the story of the gradual emergence of the existential man—the man of passion and freedom and “existentialist terror”—that has been hidden behind Charles Smithson’s proper Victorian façade.
Fowles does not paint the contrast between the Victorian and the modern in black and white
To be sure, Fowles does not paint the contrast between the Victorian and the modern in black and white; The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a dialectical novel, an attempt to see both worlds more clearly, to understand them more fully, and to condemn neither outright. It should not come as a surprise that in some respects Fowles finds the Victorian age far more congenial than our own. It was, for instance, “a world without the tyranny of specialization”; it was also a world without the tyranny of the Many, a world in which the elect still held their own against the hoi polloi. But the modern world was on its way, and majority rule with it; just as Sarah gives Charles a foretaste of modern sexual equality, so his would-be father-in-law Mr. Freeman, and Charles’s servant Sam, give him a foretaste of modern equality of the classes. What Mr. Freeman does is to suggest that Charles go into business with him; Charles decides to reject the offer, and Fowles wants us to admire him for it. “To be sure,” Fowles admits, “there was something base in his rejection—a mere snobbism.”
But there was one noble element in his rejection: a sense that the pursuit of money was an insufficient purpose in life . . . . [H]e gained a queer sort of momentary self-respect in his nothingness, a sense that choosing to be nothing . . . was the last saving grace of a gentleman; his last freedom, almost.
Fowles admires Charles for feeling this way, and for feeling that if he ever sets foot in Mr. Freeman’s store he is “done for”; Fowles explains that “every culture, however undemocratic, or however egalitarian, needs a kind of self-questioning, ethical elite” that rejects “the notion of possession as the purpose of life.” Apparently to Fowles’s way of thinking it’s all right to possess, the way Charles does; it’s just not all right to want to possess.
At any rate, it is Mr. Freeman’s unseemly offer, in part, that prompts Charles—who is beginning to realize that Ernestina may not be right for him—to spend the night in Exeter. And it is Sam’s urge to possess that plays the key role in the next twist of the novel’s plot. Charles, after his night with Sarah, hands Sam a letter to take to her, explaining that he will break off his engagement and marry her; but Sam, wanting Charles to marry Ernestina (whose father can help get Sam started in business), does not deliver it. Consequently, when Charles returns to Exeter for Sarah she is gone; and it is not until almost two years later that Charles finds her. He discovers that Sarah has become a “New Woman,” a member of the bohemian Rossetti circle—which, like Coëtminais and Bourani, is “a community of honorable endeavor, of noble purpose.” But she shows him no affection, remarking coolly that she treasures her independence too much to marry anyone. She has become the complete modern woman, “a spirit prepared to sacrifice everything but itself—ready to surrender truth, feeling, perhaps even all womanly modesty in order to save its own integrity.” Charles perceives his superiority to her, a superiority “not of birth or education, not of intelligence, not of sex, but of an ability to give that was also an inability to compromise.” Charles is truly free; Sarah, unwilling to take risks or to love, is not.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a wonderful cross between a Victorian and a modern novel, and its effectiveness is doubtless due in large part to Fowles’s obvious sympathy with the period. For once his delight in moral and philosophical generalization does not feel at all out of place; after all, the practice of digressing from the plot to offer a few authorial observations is quintessentially Victorian. Fowles, keenly aware of the differences between the Victorian and modern conceptions of the author, plays games with the reader, behaving one minute like Trollope, the next like Roland Barthes. Having ended Chapter Twelve by asking, “Who is Sarah? Out of what shadows does she come?”, Fowles begins Chapter Thirteen by saying that he does not know who Sarah is; his story and characters are imaginary, and if he has pretended to know their minds, it is simply because “I am writing in . . . a convention universally accepted at the time of my story: that the novelist stands next to God.” Rather than puncturing the fictional illusion, however, these interruptions foster in the reader that existential anxiety, that constant feeling of being off-balance, which one has to experience in order to see the world through Fowles’s eyes. Indeed, Fowles goes so far as to offer alternate conclusions to The French Lieutenant’s Woman. In one Charles never sleeps with Sarah and marries Ernestina; in the other his final confrontation with Sarah ends in an embrace. Perhaps the chief virtues of the novel, however, are altogether conventional ones: it is beautifully written, with an elegance and fluency that The Magus (vivid and energetic though it is) often lacks; it is extremely well paced; and it is a tour de force of imaginative reconstruction, not only of Victorian sensibilities but of the cities and landscape of nineteenth-century England. Some of Fowles’s descriptions of the Dorset countryside and seascape are as evocative as impressionistic paintings.
In Daniel Martin (1977), Fowles returns to the contemporary scene. The novel (his longest) has many strengths, but is terribly rambling and prolix, and—when compared to its predecessor—seems the work of a weary and self-obsessed imagination. The eponymous narrator and protagonist—who sometimes refers to himself in the first person, sometimes in the third (“Dan”)—is a successful middle-aged English playwright and screenwriter, the son of a Devonshire preacher, and (like Nicholas Urfe) an Oxford graduate, self-exile, and ladies’ man. He is wrapping up a film in Los Angeles when Jane Mallory, the twin sister of his ex-wife, Neil, summons him to Oxford for a last meeting with her dying husband, Anthony, a philosophy don. At university, the four of them—Dan, Nell, Anthony, and Jane—were inseparable friends who shared a “false paradise,” but Dan has not spoken to Anthony and Jane in years, and has seen Nell only to discuss their daughter, Caroline, who is now about twenty years old. Those happy Oxford days seem very distant now to Dan; directionless and unsatisfied, he finds the film industry every bit as corrupt and degrading as Charles Smithson finds Mr. Freeman’s business in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. He tells his mistress, a young English actress named Jenny McNeil, that he has been “creating] other people” for so long that he feels as if he’s “been taken over by someone else.” He wants to write a novel, but claims to be too much of a perfectionist; Jenny shares with him a friend’s observation that “being a perfectionist and being scared are often the same thing.”
As for his personal life, he has always—shades of Ferdinand Clegg—looked upon women as “specimens”; they are mirrors in which he can “see himself reflected.” His relationship with Jenny is less than passionate; though he is “in love with both her body and her independence,” he feels that “only too frequently ‘I love you’ is a euphemism for ‘I want to own you,’” and he would prefer not to be “intolerably possessive.” He sincerely wants, he says, “to leave Jenny in the public gallery of her own freedom.” But he also admits that he prefers not to feel responsible to her in any profound way. He is a member of a generation that was “brought up in some degree of the nineteenth century,” and that in shedding “unnecessary guilt, irrational respect, and emotional dependence” has in effect sterilized itself, much as Sarah has sterilized herself by the end of The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
When Jane asks him to come to Oxford, Dan is faced with what he recognizes to be a major decision, a “moment of will.” In one of several flashbacks to his student days, he describes another fateful day when he and Jane, both already engaged to be married, declared their mutual love and, “surrendering] to existentialism,” slept together. But they didn’t follow through, and two unfortunate mismatches took place: Jane married the dry-as-dust Anthony, while Dan married the conventional Nell. If Dan’s marriage eroded so quickly, it was because, happy though they had been at Oxford, Dan and Nell were incapable of living happily together in the “real” world. As for Jane and Anthony, they have stayed together in what Dan has always assumed to be a good marriage. It is not until Dan arrives at Oxford that he learns, from a cool, remote Jane, that it hasn’t been good at all; Anthony agrees, admitting that over the years he’s taken the life out of her, and asks that Dan help Jane to discover her old self. That night, Anthony kills himself, and when Dan invites Jane to join him on a Nile cruise, it is clear that something will develop between them.
In the meantime, however, Fowles offers some of his dullest, most discursive prose—and some of his most offensive polemics. The situation is unfortunate: Jane, as it happens, is both a Communist and a terrible snob; Dan seems at times to be only a bit less extreme in both directions; and Fowles, alas, has the opportunity—in the form of their slow, uneventful cruise—to write a number of long shipboard conversations between the two of them about their lives, ideas, and politics. Some of these passages are so rich with illogic—reminiscent of the worst of The Aristos—that one can hardly believe they are not intended as a grotesque parody of a certain type of blinkered upper-class English leftist. For instance, Jane declares her belief in the need for revolutionary social change, but says, “I think certain intellectual climates also have to be preserved. Disciplines. Knowledges. Even pleasures. For when the revolution’s over.” And for her, naturally. What a wonderfully convenient version of Marxism—Marxism with a loophole for intellectual writers and their inquisitive sisters-in-law!
The Nile cruise also gives Fowles a chance to expose Dan and Jane to American tourists—particularly a friendly young scientist named Mitch Hooper and his wife Marcia—and to present us with their opinions on the breed. Mitch makes the mistake of not sharing Dan and Jane’s intellectual interests, and of employing too little subtlety and understatement in his conversation; Jane can barely get through their first conversation without cutting him dead, and afterward she says to Dan, “I used to hate my mother, she used to be so cutting to them [Americans, that is] sometimes. But I don’t know if it isn’t more honest than playing games.” Dan’s reply: “You mustn’t expect subtlety from the backwoods of Illinois.” (They’re from Joliet.) And Dan and Jane proceed to note how the Hoopers disprove “the ridiculous notion that advanced technology produces richer human beings.” Throughout all of this, it is clear that Fowles is using Dan and Jane as mouthpieces; we’re supposed to share their contempt for the Hoopers, supposed to go along with their characterization of Americans as “the most culturally deprived people in the advanced West.” What snobs these Marxists be!
The plain and unfortunate truth is that in Daniel Martin, more than in any of his previous books, Fowles lets his mania for ideas—especially bad ones—get away from him. The fact that he incorporates into the novel extensive quotations from both Antonio Gramsci and Georg Lukács leads one to suspect that he was under the spell of one or both of these philosophers while writing the book. Who but John Fowles would quote sentences such as the following (from Gramsci) in a novel: “The philosophy of praxis is consciousness full of contradictions, in which the philosopher himself, understood both individually and as an entire social group, not merely grasps the contradictions, but posits himself as an element of the contradiction and elevates this element to a principle of knowledge and therefore of action.” So intent is Fowles on having his characters yammer endlessly at each other about such things that, when news comes of Anthony’s suicide, Dan and Jane pause for only a moment, it seems, to express their shock and grief before resuming their witty dialectic. A remark that Anthony makes to Dan sums up the tone of the novel perfectly: “Perhaps the most profound breach in our marriage has been over the question of whether we have some control over our lives or not.” Who but Fowles could write such a sentence with a straight face?
Since Daniel Martin, Fowles has published two additional novels, Mantissa (1982) and A Maggot (1985). Both of these books represent an appreciable falling off in quality from the level of his previous work. In both, Fowles experiments radically with form—and he does so, I think, at the expense of style and content. Significantly, whereas the titles of his earlier novels all refer to characters, the titles of these two novels describe the books themselves—and in neither case very flatteringly. A mantissa, as Fowles coyly explains in a footnote toward the end of the first book, quoting from the Oxford English Dictionary, is an “addition of comparatively small importance, especially to a literary effort or discourse.” As for the word maggot, he tells us in the second book’s prologue that it describes “the larval stage of a winged creature,” has the obsolete meaning of “whim or quirk,” and in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries was used in the titles of “dance-tunes and airs,” such as “Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot.” The titles of both of these later Fowles novels seem designed, then, to indicate that they are admittedly less substantial than their predecessors, that they are jeux d’esprit rather than full-fledged serious novels in the manner of The Magus, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and Daniel Martin.
By a considerable margin. Mantissa is the shortest of all Fowles’s novels. The back cover of the paperback edition describes it as “teasingly enigmatic,” and that it is—but indulgently, rather than interestingly, so. Feverish, inchoate, otherworldly, it is a cousin to such books as Naked Lunch and Why Are We In Vietnam? It begins with a page or so of obscure, convoluted prose in which a character comes to consciousness; he is then told that he is in a hospital room, is addressed as Mr. Green, and spends much of the rest of the novel being sexually abused by a female doctor and nurse, who tell him they are engaged in a serious course of medical treatment and that their function is to provide him with “a source of erotic arousal.” But though they offer to do anything he wants—“we can offer most of [the positions] in the Kama Sutra, Aretino, the Hokuwata Monosaki, Kinsey, Sjostrom”—they show no feeling whatsoever, and take notes while speaking constantly in medical and psychoanalytic jargon. The book contains the usual references to many of Fowles’s pet topics, but it feels shapeless and unfocused; it reads like a narcotics-induced revision of the most odious and sadistic portions of The Magus.
Like The French Lieutenant’s Woman, A Maggot, set in eighteenth-century England, brings together the past and the present, the era of society and the age of the self. A young gentleman and his three companions disappear while on a journey; the book consists primarily of lengthy transcripts of the court inquiry into the matter. The key witness is a “wench” named Rebecca Lee, who tells a fantastic tale of being led by the young gentlemen to a cavern in a wood, where she was taken on board a spacecraft of sorts (she describes it as resembling a giant maggot) and shown films of an ideal futuristic world. She says that the young gentleman and his companions were divinities, and that they and their craft disappeared into the heavens. At the end of the book, Rebecca, having slept with one of the missing men, is delivered of a baby, who turns out to be Ann Lee. Since many readers may not know who Ann Lee is, Fowles, in an epilogue, explains that she was the founder of the Shakers, whom he admires because in the eighteenth century “[u]northodox religion was the only vehicle by which the vast majority, who were neither philosophers nor artists, could express this painful breaking of the seed of the self from the hard soil of an irrational and tradition-bound society.” Ann Lee was, in other words, an existentialist.
To read A Maggot in conjunction with Fowles’s earlier novels is a sad experience.
To read A Maggot in conjunction with Fowles’s earlier novels is a sad experience. The bluntly intrusive authorial remarks about free will and determinism, the Few and the Many, Godhead and authorship assure one that the book is the work of John Fowles, but most of the qualities that make his fiction memorable and his philosophy palatable are absent. Gone are the rich language, the evocative descriptions, the subtly etched characters of, say, The French Lieutenant’s Woman. One has the feeling that Fowles—who has been quoted as saying that he would rather be a good philosopher or poet than a good novelist—has finally grown bored with the fictional way of truth and would rather just come out and say what he has to say. This book makes one realize that perhaps another Fowlesian antithesis should be added to the list at the beginning of this essay—namely, that of philosopher and novelist. For the struggle that each of Fowles’s novels most assuredly dramatizes is the one between these two poles of his professional identity. There is nothing wrong, of course, with a novelist holding strong opinions; the trouble in Fowles’s case is that he focuses so intently upon the beliefs his characters hold and the philosophical concepts they represent that he often seems in danger of reducing the characters to these beliefs and concepts. Fowles has come very close, in his career, to writing a first-rate novel, but one cannot be a truly first-rate novelist without a comprehensive gift for curiosity and empathy, an ability to examine individuals in isolation from their ideas—or at least an ability to recognize, for example, that one man’s existentialism is not the same as another’s.
For all his virtues and accomplishments, Fowles is the best possible illustration of why it was complimentary for Eliot to say of Henry James that he had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it. By closing his mind, as it were, to ideas, James opened it to insight, sympathy, understanding. Fowles, when he wants to be, is a wonderfully perceptive observer of human behavior; but all too often, he takes a promising character and—rather than allow him to develop, to take on dimension, to speak in a fresh and distinctive voice—Fowles leads him once more into the woods, puts him through the paces of yet another Fowlesian godgame, and forces him to utter axioms on mystery, passion, and the need to act. In The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Fowles notes critically that the Victorians “were not the people for existentialist moments, but for chains of cause and effect; for positive all-explaining theories, carefully studied and studiously applied.” Fowles is, in large part, correct to view himself as different from the Victorians he describes. Yet in their own way, his constantly recurring themes and archetypes are as stifling and tyrannical as the most stiff-necked sort of Victorian rationalism; in Mantissa and A Maggot, the enlightened tyranny of the earlier novels has grown capricious and repressive. Fowles’s philosophy has, in short, held him and his fiction in its increasingly deleterious sway for a quarter of a century now; plainly the time has come for Fowles to be a real-life existential hero and to throw it over once and for all.
- All of these titles were published by Little, Brown with the exception of Poems, which was published by Ecco Press.
- That Fowles still maintains these two contrary positions is made clear in an interview that appears in the Spring 1987 issue of Boulevard.
- In an extensively revised edition of The Magus, published in Britain in 1977 and in America a year later, Fowles made Nicholas and Alison’s chances for happiness at the end a bit brighter.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 5 Number 8, on page 21
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