Fowles, John (Vol. 10)
Fowles, John 1926–
Fowles is a British novelist, short story writer, translator, essayist, and poet. His work is a blend of classical and mythical allusions presented in a modern idiom; The French Lieutenant's Woman, for example, is Victorian in story and style, but innovative in narrative technique and in its examination of the concept of time. Fowles consistently scrutinizes the importance of history in his novels, exploring how the past can inform the present. Recurring in Fowles's fiction is the idea that woman, because of her inherent "otherness," is fundamentally incomprehensible to man. Fowles uses this theme to analyze what man can know, and, further, what the artist, with the limitations of his perception and his ability, can reveal about the human condition. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
One of the central concerns of metafiction from Borges to Barth—or perhaps, more accurately, from Laurence Sterne to Barth—has been the reanimation and expansion of the commonplace that each man's life is a novel of which that man is the author. If the commonplace is accepted, it follows that almost all novels are about "novels"; and that a novel in which the problem of fictiveness becomes explicit will be required in order to satisfy the thirst of the ironic consciousness for an adequate complexity of treatment. John Fowles's brilliant exploration of these ideas and their ramifications in his three novels points to a very complex and sophisticated view of the relation between "art" and "life." (p. 204)
[Frank Kermode's concept of the modern novel states that in] order to make sense to his reader, in order to present a humanized perception of existence, the novelist must fall back upon "eidetic images—illusions persisting from past acts of perception, as some abnormal children 'see' the page or object that is no longer before them…." It is obvious that "eidetic," in this sense, must apply to almost all of the generalizations and patterns by which we organize our sense perceptions. The very act of using these images, however, belies the contingency and the perpetual flux of reality. This dilemma of the novelist obviously derives, by analogy, from the existential dilemma of achieving authenticity—of avoiding Sartrean...
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John Fowles has never been at ease with fiction. Even in so neat a package as The Collector we had the sense, here and there, of one or other of the author's intellectual concerns awkwardly protruding from the surface of the narrative. The Magus, probably the best thing he has ever done, used the machinery of fiction like a hydro-electric dam adequately to contain and direct his sometimes overpowering conceptual flow. In The French Lieutenant's Woman, an archetypally late 1960s morsel of rediscovered Victoriana, the wall finally collapsed and a flood of Fowles's Patent Notions came washing over us. I wasn't, I suspect, the only reader irritated at having to endure a drenching from a mixture of archly self-conscious detachment, toe-curling patronage, and a set of opinions, stated or implied, on the Victorians which I didn't share….
His aim, a sufficiently laudable one, seems always to have been towards extending the range of possibilities within the traditional framework of the novel—take, for example, the experimental endings of The French Lieutenant's Woman. We can feel a certain gratitude, besides, to a writer who so gamely takes his reader's intelligence for granted. His chosen style, in Daniel Martin, is honest and plain enough. He has clearly noted the figures and types necessary for convincing us with each one of his small cast of characters. There is the additional interest of imagining, in...
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Daniel Martin is a love story that might take place anywhere: indeed, it mostly takes place in circumstances which liberate hero and heroine from any involvement in society, politics, or ideology, on a trip to Egypt, the Nile, Abu Simbel, Palmyra, Lebanon. The relation between social structure and individual feeling is a major theme in itself, but it does not exert any pressure upon Daniel Martin. Fowles evidently wanted to exhibit the mutual bearing of society and individual, but the design does not go any further than the device of making Dan an English writer temporarily doctoring scripts in Hollywood….
Fowles's native theme is more accurately indicated in the epigraph to The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969), a sentence from Zur Judenfrage in which Marx says that "every emancipation is a restoration of the human world and of human relationships to man himself." Much of the significance of The French Lieutenant's Woman arises from the conditions of that emancipation: social and personal relations are shown not as separate constituents of reality but as interconnected systems of motives, values, and actions. But if we are to think of Fowles's theme as it is displayed in his several novels and stories, we must define it more narrowly. He is preoccupied with the habit by which we turn other people into objects and take possession of them…. Fowles's characters turn one another into objects, and then...
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John Fowles's opening chapter [in Daniel Martin] is rich and promising. His stated aim is to offer "an exploration of what it means to be English", and his epigraph from Antonio Gramsci ("The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appears") promises an objective diagnosis of English decline. Succeeding chapters set in California and Oxford seem to have a fairly sure grasp of cultural realities and limitations—Los Angeles is described as "those famous hundred suburbs in search of a city", and Oxford is "not a city, but an incest." But then [a] feeling of too-familiar recognition … begins to deepen…. [The] trouble is that Fowles's narrative technique is so self-conscious it seems like a form of self-abuse—it's reminiscent of Isherwood's unbearably narcissistic Christopher and His Kind—while the characters it manipulates are a series of talkative transparencies who join Daniel Martin in numerous seminars on all those human emotions and motives we're meant to credit them with possessing. It's quite incredible that Fowles should present his celluloid fiction as an illustration "of an unfashionable philosophy, humanism." His vaguely theoretic and occasionally mystic imagination is in no sense humanist…. [The] illusion of participating in a deeply intellectual narrative is adeptly created. It is, unfortunately, only an illusion....
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William H. Pritchard
After arising some days later from finishing the [revised version of The Magus], one feels—as is usually the case in reading Fowles—ambivalent. Doubtless "The Magus" is too long, but, as with the recent "Daniel Martin," that seems a dull thing to say. Sentences and paragraphs have been recast into a generally less sporadic if not clearly superior narrative. The erotic scenes have been developed and extended, though to no new point of revelation. And the same big, un-English ideas are kicking around: Hazard, Freedom, Infinity and those other concepts, which in "The Aristos: A Self-Portrait in Ideas" (1964) Mr. Fowles went on about so solemnly in so many aphorisms for so long. Those who, unlike this reader, were bored or annoyed by the speculation and argumentation in "Daniel Martin" will not find any more to their tastes the intellectual content of the revised "Magus."
Yet it is a remarkable tour de force, and not just as a promising writer's first novel. (pp. 7, 41)
What the reader consents to if he goes beyond the first 50 pages of the book (very good pages, the writing about London is first-rate) is an ambiguous alliance with the hero-narrator, Nicholas, who for our entertainment as well as his own presumed good is teased, fooled, lied to, and in one way or another seduced by Conchis and his minions—the revised version makes many analogies with "The Tempest." At the same time, we must indulge our...
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John Fowles is, in his recent novel Daniel Martin, as he was in his preceding novel, The French Lieutenant's Woman,… explicitly conscious of his attitude toward his own characters…. Fowles is fond of almost all of [them], sometimes, perhaps, excessively fond…. Man's brutality toward other creatures, in Fowles's world, is endemic, established in the first chapter, an account of a summer day during which Daniel Martin, the narrator and the subject of a long search for himself, worked helping out on a farm in Devon in 1942, a day on which he saw the mower, moving through high grass, slice the legs off a concealed rabbit and then saw the German bombers rip the skies on their way to Exeter…. [Fowles's use of animal imagery], like his use of the rabbit, is never heavy or melodramatic; rather, it is understated, part of a dense texture of detail, conversation, description, and experience.
The recovery of Daniel and Jane is …, both implicitly and explicitly, the recovery of their generation, what Fowles calls the last generation "brought up in some degree of the nineteenth century, since the twentieth did not begin till 1945." The whole story of Daniel and Jane, the love and its immediate denial, the resolution of the complexities of emotional attachment by punishing the self, is itself a standard Victorian Romantic story…. The initial conversations between Daniel and Jane, at Oxford in 1950, are part of their belated...
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