(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Readers drawn to John Fowles’s novels since his first, The Collector, was published in 1963 will welcome this gathering of essays written over the following decades. Fowles’s novels vary considerably in style and subject matter, from the eerie horror of The Collector to the dazzlingly labyrinthine plotting of The Magus (1965, revised 1978); from his 1969 The French Lieutenant’s Woman’s twentieth century construction of Victorian relationships between men and women, to 1985’s A Maggot’s stranger evocation of seventeenth century Protestant Dissent, to 1977’s Daniel Martin’s exploration of a contemporary middle-aged male in crisis; from 1974’s The Ebony Tower’s echoing of medieval French romance to 1982’s Mantissa’s enactment of the struggle between a writer and his demanding, exasperating muse. In one of the essays here, “My Recollections of Kafka,” Fowles contrasts Franz Kafka’s achievement of a voice so memorable as to make “Kafkaesque” a familiar adjective with his own decision “to write in different styles and voices, and different forms of the novel.” What he describes as “my obsession . . . with new (to me) writing worlds” has produced not only the formal diversity of his fiction but the correspondingly wide range of topics he addresses in these essays, from the nature of nature to national cultural identity, from the psychology of novel-writing to the fascination with shipwrecks.

Despite the variety, there are, as his title Wormholes suggests, such strong connections among Fowles’s passions that his essays, along with his fiction, form coherent linkages. If “Fowlesian” will not find a place in dictionaries, he has nevertheless, in his movement among writing worlds, inducted his readers into a Fowlesian universe. Fowles quotes the Oxford English Dictionary definition of “wormhole,” a term used by physicists, as “a hypothetical interconnection between widely separated regions of space-time.” The achievement of all of his writing is to make his hypothetical interconnections assume an intense imaginative reality, and a fascination of the Wormholes essays is their demonstration of the psychological and literary processes through which this reality is created.

The editor of Wormholes, Jan Relf, has divided her selection of Fowles’s essays into four sections, each arranged chronologically. The first, “Autobiographical: Writing and the Self,” assembles more purely autobiographical pieces; other sections are entitled “Culture and Society,” “Literature and Literary Criticism,” and “Nature and the Nature of Nature.” The book is completed by a 1995 interview of Fowles by the American critic Dianne Vipond. That many of the essays in the later sections have strong autobiographical elements—an essay on Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved (1892) is perhaps the most profoundly autobiographical piece in the book—indicates the appropriateness of the “wormholes” metaphor for the whole collection. Though Fowles frequently expresses uneasiness about the relationship between literature and the academy and prefers to think of his audience as the general reader, one audience for which Wormholes is clearly designed—with its helpful index and the orientation toward posterity expressed by its concluding, rather stiff, interview—is an academic one: people who want to write essays or books about Fowles. Nevertheless, the greatest beneficiaries of the book will be readers, in and out of the academy, who have been moved by one or more of Fowles’s fictions and will be delighted at the elaboration of the fictions’ imaginative contexts, whether these contexts be particular geographical spaces, the creations of other writers, or the thinking about nature, the self, or contemporary society that contributes to the novels’ themes.

Individually, the essays vary in quality. The weakest, and happily shortest, section is that on culture and society, which includes a piece on the folly of the Falklands War, an essay bemoaning a cultural obsession with female youth in the form of starlets, and an essay called “On Being English but Not British.” Polemics are not Fowles’s strength as a writer, and neither the Falklands War nor the phenomenon of starlets, however much one agrees with Fowles’s opinions about them, is likely to induce great prose. Thinking about being English, in the essay here, leads Fowles to an unfortunate categorization of the Irish, Welsh, and Scots as chiefly defined by a lucrative (to them) dislike of the English. Fowles is on safer ground when he contrasts “Englishness” with the mentality of imperial Great Britain, and feelings about his own rural England and the strengths and limitations of the English national character are important to some of his fiction. Nevertheless, his political thinking is much less effectively conveyed in these essays than it is when, for example, he connects it with the experience of the title character of Daniel Martin, a persona that only in part represents Fowles himself.

Several complete essays and remarks in...

(The entire section is 2113 words.)