John Fowles’s novels have always been splendid stories, richly written, capable of setting a mood and sustaining it over long pages of narrative. Yet there has always been something mysterious and almost surreal about them. The Collector, a story of human possessiveness, parallels the hobby of butterfly catching; The Magus describes an encounter with other-than-ordinary knowledge and power; The French Lieutenant’s Woman is an attempt to re-create the ethos of Victorian England and to explore the labyrinths of Victorian sexuality. All these novels are at the fringes of reality, all in the twilight world where the ordinary shades into the mysterious, and the imagination seeks to create worlds of meaning and significance from the most ephemeral of evidence. Daniel Martin is quite a different book, a book set in the full light of day, in the full realities of our time and our world. The novel begins with the phrase, “Whole sight; or all the rest is desolation.” The rest of the book is an attempt to see life, one life, whole, and thus to recover it from desolation, to retrieve it for meaning, for significance, for what it can say to others.
The life is that of Daniel Martin, Oxford graduate and serious playwright turned Hollywood scriptwriter with no illusions about the social value of his profession. He who was a husband and father is now turned casual lover and serial polygamist, and is currently having an affair with a young English actress the same age as his daughter. The son of an Anglican vicar steeped in the traditions and landscape of his native England, Martin is now an expatriate, living in the quintessential American landscape of Southern California. He is, therefore, Everyman who feels cut off from past, from origins, who is in exile from all that was, who flees into and thus is prisoner in the present, the momentary, the transitory, the ephemeral.
But the movement of this novel is a turning-back and a turning-within. Because Martin’s affair is with Jenny, an English actress, he is turned back toward his origins. And in the midst of their relationship comes a transatlantic telephone call from his former wife Nell to say that an old Oxford classmate, Anthony Mallory, is dying of cancer and wants to see him before the end. So the journey backwards begins. It is a journey that will take him back to the old country, to old friends, to lost but not forgotten issues, hurts, loves, passions. In his research for a movie on the early twentieth century British hero Kitchener, it will take him back to the realities of the British past. Finally, on a trip to Egypt, it will take him back to the beginnings of human history. But the physical journey only parallels a deeper journey, a journey into self, into the origins of values and emotions and feelings, into the realities of love and death, of brokenness and forgiveness, of reality and illusion. Fowles sets out in this novel to present a man struggling to see himself whole; the result is a remarkable literary achievement, a book almost unique in our time in the richness and complexity and power of its vision.
The plot is simply told: Daniel and Anthony had been friends at Oxford, where Anthony had taken a first in philosophy, and Daniel, a fourth in literature. While there they had met two sisters, Nell and Jane. After college, Nell and Daniel married, had one daughter named Caroline, and, in the course of things, were divorced. Nell remarried another Oxford classmate named Andrew, and now lives with him in his family’s country estate. Daniel went on to a string of casual and not-so-casual liaisons with a wide variety of women. Anthony and Jane married after college, had several children, and are still married when the novel opens. They are still in Oxford, where Anthony has become a professor of philosophy. But this marriage, too, has gone sour; Jane has a lover, while Anthony is dying of cancer. There is but one complication in what is an all-too-conventional and ordinary situation; once, before any of them left college, Daniel and Jane had a brief, one-day-long affair, a sign that there was more to their relationship than just friendship, more that could not be accommodated into the ordinary interaction of potential brother-in-law, sister-in-law.
This is the past that Daniel flies back to in response to Anthony’s plea for a final visit, a past clouded by ill-feeling over Daniel’s breakup of his marriage with Nell. And what Anthony, on his death-bed, calls Daniel to is a redemption of that past, an overcoming of estrangement, a renewal of relationships, a forgiveness of past differences....
(The entire section is 1896 words.)