John Fowles 1926-
British novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, poet, screenwriter, and essayist.
Although he is known primarily as the author of the popular and critically acclaimed novels The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969) and The Maggot (1985), Fowles also wrote a novella and three short stories that comprise his single volume of short fiction, The Ebony Tower (1974), a best-seller in the United States. These works, which focus on failed attempts at self-discovery, represent variations on the themes and narrative methods explored in Fowles's novels. They also imitate and expand upon elements of Marie de France's twelfth-century romance Eliduc, a translation of which also is included in the book. Marked by strong narration and a richly allusive, descriptive style, Fowles's short fiction features resourceful characters confronted with complicated situations amid lavish backgrounds infused with legend, history, and art. However, since Fowles rejects the role of the omniscient narrator, and the stories lack satisfactory resolution—opting instead for ambiguous, open-ended conclusions—readers often have been annoyed. Fowles has defended this practice with his belief that an artist's responsibility demands that his characters have the freedom to choose and to act within their limitations. Critics frequently have emphasized the existential qualities manifested by Fowles's narrative technique, and many have admired his ability to actively engage his audience in the quest for answers.
Born in Essex, England—a city on the outskirts of London—Fowles attended a suburban preparatory school until his family moved to rural Devonshire to escape the German air raids of World War II. There, he experienced the "mystery and beauty" of the natural world, the importance of which is evident in his fiction. He served two years as a lieutenant in the Royal Marines, but never saw combat, since the end of his training coincided with the end of the war. After receiving a B.A. with honors in French literature from Oxford University in 1950, Fowles taught at numerous schools in England and Europe, including two years in the early 1950s at Anargyrios College on the Greek island of Spetsai. These were crucial years to his artistic development for he first began to write there; the fictive island of Phraxos in The Magus (1965) is modeled on Spetsai. In 1963 Fowles published The Collector and the novel's success allowed him to retire from teaching. Since 1958, Fowles has lived in Lyme Regis, a coastal town in southern England, which serves as the setting for The French Lieutenant's Woman. His other writings include a philosophical work, The Aristos (1964); the verse collection Poems (1973), written during his time in Greece; the novels Daniel Martin (1977) and Mantissa (1982); numerous nonfiction works; and an essay collection, Wormholes (1998). The Collector, The Magus, and The French Lieutenant's Woman were adapted for film and produced in 1965, 1968, and 1981, respectively.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Evincing a deep appreciation of nature, the Celtic-inspired stories of The Ebony Tower demonstrate the influence of French literary tradition and culture, as well as Fowles's nonconformist social consciousness. The collection opens with the novella The Ebony Tower, in which David Williams, a comfortably married, English art critic and abstractionist painter, is sent to Brittany, a rural district in France, to interview William Breasley, a famous expatriate representational painter with a notorious personal reputation who openly despises abstract art. The conflict between the two painters, which prominently foregrounds the connection between art and life that informs the entire collection, develops not only out of their different approaches to art but also from Williams's unsuccessful attempt at infidelity with Diana, one of Breasley's art students and girlfriend. The novella is followed by Fowles's translation of Eliduc, a medieval quest romance in which the title character, a victorious and married knight from Brittany, seeks adventure in England. While there, he elopes with Guilliadun, an English king's daughter, who falls into a trance upon learning about his other wife, Guildeluec. Guilliadun revives only after Guildeluec intervenes with the aid of the magical red flower of the weasel. Acknowledging her husband's love for his new wife, Guildeluec leaves them and becomes a nun, reuniting with them by the romance's end in praise of Christianity. In the next story, "Poor Koko," an aged, diminutive scholar writing a biography about nineteenth-century novelist Thomas Love Peacock encounters a young thief who converses with the writer about diverse topics while stealing the household's goods. After failing to coerce the writer into making him the subject of his study, the thief destroys the professor's manuscript. Narrated some time after the robbery, "Poor Koko" interweaves Fowles's commentary on class conflict—the motivation for the crime—and the power of language to oppress. "The Enigma," the penultimate story, concerns the mysterious disappearance of John Marcus Fielding, a member of Parliament who strictly lived by routine and whose absence is never explained. Much speculation ensues, but an interview with Fielding's son's girlfriend, an aspiring novelist who suggests to the investigating detective that he imagine himself as a writer trying to conclude a book, shifts the focus of the story away from the missing M.P. to the ambiguities of male-female relationships, another persistent theme in Fowles's work. Finally, "The Cloud" recounts a vacation in central France taken by a group of English friends, including a recently widowed and depressed woman who tells a tale about a lost princess waiting for her prince. Subsequently, she disappears, too, which gestures once again toward the connection between life and art.
Commentary about The Ebony Tower has centered mainly on two areas: whether or not the collected stories share continuity with each other and the significance of the collection in Fowles's body of writings. Many critics have read the collection as an integrated whole, citing Fowles's own statement in "A Personal Note," which precedes his translation of Eliduc. He wrote: "The working title of this collection of stories was Variations, by which I mean to suggest variations both on certain themes in previous books of mine and in methods of narrative presentation." Although some have stressed that the stories can adequately stand alone—as various studies of individual stories have attested—others have demonstrated the pervasive influence of Celtic romance in the stories, including the prominence of various quest motifs, the classical and medieval contexts of certain narrative elements, and the persistent emphasis on the relation between art and life. A number of critics have considered the collection's relation to Fowles's work as a novelist, investigating the thematic, artistic, narrative, and character parallels between the stories and Fowles's previous novels. In addition, several scholars have suggested that conventions of the short story form itself inform the themes and structure of the collection, pointing to Fowles's contributions to the postmodern development of the genre. Summarizing Fowles's achievement in the short story genre, David W. Endicott has concluded that "with The Ebony Tower he achieves a loosely thematic balance in stories that remain rich in the traditions that have greatly influenced his growth as an author."