Fowles, John 1926–
Fowles is an English novelist whose outstanding fiction displays keen psychological, historical, and sociological insight. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Following the blaze of approval initially greeting [The French Lieutenant's Woman], a few flickers of dubiety, of critical reserve, and of modest apprehension may now be discerned; for the indisputably talented Mr. Fowles while writing a romance in Victorian style has not hesitated to adopt a wholly modern viewpoint and quite contemporary techniques. His book is indeed placed in the London of one hundred years ago with manners and morals accurately represented. He departs from convention by allowing the author to intrude from time to time in his own person and with a present-day commentary, thus breaking the spell; then, too, he outrages narrative proprieties characteristic of the genre by advancing not one dénouement but a series of them, all equivocal and each suspect, none of them conclusive or persuasive. His tale of two women and a man, though based on an ancient formula, simply does not conform to the pattern, leading directly to a suspicion that the author, well aware of his virtuosity, has succumbed to the temptation of dazzling his readers with a display of his skills, or else with Freudian games out of key with his material. Artificial profundity has been in any case conferred upon a story unable to sustain the burden. Refuge must be sought in frank admiration for the dexterity and agility thus to be seen, whatever the ultimate success or failure of a brave effort to afford novelty. Mr. Fowles' thoughtful, always entertaining book is patently of more than transitory importance, for all his idiosyncratic obtrusions and affectations.
Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 46, No. 2 (Spring, 1970), p. xl.
Fowles is, without question, a brilliant storyteller, in the simple and fundamental sense that he keeps one reading out of sheer curiosity to know what he's going to produce next, and he can put on an impressive parade of learning, though it can't be said that he wears it "lightly, like a flower."…
Fowles' second book, The Aristos, is subtitled a "self-portrait in ideas." An attempt to present the author's views on the role of man, in terms of belief and action, in the contemporary world, it is written as a collection of aphorisms. As Fowles notes himself, in a recent interview, "The pensée form is very antipathetic to the English palate." Fowles' book is full of interesting notions, but I'm afraid it has to be called pretentious. In other words, it falls far short of what it promises. This was probably inevitable, the masters of the form, or rather the masters of the aphorism as a means of philosophical discourse, being at once so few and so great. Whether a writer is wise to present himself as in competition with Pascal and Nietzsche is a matter of opinion; but at least it can be taken as an indication of the writer's ambition.
And ambition is probably the first thing that strikes one about Fowles' second novel, The Magus (1966). It runs to more than 600 pages and is a very elaborate structure indeed. Again I find it difficult to avoid the word pretentious. It is certainly grossly self-indulgent, though it is only fair to add that Fowles himself now seems to consider it a failure….
Fowles himself, challenged to state the meaning of the novel by one interviewer, says: "I was trying to tell a fable about the relationship between man and his conception of God." Well yes; good enough as far as it goes. But if this is so, and I don't doubt that it is, all one can say is that Fowles invented the wrong fable. The Magus is a difficult novel; but then I think of another difficult novel, which could also be said to tell a fable about the relationship between man and his conception of God, Kafka's The Trial and there is a world of difference between the two and the nature of the difficulties implicit in them. In Kafka the difficulties are inherent in the problem as dramatised in the fable, and indeed the problem is the fable. We are faced with the ultimate questions, the ultimate riddle, and the fable is stated in what may be called naturalistic terms. We are all the time in a city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; the setting is palpable and tangible. It is there, like external reality.
I don't find anything like this in The Magus….
There is a credit side to the novel. Fowles' renderings of the Edwardian age, his descriptions of fighting in the first World War and of the German occupation of Greece in the second, are splendid feats of the historical imagination, and they indicate, in my view, the true nature of Fowles' talent.
Which brings me to The French Lieutenant's Woman. It is a most interesting novel, a genuine achievement, though not, I think, quite in the way some American reviews have seen. It is, first and foremost, an historical novel, and for all its up-to-date asides, an historical novel of an old-fashioned kind. Among scholars and some writers, the Victorian age has been "in" for almost thirty years. But I suspect that the educated layman, in the United States particularly, was jerked into full awareness of the Victorian age and its manifold and curious differences from our own only by the appearance, four years ago, of Steven Marcus' The Other Victorians. The French Lieutenant's Woman gives us a post-Marcus view, as it were, of the Victorian age. This is not to say that Fowles' theme is Victorian sex; it is much wider than that; but he does give his Victorian hero a sexual life of a kind that, though modest and unspectacular enough, would scarcely even have been hinted at in a Victorian novel….
What fascinates me, though, is that the sudden authorial intrusion, the dropping of the novelist's persona as narrator, is itself thoroughly Victorian. Fowles' Chapter 13 is, as it were, the mirror-image of George Eliot's Chapter "In Which the Story Pauses a Little" in Adam Bede. Fowles is a very clever man.
The significance of The French Lieutenant's Woman doesn't lie in its "experimental" features. These are much more apparent than real and, in my view, are a boring red herring. The French Lieutenant's Woman stands up in its own right as a remarkably solid historical novel in which Fowles recreates a large part of the ferment in English life a century ago, the intellectual ferment, the class ferment, the shifting of classes, the shifting of power, and the effects of these on the assumptions by which men and women live. It is a quite considerable achievement.
Walter Allen, "The Achievement of John Fowles," in Encounter, August, 1970, pp. 64-7.
I want to examine the unity of Fowles's fiction, taking note of the existential continuity which the author himself has frequently drawn attention to, and emphasising their generic similarities as romances. Both the gothic romance, beginning with Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1764), and the historical romance, beginning with Scott's Waverley (1814), evolved popular traditions which Fowles's three novels—despite their author's posture as a realist—can be seen as inheriting and revitalising in order to re-create multi-levelled romance fictions of considerable complexity and depth.
The gothic novel and the historical romance have traditionally been regarded as sub-literature, fringe reading unsuited to the mature and educated sensibility…. Though the objections to romance can be intellectual, the scorn of the professional writer for the often uneven and shamelessly derivative style of the romance novelist (evidenced for example in Coleridge's angry dismissal of Scott's work as 'Wretched trash'), the usual objection … is moral…. The romance found an unexpected defender in Henry James, who regarded it as an 'attribute' that the genre dealt in experiences remote from a normative social ethos …, a point of view significantly amplified by the meaningful way in which each of Fowles's three novels begins with the precise location of time and place, moves into dimensions of myth, and then gravitates back to the secure identity of an English social landscape….
Fowles inverts the traditionally assumed dichotomy between the romancer and the realist writer, manipulating the romance form to effect both a sceptical examination of the romance experience and, more radically, a critique of contemporary realist fiction for its absence of moral responsibility…. While maintaining the element of exotic distance which inheres in the romance form, Fowles permits his works to function as parables of human character which he regards as of immediate relevance to contemporary English social realities. English society becomes a mythic battle-ground for Fowles, in which solitary individuals engage in a conflict for moral and imaginative survival against 'the great universal stodge' … of social conformity….
Fowles is very far from being unaware of the strains involved in being a didactic writer, and the security of his narratives is frequently questioned by elements of ambiguity and self-parody…. The parody does not however ultimately detract from the seriousness of Fowles's exploration or the relationship which figures in the 'godgame' involved in any novel, an exploration which is dramatically assimilated to his existential philosophy of freedom by the radical device of offering the reader three alternative conclusions to the plot action. Whether or not the choices manifest in this gesture are meaningful at anything more than a conceptual level and do not instead have their posited equality eroded by the linear nature of the novel form remains debatable. Either way these highly self-conscious manipulations of romance situations testify to the originality and awareness underlying Fowles's exploitation of the genre, conferring a discernible structural continuity on to his novels and showing them to be something more than the simple entertainments which many reviewers and critics originally perceived them to be….
The Collector is entirely credible at a 'realistic' level…. At the same time a variety of literary allusions and echoes convert the action of the story towards a mythic resonance, while the novel itself cannot be said to possess the 'unique plot' attributed to it by Fowles's interviewer. On the contrary, the theme of the persecuted maiden has a long literary heritage and became a stock property of the gothic romance…. Fowles takes this romance situation and updates it, infusing it with psychological, metaphysical and moral dimensions…. Miranda ultimately dies because there is simply no moral level on which she can communicate with Clegg; his moral atrophy has reached a stage where any potential for change has become ineluctably frozen. Fowles emphasises the fine balance that exists in the individual between a potential for good or evil, but in Clegg's case the descent into the pathological is the ingrown result of years of environmental repression, and it is the incurability of his delusions which makes The Collector such a tragic and bleakly pessimistic novel….
The Collector contains in embryo the psychological and philosophical ideas which in the later two works appear as the mature expression of a personal and anglicized brand of existentialism, bridged by the appearance of The Aristos (1965), a pensée-like collection of pithy definitions of man's social and metaphysical condition…. The Aristos is a brave statement of his personal views and testifies to the seriousness and scope of the ideas underlying his sensational novels, but the originality of Fowles's existentialist philosophy locates itself more in the eclectic unity it makes when moulded into a dramatic fictional situation, rather than in the ideas themselves, which largely seem to derive from Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre. The emphasis on personal choice is central to Fowles's philosophy…. [It] is in Fowles's conception of character that we come more centrally to the dramatic persuasiveness of his existentialist philosophy, realized in the way moral growth springs dialectically out of the tissue of contradictions which his major protagonists embody….
[His] affirmative and optimistic attitude towards life distinguishes Fowles's novels from the existential fictions of Sartre and Camus, as well as from the chic pessimism of the Waste Land mentality. Instead of nausea and disgust Fowles's existentialist characters experience moments of epiphany when they capture a sense both of the continuity of time alive in every moment (in Fowles's terminology 'the horizontality of existence') and of the richness and density of the contingent world; instead of dramatising despair or gratuitous acts of rebellion his novels propose a stoic endurance and a sharp recognition of the possibilities open to every individual at each moment when choices demand to be made….
The two main criticisms levelled against The Magus, that it is both unrealistic in its fabulously contorted plot and hollow in its meaning, are criteria of judgement which have been used against romances from the earliest days of the novel…. The assumption that The Magus is an entertaining but ultimately frustrating and vacuous thriller is quite mistaken…. [The] novel as a parable is open to the same structural ambiguity as that … in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: are Nicholas Urfe and Joyce's Stephen finally transfigured, or is the last upward movement merely a gesture, another turn in an endless cycle?… Just as Tristram Shandy arrives at the sardonic conclusion that the whole novel has simply been a cock and bull story, so at the centre of The Magus is the joke that this is a mystery novel which contains no mystery at all…. The Magus is a novel turned in on itself, crammed with Chinese boxes which ironically mirror the broader meaning of the narratives….
The French Lieutenant's Woman is clearly not, like the previous two novels, in the mainstream of the gothic romance tradition, but is rather in the genre which developed out of the gothic, that of the historical romance…. To see the novel as an historical romance allows us to understand the generic continuity of Fowles's fiction in a way that other definitions such as 'anti-novel' or 'reconstructed Victorian novel' tend to blur. Fowles's third novel contains all the characteristic properties of the historical romance, including a Persecuted Maiden, the motif of flight, and dramatization of 'history—real history, as distinguished from legend and myth,' backed up by an impressive array of documentation. The naive use of mobility which the historical romancer makes is turned to comic effect by Fowles in a novel which proceeds with a quirky, Chaplinesque narrative rhythm, luxuriating in ironically redundant social-historical data and self-conscious authorial wit. The French Lieutenant's Woman is not substantially any more of an 'anti-novel' than The Magus, though its fictive self-consciousness is made very much more overt, and it is structurally very different [from] 'anti-novels' such as Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds or Malcolm Lowry's Through the Panama, where the narratives explode in exuberant confusion and never quite come back together. A perceptive reviewer recently characterised Iris Murdoch's The Black Prince as an 'anti anti-novel' and despite the ponderousness of the term it's a definition which could also be usefully applied to Fowles's novel for the way in which the reductive ironies, the structural critiques and the sardonic digressions do not irrevocably violate narrative progression but are instead absorbed into it….
Though romance plots, existential ideas and psychological dramas provide a coherent continuity to Fowles's fiction his final meaning remains moral. Seeing him as a romancer enables us to recognise both the structural unity of his fiction and the radical way in which he enforces a reappraisal of customary responses to romance, challenging the traditional cognition of the genre as escapist entertainment and pointing towards a new and morally-ambitious direction in post-war British fiction which satisfies the usually conflicting demands of both an academic and popular readership.
Ronald Binns, "John Fowles: Radical Romancer," in Critical Quarterly, Winter, 1973, pp. 317-34.
Fowles puts right at the centre of his work a superb generative energy, a history-making gift, a power of what, until the word 'story' weakened in critical credit, was called story-telling, of such an order that the philosophical and aesthetic articulation of his works seems modified by its presence. The aesthetic problem, the problem of fictions, is in fact created very deep inside The Magus, made less an aspect of its construction and management than of its theme. It remains, of course, a book about art; it is the sort of book a novelist might write in order to assert, for himself and others, a sense of the possibilities open to fiction in a time when our ideas and notions of freedom, of selfhood, and of significant order are in ferment, and complex problems of modern history, modern psychic life or consciousness, modern notions of selfhood and of reality, and modern aesthetics of form have to be synthesized. These, we may propose, though the reviewers did not, are the inner themes of The Magus; and the hypothesis has a fair confirmation in The French Lieutenant's Woman, where a number of these themes rise explicitly to the presentational surface, implicating the novelist himself and becoming part of his technical self-questioning and self-development. In both books the hero is led towards a state of exposure or self-discovery, led out of one state of consciousness into another, in a world in which the historical determinants of consciousness are extremely significant and in which the capacity to learn through fictions is central….
Fowles does not dissolve the tradition of realism completely, and … in many respects his aim, like Iris Murdoch's, seems to be to preserve as much humanism for the novel as can be got. If the traditional novel may, by the linearity and rigour of its plot and by authorial omniscience, seem to control and limit, the modernist one may, by the placing of character in long formal perspectives, tend to dehumanize, to ironize. Fowles has reason to claim his contemporaneity, but also some to question it; and both these things I think he does. He knows his modernity, systematically, as a deep structure in consciousness; and his essential theme, the encounter of his heroes with the dreadful freedom pushed upon us out of history, supports his more flamboyant aesthetic pretensions. But his work has something of the air of forcing itself towards a formal self-consciousness of surface, rather than inherently needing it. So in The French Lieutenant's Woman one feels left, as I have said, with a sense of mystification. The realistic Victorian mode of the novel, in which Fowles seems capable of working at high intensity, is also represented as authoritarian and containing; the modern mode, which comports with Sarah's modernizing consciousness and also opens the door of formal opportunity, allows for unpredictability and contingency. Yet Fowles's real intensity of achievement lies above all in what he does in the former mode, and what he does there is only to be explained in terms of a realistic aesthetic that responds to the intensities created by living with the object or person the writer invents and develops. The larger framing apparatus has the air of being functional and enabling, and in some ways doesn't so much free the material as reify and distance it. The book actually succeeds, I suspect, on the level of its sheer impurity. Fowles is, in the end, an ethical novelist with a predilection for disguise; and he requires, clearly, many 'liberal' constituents in his novel which are not present in the formal wholeness of a novel by, say, Robbe-Grillet. His typical novel is perhaps a bridging enterprise, an aesthetic marriage of phrases of style. This may explain something of the oddity of The Magus, a rather more mysterious and I think commanding novel than The French Lieutenant's Woman….
The Magus is concerned with the familiar obsessions of modernism—with the hope that beyond the ordinary, contingent, and disillusioned world of real life there lies a meaning of fullness, balance, and regard for mystery, and the suspicion that this transcendent hope is one beyond life and time and therefore can only be a translucent, literary image. But it is also very much aware of the unsatisfactoriness of asserting simply a formal salvation, hope of redemption through an aesthetic unity. And Fowles does indeed manage to create the sense that his structures and obsessions are not borrowed properties but fulfill a logical need to consider how the imagination now may design, shape, and give meaning to the world….
The Magus is generically a mythic novel or perhaps rather a romance, and this kind of fiction of the mysterious web has a long and honourable ancestry. Indeed, Fowles himself draws on a number of significant literary allusions. Conchis is Prospero, magician, psychopomp—the mysterious creator of mysteries, the symbolist of the world of the unseen, the agent of the supernatural, the psychic force that can lead us through to a new version of reality. He is a splendid impresario, rather like the figure of the author who appears, in his lavishly embroidered summer waistcoat, to spy on the agents of The French Lieutenant's Woman. But Fowles deals with him in an ambiguous way, though in a way not unfamiliar in much modern fiction. An obvious comparison can be made to Iris Murdoch, some of whose novels—A Severed Head, The Unicorn, and others—involve a mythic universe in which mystery suggests the problems of a lost order or structure not available in liberal-conventional notions of reality. Like Iris Murdoch, Fowles is clearly concerned not simply with mystery for its own sake, or the vague evocation of powers undreamt of in our philosophy, but with forces and structures that underlie our rational being, sociopsychic forces that are not readily registered in the fiction of documentary modes. In Iris Murdoch it is, I think, fairly evident that we are invited 'out' of society in order to see the powers which underpin it, powers which presume new relationships and new risks with selfhood that must by necessity be explored. The problem of the mode is that it characteristically involves a high degree of fictional faking, and there is a strong temptation for the novelist to create a sense of mystery and special insight which is no more than a numinously dramatic satisfaction, a building up of myth for its own splendid sake. Fowles obviously piles on the suspense by making Urfe at times less aware of what has to be going on than he should be, and the elaborate forgeries and ruses employed by Conchis require a kind of good luck to sustain the illusion which Fowles as novelist always grants.
Malcolm Bradbury, "The Novelist as Impresario: John Fowles and His Magus," in his Possibilities: Essays on the State of the Novel (© 1973 by Malcolm Bradbury; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1973, pp. 256-71.