Fowles, John (Vol. 6)
Fowles, John 1926–
Fowles is a British novelist at the center of whose fiction is an abiding nonegalitarian distinction between the few and the many, the manipulator and the manipulated. "Aristo" is for Fowles the existentialist hero, the One who has struggled against the Many and achieved his own "authenticity." Fowles has said that the Greeks, even today, are "the most human (because the most individualistic) of all races" and that his own cultural roots are Greek, French, and English. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Readers of John Fowles's work may fairly guess that when he was a schoolmaster he was quite good at the job. He attracts the class's attention with mysterious tales, sensuous, inconclusive, non-didactic, and then hits them with large public statements or a set of hard questions to which he offers no answer. In this enjoyable collection of five novellas [The Ebony Tower], there is one, 'Poor Koko', which strongly resembles his first novel, The Collector, in that it is quite a plausible story about a rational person being captured by an unpredictable, apparently irrational person. 'Poor Koko' concludes with the rational person, the narrator, arguing with himself about the reason for his captor's behaviour: there is a set of questions and a literally gnomic attempt at an answer, alluding to a proverb in Old Cornish and to the Japanese word for 'correct filial behaviour, the proper attitude of son to father'. One can see a case for applying the word 'pseud': but I think that would be wrong. Fowles is clearly pleased about the recondite data he has gathered, and wishes to share it: he is not showing it off as a pedestal on which to pose….
The title story has more in common with his third novel, The French Lieutenant's Woman, with its deliberate pace enhancing its sensuous appeal, and its careful setting of one era against another…. Among the large public statements delivered in this story is a challenging account of 'abstraction' as a bolt-hole for the talentless: the emptiness of contemporary arts is represented as an 'ebony tower'….
The two most unusual things about this writer are his blending of an authoritarian, pedagogic attitude to the reader with a tormenting refusal to be explicit; and the slow, luxuriating, indulgent way in which he communicates his sense of what is beautiful and enjoyable. (p. 450)
D. A. N. Jones, "Teasing," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of D. A. N. Jones), October 3, 1974.
[The Ebony Tower, Fowles's] new collection of short stories demonstrates once more his mastery of erotic (some might call it sub-pornographic) prose. In his time, of course, Mr Fowles has worked the rougher end of this particular street—vide the violent fantasies of capture and butchery in The Collector. But The Ebony Tower confirms that his true gift is for a more subtle, more sophisticated, certainly more effective stimulation of standard male cravings for dominion over women. Less of The Kiss of the Lash, in fact; much more of Le déjeuner sur l'herbe—to which latter model, indeed, Mr Fowles pays explicit homage in a remarkable scene from the book's title story. As a measure of his control of the erotic, it may be noted that in all this lengthy and highly provocative tale the act of sex is entirely absent. It is all watching and wishing and dreaming, and the brilliant manipulation of such quite commonplace stimuli as female nudity and feminine subservience before male demands.
Doubts may possibly creep in though about Mr Fowles's larger purposes. Occasionally a hint of artfulness shows beneath the art. Again the title story tells us most. Ostensibly a celebration of artistic integrity and courage, in the end it reduces this serious and ambitious theme to the question of whether or not a young artist/critic can summon up the nerve to take a girl to bed with him….
It's all great fun after all, and madly seductive and … perhaps just a little shoddy. Beside it, the terrific amount of stern moralising that goes on here and throughout the book takes on at times a faintly suspect note, even at one or two worrying instances echoes of the sure-fire one-two formula of the old News of the World. First the heavy dollop of morality to make everyone feel righteous; then in quick with the naughty bits that actually sell the paper.
But to end on this note would be unfair. In fact, I read the book with an appreciation that at times bordered on the feverish, and no doubt it will enjoy a deserved popular success. In a recent interview Mr Fowles spoke of his concern for the 'lastingness' of his books. I am sure he is right to ponder the verdict of posterity. In spite of his endless gruff attacks on the 'modern scene', he is himself so plugged in to the fantasies and dream-worlds of the present day (and not only the sexual), that he is almost certainly one of those writers—good or bad, usually the most interesting—whose work will be much more fairly judged in a later day than his own. (p. 513)
Peter Prince, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), October 11, 1974.
It is strange that a novelist as imaginative, as literate and as ambitious as John Fowles should be content to write within the canons of conventional textbook realism. Of the four stories in "The Ebony Tower," three are simple, linear structures—situation, complication, resolution—the incidents rationally linked through the probable interactions of probable characters, the action and theme neatly illustrating each other. Shades of Somerset Maugham. The fourth story is somewhat more open-ended and covert—a picnic in the country that ends in a disappearance and, by implication, a suicide: one has to draw the connections for oneself and see the sudden gathering storm at the end as an epiphany—but this is a technique that Joyce was practicing in "Dubliners" in 1906 and that is still being practiced, from week to week, in the pages of The New Yorker and elsewhere.
Yet each of these stories is anything but obvious or thin. However conventionally they begin and proceed, there comes a point when their issues dramatically engage and take on complexity and power—it's as though one had picked up a simple, familiar object, casually examined it and suddenly found it shaking in one's hands. By the same token, Fowles's seemingly typecast characters—a lascivious old artist meets his decorous young critic, a timid literary scholar is ripped off by a defensive hippie—have a way of slipping out of their mold, surprising us first as individuals and then as the faces of our experience.
The popular writer turns life into clichés, the artist of realism turns clichés back into life. But why start with clichés in the first place and why tie yourself down to the restrictions and reductions of a plot? Why all this outmoded literary law and order? It's as though a brilliant playwright came upon the scene, a master of illusion, who insists upon practicing the three unities.
Perhaps Fowles merely enjoys being so clever, not to speak of the rewards it has brought him as a writer of highly intelligent books that manage to be very popular. But judging from "The Aristos," his "intellectual self-portrait," Fowles has more ambitious goals in view: In his own quiet, detached way, just as much as Mailer does in his very different way, Fowles wants to create a revolution in the consciousness of his time. Still, if this is so, surely he must suspect that his fiction is going about it in the wrong way. Tidy narrative structures, well-rounded characters, consistent point of view, lucid prose, accurate descriptions of times and places—aren't these the techniques, at our late stage of modernism, that confirm the most retrograde bourgeois tastes, that are valuable only so that they can then be superseded or, better yet, destroyed by the writer's innovations? Learn the rules so that you know what you're doing when you break them—so the young writer is told. Learn the craft so that you can then practice the art: craft being what all writers are supposed to be able to do, art being what only the individual writer can do because true art is the creation of new forms of consciousness, which only the individualist can achieve. Right?
Wrong. Partly wrong in theory and increasingly wrong in practice. New consciousness does not necessarily require new forms in literature any more than it does in any other field of writing. When, for example, Shakespeare wrote the "Dark Lady" sonnets, he was doing something original for love poetry, and hence for love itself, though he left the sonnet form undisturbed. And while it is true that new literary forms can provoke new consciousness, I think that it tends more often to work the other way around. In any case, modernism, which has tended to identify originality and individuality with formal innovation exclusively, has left the writers who still subscribe to it increasingly high and dry: i.e., rarefied and empty. Or, as Fowles himself put it in "The Aristos": "There is the desperate search for the unique style, and only too often this search is conducted at the expense of content. This accounts for the enormous proliferation in styles and techniques … and for that only too characteristic coupling of exoticism of presentation and banality of theme." If you don't think he's right, pick up an anthology of current "experimental" fiction or poetry and see how much new consciousness you find and how much of the same surreal solipsism, forlorn or abrasive. Talk about conventions. (pp. 2-3)
[For] fiction to abandon narrative is rather like having science abandon the scientific method because some phenomena are too elusive or enigmatic or distortable to be fully understood by its methods. Fowles's practice of providing or suggesting alternative endings to his two major novels ["The French Lieutenant's Woman" and "The Magus"] is not just cleverness but an acknowledgment that narrative art, like science, like reality itself, terminates in paradox and mystery: the double ending being a kind of fictional equivalent of Bohr's principle of complementarity. (p. 3)
In "The Magus" he creates what might be called an existential narrative, using realism itself to mock and alter its assumptions. The novel is made up of a huge mesh of incidents, most of which are as convincing as they are duplicitous…. [Daily] reality appears to crumble and human existence resembles the behavior of subatomic particles: probability contending with chaos, the knowable with the unknowable. This plot … is an extraordinary if exasperating creation that employs all the nuances of verisimilitude, not to confirm our worldliness but to undermine it, so that the world's randomness, contingency and hazard can be revealed in their full truth and power as the price we pay for our freedom.
This is Fowles's master theme and objective: to restate the terms of human freedom. In "The French Lieutenant's Woman," Fowles uses the conventions of 19th-century romantic fiction to write not only a brilliant study of Victorian manners, morals and morale, but also to do something no less interesting and more difficult—to portray the light wind from the future blowing into "the age of steam and cant," sowing the seeds of what we call modern consciousness in three young people. (pp. 3, 20)
None of the four long stories in "The Ebony Tower" has the originality of those two novels or even the tour de force quality of Fowles's "The Collector," a shocking parable of contemporary class warfare confined to two characters in two rooms. Fowles tells us that these new stories were written as variations on some of the themes of his novels, and they do tend to have a kind of relaxed, mopping-up feeling about them….
The closing pages of "The Ebony Tower" are, of course, an assertion of Fowles's own guiding values, and they go a long way to explain and justify his practice of writing about live men, women and issues in a direct, accessible way. In the unfashionable conventions of realism, he finds his mode of opposition. At one point, Williams [the protagonist] asks the question that haunts most contemporary artists, composers and writers alike—are they living in the sterile aftermath of modernism, in one of the deadspots of cultural history:
Art had always gone in waves. Who knew if the late 20th century might not be one of its most cavernous troughs? He knew the old man's answer: it was. Or it was unless you fought bloody tooth and … nail against some of its most cherished values and victories. (p. 20)
Theodore Solotaroff, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 10, 1974.
I wish … that Fowles wouldn't take the philosopher in him too seriously. He remarked the other day, for instance, that he did not think novelists should make value judgements, although he knows perfectly well that the rejection of value judgements is itself a value judgement of the sternest kind. He has also claimed to study people as an ornithologist studies birds, which is another very rickety proposition, as very few ornithologists write romantic make-believe about the creatures they watch. It was philosophical daydreaming which very nearly wrecked that great book, The French Lieutenant's Woman, whose perverse non-ending, a hall of cracked pre-Raphaelite mirrors, was a gambit no doubt fortified by Fowles's insistence that the reader has to do some of the work. I cannot believe any artist would abdicate his authority in this way….
However, 'The Ebony Tower' seems to me to fly violently in the face of its author's theories. Not only does it embody a value judgement, not only is that value judgement of a more sternly unbending kind than I remember reading for years, but that value judgement IS the story. 'The Ebony Tower' is an impassioned cry against Abstraction in painting, and a protest against the feeble critical cowardice which holds its tongue in the presence of pretentious pseudo-artistic garbage. Fowles is saying that art which has been dehumanised is inhuman art, and he is very careful to equate the fierce artistic independence of the old painter in his story with sexual vitality, equally careful to equate the aridity of the painter's visitor, a young painter-critic, with sexual diffidence….
Towards the end, over comes the moral, which is that "All art is amoral". As all art is nothing of the kind, and Fowles is one of the most acutely intelligent novelists alive, it sounds a pretty strange conclusion to arrive at. Perhaps he means, and I hope he means, that the processes by which art is arrived at are amoral. In other words, the arrant old bohemian of 'The Ebony Tower' is of no consequence in himself, so let him commit what are sometimes called sins as much as he pleases, so long as his art is passionate and noble, etc, etc. It is a plea for humanist art and a hint that the only people who can create that art must reject what those who don't reject it call respectability.
But the plea Fowles is making for painting also applies to the other arts. It would be madness to assert that the confluence of abstract painting with the anti-novel and electronic music is a coincidence. Those artists who respect form, and know that to attempt to create content without it is as impossible as filling a suitcase without any sides, these are the workers who must feel distinctly ill-at-ease in a society which buys portraits of baked bean cans and recordings of music where there is nobody at the keyboard. How this cry for the traditional disciplines of art matches up with Fowles's idea that the reader should do some of the work I do not know, because the anti-novel is precisely that kind of fraud where the reader has to do more work than the novelist. Of course, Fowles could defend himself by explaining that the views in 'The Ebony Tower' are those of his hero, not those of John Fowles; but if that is indeed his defence then it will set every cat in the kingdom laughing.
What is especially interesting is that the dilemma of the traditionalist in an avant garde society is precisely the dilemma which pushed Fowles himself back to the stiff buckram bindings of the Victorian novel in an attempt to find a form. Because The French Lieutenant's Woman combined the conventions of a classic Victorian tale with an acknowledgement that people do not end at the waist, that book was stronger in structure and more powerful in impact than all those contemporary "experimental" soufflés which become so flat by the time they reach the reader. Fowles is a writer in a million, whose message—although he would deny the possession of anything so vulgar and inartistic, anything in fact so redolent of value judgement—may well be contained in the curious incident at the end of 'The Ebony Tower' where a weasel is run over and killed by the critic's motor car. Life is sacred and the internal combustion engine is not, perhaps?
Benny Green, "No Life, No Art," in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), November 16, 1974, p. 635.
The romantic plots of which John Fowles is fond are … distinctly unfashionable among the better class of fiction writers. Bizarre crimes are out of style; so are summer idylls, fecund forests and bashful young men who fall instantly in love with pretty girls. Yet it is Fowles's method never to let us forget that we are reading a story, a work of artifice. The author hovers over the action, putting out little signs that point toward a myth, a literary or artistic tradition, or that simply announce "Caution: Symbols Crossing." These signs are carefully illuminated; indeed, Fowles's protagonists occasionally sum up the lessons they learn from their adventures.
"The Ebony Tower" contains a novella of the same title, a translation of a medieval French tale, and three stories—two of them entertaining mysteries that the author leaves unsolved because the explanation of what happened is less important than the constructions that the characters place upon the events. Of the lot, the novella is by far the most considerable, an intriguing and intelligent reworking of the old conflicts between mind and instinct, between those who retreat from life and those who embrace it. (120, 123)
Fortunately for this story, good fiction need not be supported by good philosophy. What matters is a good conflict, and the conflict here is not only intelligent but elegantly, old-fashionedly erotic. The images of the Arthurian past—the old king, the lost damsel, the knight errant—are adroitly placed, and the talk about art is both informed and convincing. I wish Fowles had not concluded with eight pages in which Williams ruminates over the nature of his experience—the meaning is, after all, not undetectable—but that is a small flaw in an otherwise excellent tale. (p. 123)
Peter S. Prescott, "Enchanted Forest," in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), November 25, 1974, pp. 120, 123.
In his first three novels, John Fowles displayed a talent for taking risks. The Collector (1963), The Magus (1966) and The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969) came in impressive sequence, one surpassing another in virtuosity, like the work of a magician developing his craft, slow motion, before his audience. The Collector was a comparatively simple pass—butterflies in psychotic transformation turned into pinioned women, perhaps a gothic variation on Lepidopterist Nabokov. In The Magus, Fowles worked gaudier effects: allegory, romance, black magic. The French Lieutenant's Woman played the entire Victorian milieu against the 20th century; Fowles could so persuasively dream up another world that he was free to call all of it into speculation by proposing alternative endings to the novel.
The Ebony Tower is a far less ambitious exercise—four stories, "a personal note," and a version of the medieval story of Eliduc. Fowles says he intended these as a series of "variations" on related themes; he leaves the reader to make the connections…. [The title story, up to a point,] has the sure, mellow complexity of Mozart—at the end it degenerates into the kind of opera that advertises soap flakes.
Otherwise, The Ebony Tower is a book as lovely as its dust jacket—Pisanello's Portrait of a Lady. (pp. 108, K10)
The last story, The Cloud, possesses one of Fowles' faults—a facile, painterly dreaminess—without his vigorous grasp on the facts that make illusion matter. Fowles' themes in all these elegant stories are the surprise of passion v. the safety of tradition, abstraction v. spontaneity, and more broadly, the secrets of art (including Fowles' own art) played against a fictive "reality" that represents merely his own deeper lamination of imagined life. Fowles, like any other storyteller, tells his tale—and then has the shimmering perversity to let his readers know that maybe he was lying all the time, or that life itself was lying. (p. K10)
Lance Morrow, "Shimmering Perversity," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), December 2, 1974, pp. 108, K10.
For those who, surveying the current scene in fiction, see only a wilderness of illiteracy populated by intellectual pygmies, John Fowles's The Ebony Tower should provide both reassurance and sustenance. It is a work of fiction that is neither novel nor novella nor even a collection of short stories in the usual sense of that term, although that comes closest. More than anything else, the book is like a deep, swift-flowing stream of thought and feeling which Fowles explores and plays like a patient, skillful angler.
Out of a richly furnished mind and a searching imagination, Fowles has contrived five variations on a single source, the Celtic romance, which he regards as the emotional and imaginative wellspring of all fictional forms that have followed after. Whether others would recognize a common base and see a web of intricate relationships among these five stories, without the prompting proffered in "a personal note" inserted in the middle of the book, is debatable. For here, as in his earlier books, especially The Magus, Fowles enjoys the enigmatic and plainly prefers puzzles to proofs, questions to answers.
Writing as he does on several levels simultaneously, however, he can be read profitably either as accomplished storyteller, discriminating critic, cultural historian, philosopher, or perhaps most enjoyably, as a synthesizer of all of these.
It must be stated at the outset that only in the title story of The Ebony Tower has Fowles been able to bring off a completely successful coalescence of all his extraordinary powers and gifts. Since his achievement in it is so dazzling, it is probably churlish to complain that the others do not match its marvels, especially when each of the remaining tales has other, if lesser, charms, and only one, "The Cloud," which ends the book, has to be accounted a failure. (pp. 51-2)
"The Ebony Tower," is, quite simply, a perfect story.
Of the other tales, only one, "Koko," can be discussed in the same terms. In it wanton barbarism is arrayed against an exaggeratedly refined cultivation and learning. (p. 52)
Fowles [examines] obliquely the consequences of the failure of education to sustain language as the primary form of human communication.
Like so much else in this marvelous book, his analysis is brilliant, disturbing, many-layered, and intensely provocative. The temptation to continue stringing superlatives to describe the quality of Fowles's fascination when all of his genius is concentrated, as it is in the best of these stories, is almost irresistible. Better perhaps to leave it that John Fowles is one of the few truly civilized writers practicing the craft of fiction today. (p. 53)
Rene Kuhn Bryant, "Skillful Angler," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1975; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), January 17, 1975, pp. 51-3.
The sinister 'troupe' of unscrupulous, mind-manipulating, existentialist psychologists who lead Nicholas Urfe such a mad dance in The Magus sometimes refer to their extraordinary activities as 'the godgame'. John Fowles invented this sport and plays it all the time in his books. The rules of the game are flexible, but it almost always involves a conflict between collector and creator, the two classes into which Fowles divides mankind. The game is set in motion and controlled (in the sense that referees control, loosely or strictly, unobtrusively or flamboyantly, a soccer game) sometimes by chance of fate, as in The Collector, sometimes by a potent, magician-like character in the book, e.g. Conchis in The Magus, sometimes by the author himself, who in The French Lieutenant's Woman is actually manifested, beard and all, to his characters in their compartment on a train from Exeter to Paddington…. And when Fowles usurps the function of a god in this game he allows his players such freedom of action that one match has two results. If you want to know the score at the end of The French Lieutenant's Woman you can take your pick—it's either Charles one, Sarah nil or Sarah one, Charles nil. All Fowles fans can go home happy.
Although there are different kinds of referees in the godgame there are only two teams: Collectors and Creators. (p. 65)
Naturally, Fowles is on the side of the creators, but he treats his collectors with sympathy and allows them good possession of the ball, at least in mid-field. The creators are usually better near goal. (p. 66)
In The Collector and The Magus Fowles revealed his gift for spellbinding narrative. He is a spellbinder in [The French Lieutenant's Woman], too, but now he delights in breaking the spell every so often to remind us that this is the work of a writer's imagination, the product of a literary creator's box of tricks. It is all a godgame and 'god' is a writer. This sort of god does not rate a capital G—at least, not in the twentieth century. Don't forget, he warns today's reader, that we're only playing 'let's pretend'. Fowles has much to say about the relationship of author to book…. He also insists that he must be seen for what he is, a modern author who in fact is no longer omnipotent in relation to his characters. 'The novelist is still a god, since he creates …; what has changed is that we are no longer the gods of the Victorian image, omniscient and decreeing; but in the new theological image, with freedom our first principle, not authority.' Since Dickens there have been Brecht and Sartre, as well as Robbe-Grillet, and writers are in a new situation. The rules of the godgame have changed.
The author's intrusion into his own novel, a device which could have been clumsy and an irritant, seems to me to be entirely successful in The French Lieutenant's Woman. In a curious way it removes any stigma of clever pastiche that might otherwise attach to those stretches of the novel in which the writer keeps himself to himself. I don't think, though, that Fowles is saying anything new that the other writers mentioned above have not either said or exemplified. However, his point remains valid and is most entertainingly made. The two different endings he gives to The French Lieutenant's Woman wittily illustrate how much more true-to-life we find it today when a godgame either doesn't have a known result at all or at least ends in a draw, leaving all still to play for. Fowles has, indeed, perfected, both in his novels and in his short stories, a kind of ending which is, so to speak, radioactive—as if it were still charged with some dynamic power which could continue to be released through the now closed covers of the book. (pp. 68-9)
Where will Fowles go from here? He has written but not yet published some autobiographical novels and has said he would like to try science-fiction. He is such an erudite man that his subjects and backgrounds could be anything and anywhere. His weakness, I feel, is a strong element of escapism. Sometimes this takes the form of distaste for an England which 'becomes more honi sui qui smelly pants every day'…. Sometimes it's the romantic's nostalgia for a Golden Age, e.g. for the 'strange northern invasion of the early mediaeval mind' by the British, i.e. Celtic, imagination…. For an essentially romantic writer like Fowles, the more the pragmatism is played up and the sooner the enigma ushered out, after being allowed its initial causative role, the better. If collectors include detectives, biographers, burglars, abstract painters and the contentedly married, while creators are idealists, aristoi, mystics, magicians, unselfish lovers and imaginative artists, the referee's task must be to keep the match under control without destroying tension, conflict and freedom of choice. Since Fowles is himself a diligent collector (an ornithologist: 'I suppose I'm a good field naturalist') as well as a brilliantly inventive storyteller, I think we can trust his godgamesmanship. (pp. 71-2)
John Mellors, "Collectors & Creators: The Novels of John Fowles," in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1975), February/March, 1975, pp. 65-72.
The stories [in The Ebony Tower] are easy to read and yet Mr. Fowles frequently manages to hint at other levels to be excavated. The stories are well-paced and the writing is of a texture which fits the situation. While there are no passages of purple prose, there is also little that rises above the commonplace…. The imagery … does not seem to me to be on the same level as, for instance, that of John McGahern.
In The Ebony Tower, Mr. Fowles translates a Celtic tale, "Eliduc," by Marie de France and explains, in a note, that his work has an emotional relationship with the Celtic myth from which "Eliduc" comes. He also believes that Celtic myth is "the very essence of what we have meant ever since by the fictional, the novel and all its children." It is possible to see the relationship in his own stories. The author sets his title story and "The Cloud" in Brittany. The old artist of the title story deliberately and constructively echoes the Celtic past in his work and the young artist, in a neat reversal, realises that he and other young moderns have cut themselves off from a useable past. Mr. Fowles' writer in "Poor Koko" also tries to use and to conserve the past, here emphasising language rather than art. Many of the characters are involved in triangular relationships like the character of "Eliduc." I dislike Mr. Fowles' nods in the direction of women's liberation. In his "A Personal Note" to "Eliduc," he mentions male chauvinism, and he writes of David Williams (in "The Ebony Tower"), "His marriage had been very successful, except for one brief period when Beth had rebelled against 'constant motherhood' and flown the banner of Women's Liberation…." Making no attempt to explore or to portray women's oppression or the tension which the realisation of oppression brings to relationships between the sexes, Mr. Fowles normally portrays women as the objects of men's loves and causes his characters to speculate on the nature of women as opposed to that of men. (pp. 71-2)
John Fowles, in "The Ebony Tower," specifically creates a contrast between the controlled, even stereotyped, home environment of Williams and an erotic, free and forbidden world (it is literally, though ineffectively, padlocked). In the latter, the "permission" to fantasise produces an ambiguous shallowness in the portrait of the women. The shallowness is partly an element of the old artist's bluff eccentricity but more, one suspects, it reflects a shallowness of the author's imagination once the conventional guidelines are gone. (p. 72)
Elaine Glover, in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 16, No. 3, 1975.
[The Ebony Tower] is neither a collection of stories nor a novel but a forest of intertwining fictions where the quest to define one's existence becomes entangled with the bolder questions of whether the modern writer is capable any longer of rendering such quests meaningful. The book, in short, is about art and life; and while this should come as no surprise to readers of The Collector, The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman, what is surprising is that Fowles has suppressed the capitals "A" and "L" to make both seem, if not always apprehensible, then less hermetic or recondite. Save for his brilliant and disciplined translation of one of Marie de France's Lais de Bretagne, the remaining four pieces in The Ebony Tower are confrontations with here-and-now experiences just off tangent to the commonplace, but scarcely devious and, if we are still susceptible of learning about life and art, true.
Whatever truths Fowles believes still pertain are palatably dispensed in the long title story that sets the tone of the volume….
Like Nicholas Urfe of The Magus and Charles Smithson of The French Lieutenant's Woman, Williams [the protagonist of "The Ebony Tower"] is a representative man of his times, balancing on a tightrope between acceptance and rebellion, uncomfortable with the choices Fowles allows all his characters; eventually he discovers that if he fails to change from stereotype to individual it is because he lacks the guts, not the freedom to do so….
[The] enigma of the ["The Enigma"] turns out to be no enigma at all, or rather shifts to the higher-gear enigma of life imitating art…. The voice of the writer and the freedom of his fictions admit of all possibilities or no possibility, for to seek the real in the imagined, or the imagined in the real, is one and the same. (p. 214)
[In "The Cloud" we note again] Fowles's refusal to pin down reality, his belief that the novelist is the last person who should pin it down. Reality—if we can speak of it in the singular—is protean and evanescent: that is, mighty, like a cloud, recasting itself into many forms, yet all the while maintaining its elemental nature.
Fowles's correlation of this with fiction and with the characters of his fiction was patent before the writing of The Ebony Tower, but never so neatly punctuated or underlined. Williams, who has doubts about the representational and intrinsic value of modern art, turns out to have anticipated the philosophy of the entire volume:
It was not just his own brand of abstraction that was at fault, but the whole headlong postwar chain, abstract expressionism, neo-primitivism, Op Art and pop art, conceptualism, photorealism…. But such rootlessness, orbitting in frozen outer space, cannot have been meant. They were like lemmings … in a bottomless night, blind to everything but their own illusion.
Defying "obstructionism" (obtuse concern with abstraction), Fowles rebels against the idea of being one more of the blind leading the blind. Though he may have severed many of the roots connecting his work to the traditional novel, he has never lost sight of the success of the truly great novels in being able to create illusion without sacrificing reality—or, for that matter, the other way round. Fowles's intent as a novelist, and as a writer of these fictions, is to strike the sane balance between art and life at a time when both seem vulnerable to excess, and neither seems susceptible to control. Perhaps only when art descends from the ebony tower will it be able to light up Fowles's cheerless "bottomless night" and once more tell us, as it has in the past, something about life. (pp. 214-15)
Robert K. Morris, "A Forest of Fictions," in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), September 13, 1975, pp. 214-15.