John Fowles

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Fowles, John 1926–

Fowles is a British novelist, short story writer, translator, essayist, and poet. His work is a blend of classical and mythical allusions presented in a modern idiom; The French Lieutenant's Woman, for example, is Victorian in story and style, but innovative in narrative technique and in its examination of the concept of time. Fowles consistently scrutinizes the importance of history in his novels, exploring how the past can inform the present. Recurring in Fowles's fiction is the idea that woman, because of her inherent "otherness," is fundamentally incomprehensible to man. Fowles uses this theme to analyze what man can know, and, further, what the artist, with the limitations of his perception and his ability, can reveal about the human condition. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Dwight Eddins

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One of the central concerns of metafiction from Borges to Barth—or perhaps, more accurately, from Laurence Sterne to Barth—has been the reanimation and expansion of the commonplace that each man's life is a novel of which that man is the author. If the commonplace is accepted, it follows that almost all novels are about "novels"; and that a novel in which the problem of fictiveness becomes explicit will be required in order to satisfy the thirst of the ironic consciousness for an adequate complexity of treatment. John Fowles's brilliant exploration of these ideas and their ramifications in his three novels points to a very complex and sophisticated view of the relation between "art" and "life." (p. 204)

[Frank Kermode's concept of the modern novel states that in] order to make sense to his reader, in order to present a humanized perception of existence, the novelist must fall back upon "eidetic images—illusions persisting from past acts of perception, as some abnormal children 'see' the page or object that is no longer before them…." It is obvious that "eidetic," in this sense, must apply to almost all of the generalizations and patterns by which we organize our sense perceptions. The very act of using these images, however, belies the contingency and the perpetual flux of reality. This dilemma of the novelist obviously derives, by analogy, from the existential dilemma of achieving authenticity—of avoiding Sartrean mauvaise foi.

The two dilemmas, however, have a much deeper and more integral connection than mere analogy. This becomes clear in a relevant passage from an essay by Ortega y Gasset, cited by Kermode: "It is too often forgotten that man is impossible without imagination, without the capacity to invent for himself a conception of life, to 'ideate' the character he is going to be. Whether he be original or a plagiarist, man is the novelist of himself." Ortega y Gasset also refers to man the self-creator as "'a secondhand God.'" The problem facing this novelist-god is reconciling his own ideations with the fortuitousness of existence. In humanizing this world he lies; in trying not to lie he is threatened by incoherence and chaos. A corollary dilemma is that an extreme of ideation imprisons a given man inside his own fictional presuppositions, a character at the mercy of an omniscient author. Utter contingency, on the other hand, implies an author who has lost all control over his character, and a character without any real identity…. [These] existential quandaries form a sort of ontological metastructure for the struggle between Collector and Liberator in the novels of John Fowles, and … Fowles looks for whatever degree of resolution is possible by examining existence as an exercise in creative artistry.

The Collector, as Fowles envisages him, imposes a static system of images on the world and then...

(This entire section contains 4623 words.)

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proceeds to live inside that system, denying the existential implications of contingency. The system is the result of accretion—a cumulative calcifying of social and political attitudes, aesthetic constructs, emotional responses, and (most insidiously) self-image. As author, the Collector is bound to his character in the mutual servitude of master and slave. At the other extreme the Liberator has fully realized and incorporated into his existence the behavioral implications of "hazard." Fowles defends this state of bounded contingency as "the best for mankind" because: "everywhere, below the surface, we do not know; we shall never know why; we shall never know tomorrow; we shall never know a god or if there is a god; we shall never even know ourselves. This mysterious wall round our world and our perception of it is not there to frustrate us but to train us back to the now, to life, to our time being."

The movement of protagonists from Collectors toward Liberators is essential to all three novels [The Collector, The Magus, and The French Lieutenant's Woman]; but considerations already set forth should make it clear that this movement is a complex and paradoxical one. Some form of "collecting" is essential for communication and comprehension; language itself is, after all, eidetic, as are the patterns of logic. Also, the very concept of authorship implies some degree of conscious manipulation, as the concept of "character" implies at least vestigial identity. The mind cannot coalesce with pure contingency—at least, not the sane mind. It must have its fictions, and its fiction writer.

The problem facing the seeker of authenticity thus reveals at least two facets: reducing the gratuitous fictiveness of his necessary fictions, and reducing the element of ideational tyranny in the author-character relationship. Fowles's answer lies in creating an author who will keep his fictions open toward contingency, perpetually modifying them and continually admitting their provisional, fictive nature. Malcolm Bradbury [in "The Novelist as Impresario: John Fowles and His Magus," in his Possibilities: Essays on the State of the Novel] traces the need of Fowles and other modern novelists to present their "fictions as fictive" to the lack of ordering "communal myths." It is not necessary to quarrel with this conclusion in order to assert that, in Fowles's novels in particular, the fictiveness of fiction also has a more explicit thematic function.

To achieve his ends, Fowles involves his characters in initiations designed to make them the existentialist authors of their own lives. Each initiation centers upon a set of artistic constructs consciously engineered by a player of the "god game," which Fowles describes in The Aristos as governing "by not governing in any sense that the governed can call being governed; that is, to constitute a situation in which the governed must govern themselves."… These constructs coalesce into various psychodramas that are related and overlapping, and to which I refer collectively as the "Masque" of a given novel. The Masque begins with patent artifice, combining the flamboyant and the horrific in various degrees. Charmed or shocked—or both—into a sense of new possibilities in experience, the protagonist is made to relate this sense to the offerings of reality as hazard. This transference is made possible by a gradual modification of the Masque's constructs. These shade from the "artificiality" of art into the "naturalness" of quotidian existence, without losing the power to generate the excitement of adventurous encounter. The premise upon which the modification rests is, of course, that creative existence is an art—in this case, an existentialist art.

Having reached a certain plateau of initiation, the protagonist is now qualified to play the godgame himself; and in particular, to take over responsibility for the "novel" of his own life from the initiates who have guided him. (pp. 204-07)

From the standpoint of structure, the stages of a given initiation form a series of Chinese boxes, with each stage subverting the eidetic images of the previous stage in favor of more contingent images. It is important to see that the sequence of novels itself constitutes an analogous structure: The Magus subsumes The Collector, and is in turn subsumed by The French Lieutenant's Woman. I am, of course, aware that the first draft of The Magus preceded the writing of The Collector. It is the order of the published novels that concerns me here. The process of subsumption is at work not only in the elaboration of specific motifs such as the Collector, the anima, or time-travel, but, more significantly, in terms of point of view. If The Collector is crystallized and unself-conscious ideation, a fiction pretending to autonomous existence, then the next two novels represent a progressive iconoclasm that proclaims the fictiveness of their own enterprises. This heightened self-consciousness, with its rich ironic implications, is accomplished partially by Fowles's use of an author-persona, a godgame player, who obtrudes more and more. This figure is used by Fowles to infuse contingency into the very structure of the novels, individually, and as a sequence, thus accomplishing at least three things: the relation between existential authorship and the search for authenticity is given a new dimension; the eidetic "falsehood" of the novel as genre is lessened; and the reader is forced to participate directly in an initiation into hazard.

Turning specifically to The Collector, we find its Masque composed of two psychodramas, both of which are focused on Miranda as novice…. The first psychodrama—Clegg's "collection" of Miranda—both precipitates and contains the second, which is a congeries of remembered experiences with the artist "G. P."

The element of artifice that characterizes the early stages of the Masque is provided here by the bizarre, aberrant circumstances in which Miranda finds herself, and by her position as an objet d'art in Clegg's collection. Forced to become part of an artistic arrangement that has replaced the familiar version of reality, she finds herself in a reciprocity typical of Fowles's fiction. Not only is she the spectacle for Clegg, he is the spectacle for her. Staring at him, she realizes that he is an artist engaged in "shaping" her just as G. P. was: and that she, too, has played a part in this shaping. The result is her shocking recognition of Clegg as a psychological double. She, also, has played the Collector by her smug accretion of upper-class values and assumptions that shut out the vitalizing powers of hazard. Her painting reflects this tendency toward mindless accumulation…. (pp. 207-09)

Both the awareness of this perversion, and the way to escape it, are suggested by the godgame as G. P. plays it. A painter dedicated to authenticity in his life and his art, he "collects" Miranda as beneficently as possible; i.e., in the interests of her eventual autonomy….

From a Jungian perspective, G. P.'s role in Miranda's initiation may be described as that of the constructive animus. He provides her with an existential Logos that deepens her capacity for reflection and self-knowledge, without turning her into a dogmatist. She, in turn, is recognized by him as the anima…. (p. 209)

The functioning of archetypes obviously has a very special relation to G. P. and Miranda in their capacity as artists. Jung, it will be remembered, asserts that "the creative process, insofar as we are able to understand it, consists in an unconscious animation of the archetype, and in a development and shaping of the image till the work is completed." Returning, then, to the notion of life as existential artistry, we should have—if the ideal were fully realized—G. P. as the animus who strives for form and definition in Miranda's psyche; in other words, the determinative aspect of the internal author, supplanting the Clegg-figure. Since an aspect of Miranda as internal character is her anima role, a creative dialectic would be set up. Inspired by the changing images and the impetus that stem from the anima, the existential animus would attempt to keep from imposing forms that stifle, while the anima, seeking realization in form, would strive to avoid sterile entrapment. Though "collection" in the form of eidetic crystallization must occur in the very nature of things, its life-denying properties would be continually minimized by the dialectic. (p. 210)

Miranda, beginning in naiveté, never has time to gain a comprehensive perspective on the inner changes that she is experiencing, and Clegg is incapable of such perspective. But these are the only two narrators of the novel. The author-persona—a crucial ramifier of levels of consciousness in later novels—is represented here by the shadowy G. P., present only at the remove of memory. The result is a naively "realistic," one-leveled novel—in this case, one that deals thematically with transcending simple ideation, but does not make the transcendental movement in its own structure.

The movement to The Magus, then, is one into complexity of conciousness with respect to point of view. The voice of the narrator, Nicholas Urfe, is a much more mature and philosophical one than that of Miranda. And, since he is describing his initiation in retrospect, he is able to give us some perspective on its various stages. Even more important, perhaps, is the palpable and obtrusive presence of the author-persona, Conchis. This presence is the result of at least three factors, one of them being simply the dominant part Conchis plays in the events described. Also, since the entire account is "remembered," Conchis has equal ontological footing with the Nicholas who is undergoing initiation. Finally, Conchis' presence is embodied in the very structure of the novel, which depends almost entirely upon the stages of the psychodrama that he arranges.

This third factor is crucial to the structure of The Magus, which is made up not only of the psychodrama that Nicholas experiences, but of the psychodrama experienced by the reader of the novel…. [The] eidetic remove between Nicholas and the reader is a part of Fowles's structural plan…. What happens is that the player of the godgame manipulates, indirectly, the pawns who are holding the novel in their hands. Faced with his own recurring gullibility the reader is thus forced to admit his tendency to "collect," to seize upon convenient "solutions" that are nothing more than screens hiding the next mystery. All of this is, in one sense, nothing more than the normal apparatus of the suspense novel as genre; but it is precisely Fowles's larger context of hazard that raises the machinery of melodrama to self-consciousness and lends it thematic significance. The result is the active initiation of the reader into awareness of the provisional nature of his own constructs, and the vagaries of hazard.

The reader's self-consciousness about the very act of reading is given yet another dimension by Conchis' assertions that "the novel is dead"; that one day he burned every novel he possessed, including a manuscript of his own; and that "words are for truth. For facts. Not fiction." The paradox presented by embodying these anti-novelistic views in a novel symbolizes yet again the tension that must exist between the necessary fictions of eidetic images and the urge to truthfulness about contingent reality. Art must continually undermine its own artifice if it is to maintain its dialectic with the reality that provides its elements. If it pretends to ontological autonomy, it becomes the enemy of its own vitality and authenticity. (pp. 211-12)

The other aspect of the Masque, the psychodrama of Nicholas' initiation, is much more complex than the psychodramas involving Miranda precisely because his consciousness is more complex than hers. Not only is he sophisticated, blasé, and cynical, he is very much aware that he is all three. It is exactly this ironic self-consciousness that is at once his hope for escape from imprisonment in a stultified persona, and the intricate barrier that makes escape a difficult and hypersubtle matter. To put it briefly, he is a sort of existentialist dandy who prides himself on his premature nihilism. His habitual exercise of the very irony and skepticism that are indispensable for breaking out of eidetic traps has led him to believe that no mystery can resist dissolution by his analysis; and this crystallized belief has itself become an eidetic trap…. Deluded into believing that he is constantly choosing "himself" in freedom, he has in fact fallen in love with a static image of himself. He is not existentially inside his "chosen" freedom. The result in Nicholas' case is a seemingly endless succession of ironic poses behind which he can hide from recognizing his personal inadequacy in the face of infinite freedom and potentiality.

To deal successfully with this labyrinth of evasiveness Conchis must mount an even more intricate attack. As the author-god creating a universe according to Fowles, his task is to construct a convincing model of hazard—one that will drive home to Nicholas at the deepest level of his consciousness the redeeming mystery and uncertainty of existence—that will make him, in Robert Scholes's apt phrase, "ultimately hungry for reality." Thus Conchis engineers the scheme already referred to, with the seemingly solid ground on which Nicholas stands after "seeing through" one deception turning into the next deception in an infinite series of eidetic destructions and reconstructions. The movement of the series is from obvious artifice or vivid past history—or a combination of the two—to insidiously realistic and subtle trickery that involves Nicholas' most basic emotions. Intrigued by the psychodrama's cleverness and flamboyance, and by his ability to see through these, Nicholas is led step by step toward real existential engagement. But this is precisely the movement of art at its best. A striking pattern of images diverts and intrigues us by its fictive but clever reshaping of reality; but on a deeper level this pattern is modifying the basic ideation by which we live, changing our conceptual "vocabulary" forever. Here again, the godgame is revealed as another name for authorship, and Conchis—in Nicholas' words—as "a sort of novelist sans novel, creating with people, not words."… (pp. 212-14)

The changes toward openness in Nicholas' anima construct are directed toward the same end as the other changes engineered by Conchis—that Nicholas himself should become the existentialist author, the freedom-affirming player of the godgame. Conchis makes it clear that "no good play has a real curtain…. It is acted, and then it continues to act."… The corollary is that the existentialist author equips his characters for ultimate independence of him. (p. 215)

We receive an important indication of Nicholas' victory over [his] "despot" at the beginning of chapter seventy-eight. The speaker has a tone of authorial intrusion that strongly suggests the voice of Fowles himself. Unless we are to posit such an intrusion—anomalous in this novel—we are forced to consider a narrator who has acquired a god-like perspective on that "plot" of his own life that he has been recounting. He sees himself at once as the "antihero" of the narration in progress, and as the real-life modern whose existence reflects that of the anti-hero. (p. 216)

Nicholas, achieving the plateau of Conchis, writes an account of that achievement. Then, having become the existentialist author of his own life, he is entitled to give a virtuoso demonstration of how this authorship must function, in the style of Conchis. The French Lieutenant's Woman, with its historical-philosophical perspectives and its technical exhibitionism, finds its origins in just this sort of sophisticated consciousness. I do not wish to suggest that Nicholas himself is the author-persona of the novel; but merely that such a novel is the logical new dimension of someone who has reached his degree of initiation. Alternatively, it represents the development of the author-persona from figment of memory through pervasive presence to spokesman, with the attendant ramifying of levels of consciousness.

As in The Magus, the Masque of The French Lieutenant's Woman is composed of the psychodrama which the author arranges for the reader, and that which he arranges for his characters. The relation between the two initiations, however, is much more complex and suggestive in the later novel. The Magus had intimated a basic level of self-consciousness, fiction aware of its fictiveness, by indirect means: the reader "overhears" Conchis' remarks and "shares" Nicholas' disillusionments. Fowles's use of a parodic structure in The French Lieutenant's Woman, including the introduction of direct communication between the author-persona and the reader, means that it is possible for him to write a piece of fiction concerned with fiction as genre; i.e., a "Victorian" novel that is a contemporary novel "about" the Victorian novel. The reader is thus made vividly aware of multiple removes of eidetic imagery—a situation that makes an ideal showcase for dramatizing the dialectic of this imagery with contingency. (p. 217)

[The] parodic structure forces the reader to come to terms with the relation between himself, the author-persona, and the characters; with the relation between Victorian history and contemporary realities; and with the overlapping of these two relationships. To deal with the first of these, we must examine the implications of authorial intrusion in the Victorian novel. By speaking in the role of expositor within the boundaries of a fictional framework, the author becomes a character within that framework—but so does the reader, insofar as he is the conception of the author. While these two personae are obviously an eidetic remove closer to "reality" than the characters in the plot proper, they are an eidetic remove away from the human beings to whom they correspond. The net result of the "omniscient" Victorian intrusion was to narrow the latter remove and broaden the former. The characters were shown as puppets dancing for the amusement of a puppet master and an audience who reveled in ontological superiority and freedom of will. Ironically the reader-persona was also at the mercy of the author-persona's ideational tyranny—a fact that tended to diminish the status gained by the latter's sharing of "confidences."

Fowles, parodying such intrusions, introduces an existentialist author-persona who reverses almost every effect described above. Claiming to be no more than a recorder of his characters' independent whims and caprices, "the freedom that allows other freedoms to exist," he consistently narrows the remove between himself and the characters—and thus between the reader-persona and the characters. Both author and reader as personae, however, are pulled deeper and deeper into the fictive web of the novel, and farther from their respective positions in "reality."… Fowles's claims of ontological equality between author, characters, and reader are all arrant sophistry …, but of a dramatically instructive sort. With the barriers temporarily down, the reader-persona is able to identify with the author-persona insofar as he shares the later's dilemma over how to give his characters the maximum degree of freedom; and with the characters insofar as he must also fall victim to the beneficent manipulations of the author-persona. These manipulations are, of course, designed to effect an initiation into hazard for both reader-persona and characters. In terms of The Magus, it is as though the reader-persona were not only duped and enlightened along with Nicholas, but made privy to Conchis' inmost scruples and concerns as the initiation proceeds. Finally, of course, it is the reader who must play author-god in deciding which of the endings will be chosen. His choice will reveal the degree to which he has absorbed the harsh lessons of contingency and will serve to decide whether he is now qualified as an independent player of the existential godgame.

Since both author and reader as personae find their fates entangled with the fates of characters separated from them by over a hundred years, it is obvious that the mechanics of this "time-travel" have an integral relation to the mechanics of the structure described above. The author-persona has a perspective on the Victorian author. But this perspective is, after all, nothing more than hindsight; and his apparent near-omniscience cannot tell him with certainty what a given Victorian character would have done in a given set of circumstances. These patent-enough observations have important symbolic consequences with respect to the novel's concern with eidetic imagery as such. They remind us that such imagery is based upon hindsight, the crystallizing of past experience into conceptual patterns; and that this imagery has severe limitations as the lens through which we must bring our present experience into focus as it is presenting itself.

To the extent the reader-persona shares the perspective of the author-persona, he is aware of these theoretical considerations; but insofar as he is a manipulated character of this author, he must undergo the gradual initiation into existential experience that these considerations suggest. (pp. 217-19)

The aim of this "time-travel" is to seduce us to full and authentic membership in our own time, and, as might be expected, the principal seductress is the anima. In the person of Sarah she is given a historical dimension that cuts across the parodic structure. For one thing, she must be seen not only as the anima in Charles's life, but that of the author-persona as well…. She also transcends her role in the Victorian metaphor by being conscious of her historical position, in particular of her existential relation to the future. Consciously breaking Victorian convention in the name of individual freedom, she is the harbinger of twentieth-century openness; yet she retains the air of mystery and remoteness essential to the anima's hold on the imagination.

It is significant that this air impresses most of her Victorian contemporaries as a pathological one, even to the point of suggesting insanity. (p. 220)

Sarah's "madness," like Hamlet's, may be seen as part of a machinery of deception in this case, the machinery of the psychodrama of which she is not only an instigator, along with the author-persona, but a beneficiary. The basic fiction—that she has given herself to a French officer—is designed to free her from expectations of conventional behavior, as she finally admits. She is thus duping the Victorian age in an escape that is also a mockery of the age's imprisoning forces…. The decision to use certain stratagems and even to manipulate people is made precisely in order to achieve an authenticity involving freedom from being manipulated by society's artifice. Thus Sarah, gripped by a real-enough loneliness and alienation, turns to Charles for emotional support, consciously using her assumed role as an "outcast" in order to enlist that support. In love with him, she nonetheless uses him as a test case for her self-image, and abandons him—in the ultimate ending—when he has become a threat to her existential growth.

Sarah, then, has become the existentialist authoress. She mercilessly excises and reshapes the materials of her own life according to criteria of contingency and freedom…. It is Sarah who has incorporated this distinction [between a static, closed ideation and one which is open toward hazard] into the very fabric of her mental processes who must decide what is to be done with Charles. If she is to remain true to her existentialist premises, she must make the choice most consonant with perpetual becoming—the ultimate ending. And if the author and reader as personae are to keep faith with these premises, they must "let" Sarah do the choosing—which is to say no more, perhaps, than that they must allow the anima to motivate continuously the "novels" of their own lives.

In keeping with the by-now-familiar sequence of Chinese boxes, Charles may be viewed as Sarah's "character," and his liberation as a by-product of her own more self-conscious liberation. Drawn into the psychodrama by artifice in the guises of mystery, pathos, and madness, he is led toward real existential discovery. With Sarah's final rejection of him, he is forced to come to terms with the paradox of the anima's perpetual attractiveness and recession. He thus achieves "authorship" himself, joining—within the framework of Fowles's ontological sophistry—Sarah, the author-persona, and the reader-persona. (pp. 220-22)

No matter what degree of freedom the author as Logos allows, he cannot—by definition—escape certain modes of manipulation. And, by the same token, the character as Eros cannot achieve definition without the shaping influence. What Fowles's three novels suggest, however—both individually and as sequence—is that the individual must strive for a maximum internalization of the dialectic. The dictates of the externally-oriented superego must give way to a creative interplay between the necessity to shape and the spontaneous impulses that drive life on. Only death stops the dialectic—the literal death of Miranda, or the death-in-life of Clegg. Nicholas Urfe, Sarah, and Charles must work continually toward the merger of existentialist author and autonomous character without ever fully effecting the merger. The tantalizing open-endedness of The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman symbolizes not only hazard's uncertainty, but the perpetual modification of the eidetic image as it tries to incorporate the flux of reality. (p. 222)

Dwight Eddins, "John Fowles: Existence as Authorship," in Contemporary Literature (© 1976 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 17, No. 2, Spring, 1976, pp. 204-22.

Jonathan Keates

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John Fowles has never been at ease with fiction. Even in so neat a package as The Collector we had the sense, here and there, of one or other of the author's intellectual concerns awkwardly protruding from the surface of the narrative. The Magus, probably the best thing he has ever done, used the machinery of fiction like a hydro-electric dam adequately to contain and direct his sometimes overpowering conceptual flow. In The French Lieutenant's Woman, an archetypally late 1960s morsel of rediscovered Victoriana, the wall finally collapsed and a flood of Fowles's Patent Notions came washing over us. I wasn't, I suspect, the only reader irritated at having to endure a drenching from a mixture of archly self-conscious detachment, toe-curling patronage, and a set of opinions, stated or implied, on the Victorians which I didn't share….

His aim, a sufficiently laudable one, seems always to have been towards extending the range of possibilities within the traditional framework of the novel—take, for example, the experimental endings of The French Lieutenant's Woman. We can feel a certain gratitude, besides, to a writer who so gamely takes his reader's intelligence for granted. His chosen style, in Daniel Martin, is honest and plain enough. He has clearly noted the figures and types necessary for convincing us with each one of his small cast of characters. There is the additional interest of imagining, in a novel entirely devoid of a story and given over to the perceptions, doubts and speculations of its placid, almost bovine protagonist, that this just might be an autobiography.

The best sections are those in which Fowles relaxes Daniel's self-awareness in favour of straight, old-fashioned topographical sketching, a specifically English art in which he has few rivals. The opening account of a Devon harvest, the scene-setting in New Mexico and Egypt … are done with an arresting concern for the movement and placing of words and an engaging eye for surfaces and colours.

Such a considerable range of skills doesn't, however, go to make a novel. Given the length, we deserve more than Fowles seems able to offer. Initially well drawn as his supporting figures may be, they fail to grip, perhaps because Daniel himself appears to be so detached from them. Conversations, already enfeebled by the dialogue's endemic limpness, grow repetitive to the point of impelling us to look elsewhere in the book for their originals. Robbed thus of the more commonplace comforts of fiction, we turn expectantly towards the eponymous hero. (p. 58)

Fowles's philosophical ideas are doubtless fascinating and possibly new, but, clotted with such a degree of flat, formulaic expression, they form a tiresome ballast which we would gladly jettison to save something of whatever novel remains. (p. 59)

Jonathan Keates, in The New Review (© The New Review Ltd., 11 Greek Street, London W1V 5LE), November, 1977.

Denis Donoghue

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Daniel Martin is a love story that might take place anywhere: indeed, it mostly takes place in circumstances which liberate hero and heroine from any involvement in society, politics, or ideology, on a trip to Egypt, the Nile, Abu Simbel, Palmyra, Lebanon. The relation between social structure and individual feeling is a major theme in itself, but it does not exert any pressure upon Daniel Martin. Fowles evidently wanted to exhibit the mutual bearing of society and individual, but the design does not go any further than the device of making Dan an English writer temporarily doctoring scripts in Hollywood….

Fowles's native theme is more accurately indicated in the epigraph to The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969), a sentence from Zur Judenfrage in which Marx says that "every emancipation is a restoration of the human world and of human relationships to man himself." Much of the significance of The French Lieutenant's Woman arises from the conditions of that emancipation: social and personal relations are shown not as separate constituents of reality but as interconnected systems of motives, values, and actions. But if we are to think of Fowles's theme as it is displayed in his several novels and stories, we must define it more narrowly. He is preoccupied with the habit by which we turn other people into objects and take possession of them…. Fowles's characters turn one another into objects, and then complain when they find their possessions missing, stolen, lost….

Ostensibly, the theme of Daniel Martin is the possibility of undoing the damage, releasing our possessions to become people again, persons, presences. Ostensibly: because the possibility has more to do with Providence than with Gramsci, Buber, or the self-portraying Rembrandt invoked on the last page of the novel. The rhetoric of the book asserts that the process involves learning to feel again, practicing responsiveness as if it were a craft. But Providence supplies the conditions and provocations. Dan is divorced, his wife has married Andrew, he is on the loose in Hollywood, Jenny is hardly more than a casual possession. Jane's husband, dying of cancer, kills himself to make her free for Dan. The new idiom of responsiveness, understanding, and feeling is genuine, a series of spiritual exercises to be practiced until their knowledge is carried to the heart. These exercises are practiced in the second, serious part of Daniel Martin; the first part merely shows why they are necessary, allows Providence to make them possible, and entrusts their future to Dan and Jane.

I have no fault to find with Jane: she is capable of anything that is required of her. The inadequate penitents are Dan and his creator, John Fowles. Dan is simply not up to the job, he is smeared with the triviality of his experience. Nothing in the book persuades me that Dan is capable of the conversion to gravity that is ascribed to him….

Fowles is to be blamed, of course: or rather, his language, which is just as defective as Dan. T. S. Eliot once said of Thomas Hardy's style that it sometimes achieved the sublime without ever having passed through the stage of being good. Nothing in Daniel Martin is sublime, but even the fine things in it are surrounded by pages of relentless falsity…. Someone in "Poor Koko," one of the stories in The Ebony Tower, refers to "hopeless parole in search of lost langue," and there are many other signs that Fowles keeps up with recent lore about language. His books regularly stop to make some comment on narrative problems, plot as Destiny, alternative endings, and so forth. "Language is like shot silk," one of the narrators says in The French Lieutenant's Woman; "so much depends on the angle at which it is held."

But Fowles's sophistication in the theory of fiction is compatible, I am afraid, with naïveté in the discrimination of styles. (p. 45)

Am I saying that Fowles has no merit? Or that Daniel Martin has none? Not quite, in either case. The Collector seems to me a decent novel, and moving in its presentation of Frederick and Miranda, their different experiences and values. The title story in The Ebony Tower is excellent, though one has only to compare it with nearly any of James's short stories about the artistic life to see the difference between the two writers in range and exactitude of implication. The French Lieutenant's Woman is Fowles's best work because he found for that occasion a major theme of great historical and personal importance, and he commanded a language at least adequate. I don't regard the alternative endings of that novel as more than a conceit; they merely represent Fowles's somewhat wide-eyed discovery that much depends on the angle at which a story is held.

But Daniel Martin puts in doubt the claim that Fowles, in addition to being an interesting writer, is also an artist. The new novel is a big, laborious book, but I have found in it no evidence that Fowles trusts his art sufficiently to be an artist. Richard Blackmur once invoked "the principle that the intelligence must always act as if it were adequate to the problems it has aroused." Fowles's intelligence does not act in this spirit or with this verve: he rarely trusts his vision enough to let it disappear in the work. That is why Daniel Martin contains so many pages and chapters which have not been given the authority of vision at all: odds-and-ends which have shaken loose from the work because they were never attached to it by force of faith to begin with. (p. 46)

Denis Donoghue, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1977 NYREV, Inc.), December 8, 1977.

Tom Paulin

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John Fowles's opening chapter [in Daniel Martin] is rich and promising. His stated aim is to offer "an exploration of what it means to be English", and his epigraph from Antonio Gramsci ("The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appears") promises an objective diagnosis of English decline. Succeeding chapters set in California and Oxford seem to have a fairly sure grasp of cultural realities and limitations—Los Angeles is described as "those famous hundred suburbs in search of a city", and Oxford is "not a city, but an incest." But then [a] feeling of too-familiar recognition … begins to deepen…. [The] trouble is that Fowles's narrative technique is so self-conscious it seems like a form of self-abuse—it's reminiscent of Isherwood's unbearably narcissistic Christopher and His Kind—while the characters it manipulates are a series of talkative transparencies who join Daniel Martin in numerous seminars on all those human emotions and motives we're meant to credit them with possessing. It's quite incredible that Fowles should present his celluloid fiction as an illustration "of an unfashionable philosophy, humanism." His vaguely theoretic and occasionally mystic imagination is in no sense humanist…. [The] illusion of participating in a deeply intellectual narrative is adeptly created. It is, unfortunately, only an illusion. This doesn't mean that John Fowles isn't intelligent—he is very intelligent—but his attitude to ideas is essentially that of a cultivated collector. Just as his botanising protagonist likes "looking for women who would interest him, for new specimens", so Fowles has culled a number of occasionally interesting ideas about contemporary society from various sources. However, in merely collecting those ideas he has reduced them to the status of intellectual curios—they are fixed and dead, like objects in a museum. (p. 69)

Daniel Martin is a brilliantly bogus structure, a mock-pyramid on a film set, a dead monument to what Samuel Johnson, in one of the sources of Fowles's novel, called "that hunger of imagination which preys incessantly upon life." (p. 70)

Tom Paulin, in Encounter (© 1977–1978 by Encounter Ltd.), January, 1978.

William H. Pritchard

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After arising some days later from finishing the [revised version of The Magus], one feels—as is usually the case in reading Fowles—ambivalent. Doubtless "The Magus" is too long, but, as with the recent "Daniel Martin," that seems a dull thing to say. Sentences and paragraphs have been recast into a generally less sporadic if not clearly superior narrative. The erotic scenes have been developed and extended, though to no new point of revelation. And the same big, un-English ideas are kicking around: Hazard, Freedom, Infinity and those other concepts, which in "The Aristos: A Self-Portrait in Ideas" (1964) Mr. Fowles went on about so solemnly in so many aphorisms for so long. Those who, unlike this reader, were bored or annoyed by the speculation and argumentation in "Daniel Martin" will not find any more to their tastes the intellectual content of the revised "Magus."

Yet it is a remarkable tour de force, and not just as a promising writer's first novel. (pp. 7, 41)

What the reader consents to if he goes beyond the first 50 pages of the book (very good pages, the writing about London is first-rate) is an ambiguous alliance with the hero-narrator, Nicholas, who for our entertainment as well as his own presumed good is teased, fooled, lied to, and in one way or another seduced by Conchis and his minions—the revised version makes many analogies with "The Tempest." At the same time, we must indulge our annoyance and skepticism, as does Nicholas, at the stagy theatrics, the chicanery and charlatanry of this dubious "godgame" (a rejected title for the novel) made up out of old poems, old movies, old mythologies.

Meanwhile, the resulting entertainment is often satisfactory in the extreme, and it may do Mr. Fowles more credit to think of him as perhaps the best novelistic entertainer writing today (he has recently acknowledged a debt to Raymond Chandler) than as a ponderer of modern crises, the death of the gods or the novel, and the rule of "hazard," or as a psychological penetrator of great authority and acuity. At least there are long stretches, particularly in Conchis's narrative of his life—his experience in World War I, his later confrontation with the Nazis on the Greek island in World War Ii—which are no more nor less than masterful storytelling. Like Hemingway, Mr. Fowles is better on war than on sex; at least to me, Nicholas's extended pursuit of the marvelous Julie, Conchis's creation, seems the least inventive, most conventionally written (even though rewritten) part of the book. On the other hand, the climactic trial scene, with its echoes of the Circe section from Joyce's "Ulysses," is both spectacular in conception and finely ironic in effect, as a hoard of psychoanalytic babble and erotic humiliations is dumped on our hero's unbowed head. (p. 41)

William H. Pritchard, "Early Fowles," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 19, 1978, pp. 7, 41.

James Gindin

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John Fowles is, in his recent novel Daniel Martin, as he was in his preceding novel, The French Lieutenant's Woman,… explicitly conscious of his attitude toward his own characters…. Fowles is fond of almost all of [them], sometimes, perhaps, excessively fond…. Man's brutality toward other creatures, in Fowles's world, is endemic, established in the first chapter, an account of a summer day during which Daniel Martin, the narrator and the subject of a long search for himself, worked helping out on a farm in Devon in 1942, a day on which he saw the mower, moving through high grass, slice the legs off a concealed rabbit and then saw the German bombers rip the skies on their way to Exeter…. [Fowles's use of animal imagery], like his use of the rabbit, is never heavy or melodramatic; rather, it is understated, part of a dense texture of detail, conversation, description, and experience.

The recovery of Daniel and Jane is …, both implicitly and explicitly, the recovery of their generation, what Fowles calls the last generation "brought up in some degree of the nineteenth century, since the twentieth did not begin till 1945." The whole story of Daniel and Jane, the love and its immediate denial, the resolution of the complexities of emotional attachment by punishing the self, is itself a standard Victorian Romantic story…. The initial conversations between Daniel and Jane, at Oxford in 1950, are part of their belated Victorian time, the ironies that constantly deflate themselves, their excessive consciousness in post-war Oxford of living at a momentarily idyllic time and place, of wondering whether or not they are "real."… The origins of the sense of loss are not merely Victorian but particularly English as well, the result of a national ethos of sitting grimly uncomfortable in railway carriages rather than asking the man who has opened a window to close it, a nation of people sometimes "happier at being unhappy than doing something constructive about it. We boast of our genius for compromise, which is really a refusal to choose." All these qualities, focused in both time and place, lead Fowles to both develop and satirize his own generation's "pandemic of self-depreciation," for it is a generation that can always laugh at itself, is always self-conscious about its own postures. Yet, as Fowles recognizes clearly, the laughter is itself part of the problem, part of the easy means of attractive evasion. (pp. 236-39)

Daniel Martin is full of the author's speculations, some of which are not connected as closely to issues central to plot and character as are those concerning loss and recovery…. Often, Fowles is at his best in describing landscape and its connection with people. He writes well about the blues and purples of the stark New Mexican mountains, also of the soft, rainy contours of Devon held in various greens and greys. A parochial quality is conveyed through the loyal Devonian couple who tend Daniel's house there, yet the couple is never sentimentalized…. The speculations and generalizations are not always on the same level, for Fowles sometimes does descend to the stereotype, waste images on the supposed insularity and silence of the English, fulminate about the stupidity of Americans in always missing conversational "undertones."… Daniel sometimes worries his Englishness into repetitive triviality, having himself called a "most English Englishman" for some universal reaction, and he is fond of illustrating the nature of the American with a series of bad jokes derived from television comics. Illustrations of Arab humor and Jewish humor and German humor are drawn out in long lists of presumably funny stories that simply purvey ethnic stereotypes. For the most part, Fowles's narrative method shifts effectively between the first person and the third, between Daniel telling his own story and the author telling Daniel's, a means of enabling the author to treat his character with both immediacy and distance, to slide the focus close-in and move it back. But Fowles also punctutates the narrative with speculations about novel writing, about how a novelist deals with his characters and novels of the "open" ending. The speculations are often intelligent in themselves (particularly some of those about the differences between the novel and the dramatic form, differences between the author as dramatist and author as novelist), but they lack something of the freshness and probity many of the same speculations had in The French Lieutenant's Woman. In the earlier novel, the insistence on a discussion of novelistic technique was part of the novel itself, a necessary means of approach to a partially unfamiliar subject that involved the ambiguities of time, change, and history; in Daniel Martin, however, the technical discussion is more digressive and exterior, more easily and immediately assumed because the subject is dramatized in the ambiguities and complexities of self. (pp. 239-41)

History is always both a projection of the self, as the only way to know and feel anything, and a recognition of otherness, of difference. Fowles demonstrated the same process of understanding history in The French Lieutenant's Woman, but, there, the area was much more limited in both space and time, almost all confined to England (a few minor leaps to France and America) and all held to a single century. In Daniel Martin, in contrast, the need to understand and assimilate covers much more of the world over a considerably longer time. And, to present its similarities and differences, its identities and its otherness, to write of the history that is part of us and not part of us with conviction and particularity, Fowles requires a great many words. His words, for the most part, are justified, achieve history, and avoid the sense of generalization as gesture or as abstract exaggeration…. (pp. 242-43)

Fowles's sense of the past is literary as well as historical. His treatment of Devon explicitly acknowledges the influence of Thomas Hardy's treatment of neighboring Dorset, "an obscure amalgam of rain, landscapes, pasts, fertilities, femalenesses," and the theme of Victorian guilt in Daniel is often connected with Hardy's work and life, as it is in The French Lieutenant's Woman. (p. 243)

The recovery in the novel, however, remains centrally personal, achieved, in particular, only through Daniel and Jane…. The recovery also assimilates parts of the social, historical, and literary environment…. (p. 244)

Another way of looking at what Daniel and Jane achieve can be seen in a distinction Fowles establishes between Anthony and Daniel early in the novel. Both collect orchids, the shared hobby on which their friendship was originally based. Anthony, with vastly greater knowledge of species and classifications, is much better at "looking at" them, at analyzing, separating, breaking down; Daniel, however, is more interested in "looking for" them, able to find, almost accidentally, the rare example among the muddled fields. Anthony's whole career is "looking at," a career of academic linguistic analysis, and it rests, permanently, on a religious faith that is always assumed. He pursues exact knowledge and once pronounces that "the metaphor is the curse of Western civilization." Daniel's sometimes aimless career is "looking for." He does not "find" Jane for a quarter of a century, his art is only gradually beginning to expand away from his guilts and grudges and he may never finish the full novel, but he can, increasingly, deal with metaphor, deal with the tenuous connections between people and pasts and histories. He recognizes, too, that part of the appreciation of metaphor, part of the recognition of all the tenuous connections of experience, is a matter of human effort as well as a matter of understanding. (p. 245)

James Gindin, in The Michigan Quarterly Review (copyright © The University of Michigan, 1978), Spring, 1978.


Fowles, John (Vol. 1)


Fowles, John (Vol. 15)