John Fowles Fowles, John (Vol. 10) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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...

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Jonathan Keates

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Denis Donoghue

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 954 words.)

Tom Paulin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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James Gindin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1265 words.)