Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1786
This extraordinary volume chronicles the life-in-progress of a young man whose principal ambition is to become a writer, an ambition that, after years of struggle, poverty, and unrewarding work as a teacher, is finally realized with the success of his first novel, The Collector (1963). In the great tradition of literary autobiography, this work contains a frankness and spontaneity, especially about the doubts, misgivings, false starts, and failures, that remove it from the usual fables of identity a retrospective work might create.
Instead, John Fowles writes of his present as it passes, vents his reactions to people, critiques films and stage performances, and lists his thoughts about his readings, his love affairs, and his anxieties, all from his own immediate perspective. Charles Drazin, as editor, provides extensive but not obtrusive notes on Fowles’s friends and associates, the locales and institutions he visited, the books he reads and authors he mentions. These useful notes are also accompanied by a first-rate index which is invaluable for scholars using the book as a research tool for cross-referencing the writer’s literary works with his journals. Yet the scholarship is not essential for general readers to appreciate the work; in that regard the editor has struck a balance serving a wide readership.
The editor has divided the journals into ten parts, the first two of which, dealing with Fowles’s last year at Oxford and his first year teaching at Poitiers in France, present a portrait of the artist as a very young man, filled with youthful prejudices, opinions, and judgments which range from the incredibly naïve and petulant to the remarkably profound. At times Fowles seems intent upon criticizing all, including himself, in a manner that betrays arrogant priggishness; at other times he seems lost in admiration for those very things he criticizes. This is especially true of his uneasiness at the home of his parents and of his uneasy romance with Ginette Marcailloux in Poitiers, which was marred by her tension and bad temper as well as his own bad temper and bouts of depression. Apart from the personal roller coaster he describes, the entries are also of inestimable value for literary critics of the later Fowles, to mine for clues about sources, analogues, and allusions in his fiction as he mentions the works he is reading and offers concise evaluations of their merits.
Part 3, “An Island and Greece,” introduces a magical place which transformed his life and his writing. Having secured a teaching post at the Anargyros and Korgialeneios School on the island of Spetsei, Fowles began a fascination with the genius of the place that would inform his major novel, The Magus (1965). In retrospect, the editor of the journals mentions in a note, Fowles looks upon the journal entry for January 6, 1952, as the genesis of that novel. Clearly some of the language he uses to describe his early impressions of the island’s topography and its allure for him anticipates several of the lush descriptions he would write more than a decade later. Additionally, although he remains critical of his colleagues, forgiving some and begrudging others, and makes acerbic notes on the personalities and appearances of some of his students, his tone in this era shows mature and certain growth. Other significant elements of his first few months in Greece include his travels to Mycenae, Delphi, and Mount Parnassus, which he climbed in homage to its literary inspiration and, in turn, found inspiring in him a new belief in himself as a writer.
After that first half-year in Greece, his sojourns in England paled. Nothing was to prepare him for the next school year’s mad, passionate, moonstruck love he found with Elizabeth Christy, the wife of a newly arrived colleague, Roy Christy, at the school on Spetsei. The journals recount Fowles and Elizabeth’s initial attraction, his conscious avoidance of intimacy though they were increasingly thrown together by circumstance, and, ultimately, their passionate love affair which got both Fowles and Christy fired from the school. As in every section of the journals, Fowles casts a cold eye upon himself, his situation, his colleagues, and his studentsand also upon Elizabeth, noting her faults, failings, and inadequacies but persisting in his infatuation with her. The journal entries show a progressive euphoria with Elizabeth, recounting the joys of new love amid the dangers of their affair.
Part 6, “Return to England,” illustrates the period beginning in July, 1952, and the homecoming in England. Despite Fowles and Elizabeth’s elopement, the process of separation from Roy seemed interminable, as did the myriad problems with the relationship, not least of which was Roy’s insistence that his and Elizabeth’s daughter remain in Roy’s sole custody. Fowles documents his teaching in Ashridge, a suburban finishing school for women, and its attendant problems, including amorous liaisons with students. He dwells upon Elizabeth’s problems, reveals the pair’s quarrels and inevitable reconciliations, his struggles with writing and disaffection with work. Most of all, he documents a period of grinding poverty, surviving on a small weekly salary with most of it going toward rent. Ultimately, the domestic, if not the financial, situation improved slightly in 1954 when Fowles found employment at St Godric’s, a secretarial and language school in Hampstead, London, providing him with steady work for the following decade and allowing him to be closer to Elizabeth. This stormy period of alternating quarrels and reconciliations took on a different, public face in April 2, 1957, when the pair married.
Fowles’s attempts at composing various projects, especially The Aristos (1964), were stymied during the period covered in part 7, “Married Life in London,” 1957 through October, 1960, but the journals have less to do with still-present domestic unhappiness than with his reflections upon the literature he read, the films he saw, thumbnail sketches of his students, and a lengthy dialogue of self-analysis at the end of the section. The next section of the journals, covering a little more than a year, mainly concerns the inability of John and Elizabeth to have children, her visits to a fertility clinic, and unsuccessful treatments. Fowles’s notes on his reading during this period and on contemporary Italian cinema provide a counterpoint to the troubled time of Elizabeth’s medical ordeals and his reactions to them. One minor note in early December of 1960 describes his writing The Collector, a project he had begun in late November and was to finish, without further commentary in the journals, in another three weeks’ time.
After such prolonged periods of darkness and economic uncertainty, the sea change in Fowles’s personal and literary fortunes that the ninth section of the journals demonstrates is, indeed, a new climbing of Parnassus, as the editor calls it. Like many of Fowles’s manuscripts, the book he had written in a few weeks two years previously had lain neglected until Fred “Podge” Porter, a friend, read some of it and found it publishable. The manuscript was professionally typed, and Elizabeth took it to a literary agent whom the typist had recommended; this marked a turning point for Fowles. The chronicle of how the book got into the hands of Jonathan Cape, a first-rate publishing house, its revisions, and the windfall of financial prosperity it brought has a Dickensian, fairy-tale quality about it without the attendant sentimentality Fowles often observes in the journals of Charles Dickens’s work.
His literary and financial success also led Fowles and Elizabeth to spend a long summer holiday in Italy in 1963 and to submit other works of his for publication, although little came of the latter effort for some time except for in the case of The Magus, then incomplete, which Cape had already agreed to publish . On the strength of his newly found financial independence, Fowles also left employment at St. Godric’s in April of 1963 and, in addition to his omnivorous reading, began working on The Magus with renewed vigor as well as undertaking lengthy and frustrating negotiations on the screenplay of The Collector, for which Columbia Pictures had bought film rights.
In autumn of 1963 Fowles began his stint as a literary lion, traveling to the United States to promote his book, which was published there by Little, Brown of Boston and giving a round of interviews in New York City. The writer of the journal entries of this period is much the same as that of earlier times, except that he has much in which to rejoice despite his hard-bitten view of the world and of himself. One notable experience he details is his meeting with Gloria Vanderbilt in her New York home, her warmth toward him and her complete understanding of his book.
The volume concludes with part 10, written between September, 1963 and November, 1965, and contains accounts of Fowles’s newfound fame and literary associations in England as well as of his time in Hollywood while The Collector was being filmed. Replete with Hollywood gossip, descriptions of the painstaking and sometimes painful reading process by the actors, conversations about simplifying the language of the book for film audiences, the entries reflect the bustle of his days and nights in Los Angeles. His breezy reports of meetings and conversations with Terence Stamp and of his attempts to get Samantha Eggar to liven up her performance add immeasurably to the immediacy of the telling. He details the difficulties and obstacles to shooting the film, from the wrong electrical set-ups to the wrong set and costuming to the maddening process in which power overshadows intelligence in decision making, in such a way as to add a distinct sense of the unreality of the American film world.
Meanwhile, Fowles was still working hard on The Magus, rewriting, adding, deleting some segments. His comments on the creative process, the recursive hovering over sections, the cutting of large portions, the blocks and stumbles in writing and the question of writing in the first-person or the third-person voice illuminate Fowles’s work habits and the problems attendant upon completing a long narrative. Having completed the work, he negotiated publication on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean as well as the film rights and agreed to write the screenplay for Twentieth Century Foxfor a production that would never be released commercially in the United States, as it happened. Fowles’s wealth, however, grew to the extent that he could leave London and move to Lyme Regis, a seaside resort town.
Ironically but typically, the last entry in this volume of the journals describes Fowles’s love of the new residence on the seaside, still with worry over money. His house in Highgate remained unsold, the expenses of the new house accumulated, and he faced an overdraft of five thousand pounds while waiting for payment on the deal with Fox.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 34
Booklist 101, no. 17 (May 1, 2005): 1560.
Contemporary Review 284 (April, 2004): 246.
The Economist 369 (November 1, 2003): 82.
Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 6 (March 15, 2005): 331.
London Review of Books 26, no. 9 (May 6, 2004): 32-33.
Publishers Weekly 252, no. 13 (March 28, 2005): 67.
The Spectator 293 (October 25, 2003): 66.
The Times Literary Supplement, November 14, 2003, pp. 12-13.
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