Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2113
Readers drawn to John Fowles’s novels since his first, The Collector, was published in 1963 will welcome this gathering of essays written over the following decades. Fowles’s novels vary considerably in style and subject matter, from the eerie horror of The Collector to the dazzlingly labyrinthine plotting of The Magus (1965, revised 1978); from his 1969 The French Lieutenant’s Woman’s twentieth century construction of Victorian relationships between men and women, to 1985’s A Maggot’s stranger evocation of seventeenth century Protestant Dissent, to 1977’s Daniel Martin’s exploration of a contemporary middle-aged male in crisis; from 1974’s The Ebony Tower’s echoing of medieval French romance to 1982’s Mantissa’s enactment of the struggle between a writer and his demanding, exasperating muse. In one of the essays here, “My Recollections of Kafka,” Fowles contrasts Franz Kafka’s achievement of a voice so memorable as to make “Kafkaesque” a familiar adjective with his own decision “to write in different styles and voices, and different forms of the novel.” What he describes as “my obsession . . . with new (to me) writing worlds” has produced not only the formal diversity of his fiction but the correspondingly wide range of topics he addresses in these essays, from the nature of nature to national cultural identity, from the psychology of novel-writing to the fascination with shipwrecks.
Despite the variety, there are, as his title Wormholes suggests, such strong connections among Fowles’s passions that his essays, along with his fiction, form coherent linkages. If “Fowlesian” will not find a place in dictionaries, he has nevertheless, in his movement among writing worlds, inducted his readers into a Fowlesian universe. Fowles quotes the Oxford English Dictionary definition of “wormhole,” a term used by physicists, as “a hypothetical interconnection between widely separated regions of space-time.” The achievement of all of his writing is to make his hypothetical interconnections assume an intense imaginative reality, and a fascination of the Wormholes essays is their demonstration of the psychological and literary processes through which this reality is created.
The editor of Wormholes, Jan Relf, has divided her selection of Fowles’s essays into four sections, each arranged chronologically. The first, “Autobiographical: Writing and the Self,” assembles more purely autobiographical pieces; other sections are entitled “Culture and Society,” “Literature and Literary Criticism,” and “Nature and the Nature of Nature.” The book is completed by a 1995 interview of Fowles by the American critic Dianne Vipond. That many of the essays in the later sections have strong autobiographical elements—an essay on Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved (1892) is perhaps the most profoundly autobiographical piece in the book—indicates the appropriateness of the “wormholes” metaphor for the whole collection. Though Fowles frequently expresses uneasiness about the relationship between literature and the academy and prefers to think of his audience as the general reader, one audience for which Wormholes is clearly designed—with its helpful index and the orientation toward posterity expressed by its concluding, rather stiff, interview—is an academic one: people who want to write essays or books about Fowles. Nevertheless, the greatest beneficiaries of the book will be readers, in and out of the academy, who have been moved by one or more of Fowles’s fictions and will be delighted at the elaboration of the fictions’ imaginative contexts, whether these contexts be particular geographical spaces, the creations of other writers, or the thinking about nature, the self, or contemporary society that contributes to the novels’ themes.
Individually, the essays vary in quality. The weakest, and happily shortest, section is that on culture and society, which includes a piece on the folly of the Falklands War, an essay bemoaning a cultural obsession with female youth in the form of starlets, and an essay called “On Being English but Not British.” Polemics are not Fowles’s strength as a writer, and neither the Falklands War nor the phenomenon of starlets, however much one agrees with Fowles’s opinions about them, is likely to induce great prose. Thinking about being English, in the essay here, leads Fowles to an unfortunate categorization of the Irish, Welsh, and Scots as chiefly defined by a lucrative (to them) dislike of the English. Fowles is on safer ground when he contrasts “Englishness” with the mentality of imperial Great Britain, and feelings about his own rural England and the strengths and limitations of the English national character are important to some of his fiction. Nevertheless, his political thinking is much less effectively conveyed in these essays than it is when, for example, he connects it with the experience of the title character of Daniel Martin, a persona that only in part represents Fowles himself.
Several complete essays and remarks in many others directly address Fowles’s fiction. “Behind The Magus” (1994) describes Fowles’s own experience as a young English teacher on the Greek island of Spetsai. Though Fowles had already told some of this story in his preface to his 1978 revision of The Magus, he says more here about his initial ignorance of Greece’s twentieth century political history, and he inserts a long excerpt from his youthful diary entry about his first stunning experience of the landscape and light of that Greek island. One of a number of Fowlesian passages describing visionary encounters with landscape, this segment makes one look forward to the eventual publication of Fowles’s diaries. A second essay devoted entirely to one of Fowles’s novels is “The Filming of The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” which comments interestingly on differences between the novel and film as narrative forms. While words can “never capture,” he says, such visual things as “the endless nuances of facial expression,” the novel, particularly in the twentieth century, “has been more and more concerned with all those aspects of life and modes of feeling that cannever be represented visually”—which in fact include the effects of facial expressions on those who see them. For all the actress Meryl Streep’s skill in portraying the character Sarah Woodruff in the film version of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the novel works far more convincingly than the film to evoke the troubling and perplexing dissonance the character creates for the man who tries to understand her.
Readers of the novels already know how important certain geographical places are to Fowles—not only Greece for The Magus, but also, for example, France for The Ebony Tower and Fowles’s own English counties of Dorset and Devonshire for The French Lieutenant’s Womanand Daniel Martin. His essays talk further about his passion for these places. In all three, it is the “rural, natural history’ aspects” that attract him most: “the wild sides” expressed by “la France sauvage” and “agria Ellada.” “A Modern Writer’s France” (1988), as well as recounting his experiences as a student of French literature at Oxford University and as an assistant in English classes at a French university, describes his later fondness for wandering through the France that he calls “my imagined country” of “endless obscure countrysides.” Two of the writers of greatest importance to him are French: the early twentieth century novelist Alain-Fournier and the medieval romance writer Marie de France. Although he announced in the 1964 “I Write Therefore I Am” that he meant to be a European, rather than an English, writer, and notes that he emerged from Oxford with a much greater familiarity with French than with English literature, the English origins of his feelings for nature contribute powerfully to his being distinctively an English novelist.
The essays placed in the “Nature and the Nature of Nature” section ofWormholes talk about those feelings for nature, and they also outline what Fowles sees as some of the barriers that modern culture places between humans and their experience of the natural world. These barriers include the physical depradations of wild nature—this section emphasizes the environmentalist side of Fowles’s politics—but Fowles gives more attention to what he views as the distortions created by the scientific approach to nature. He argues not that scientific approaches are in themselves distorted—he admires genuine science—but that science produces a damaging side effect through its omission of emotional connections with nature. He recounts his own history of false relations with the natural world through the pursuits of collecting, hunting, and what he calls “chasing rarities.” John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819) represents the feelings that these pursuits blocked out and to which Fowles thinks modern education gives too little attention; he calls, in effect, for a renewal of this aspect of Romanticism. The most recent essay in this section, “The Nature of Nature” (1995), is so disjointed as to be one of Wormholes’ weaker inclusions; in it, however, Fowles does point readers to a text where he made these points more effectively, The Tree (1979). That book-length essay concludes with one of Fowles’s most compelling narratives of a visionary landscape, Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor in the south of England—one of many passages in Fowles’s writing that put him one among the best of latter- day Romantics.
The strongest writing in Wormholes itself, though, concerns writing—the essays about other writers and about Fowles’s own understanding of himself as a writer. In some cases, the two subjects are clearly separate: An essay on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a skillful analysis of the strengths and limitations of Doyle’s narrative techniques; the essay on Kafka describes a writer whom Fowles sees as having made literary choices very different from his own. More often, though, his subject is writers who have influenced him and with whom he identifies strongly. One of the more remote of these relations is the one that he describes with William Golding: Rather than seeing Golding’s themes and methods as having much kinship with his own, he admires Golding as a fellow independent-minded outsider, somewhat scorned in British literary circles for writing best- sellers. One senses a closer bond in Fowles’s essay on the seventeenth century English antiquarian and biographer John Aubrey. Though in this essay Fowles does not discuss his own writing at all, the wormhole effect helps readers discern the personal in Fowles’s admiration for the fearless and wide-ranging curiosity, openness to new thinking, and seventeenth century lack of specialization that made Aubrey a pioneer in the history of cultural practices. The Aubrey essay is one of the best in the book; another is the much more personal “Hardy and the Hag.” Through an analysis of a late and “failed” Hardy novel, The Well-Beloved (1897), Fowles explores a psychological process he sees as common to Hardy and himself and to many other male novelists as well: the driving of both writer and writing by the guilty pleasures of longing for an unattainable female (originally mother) figure. This longing also figures prominently in Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes (1913), a novel about adolescence to which Fowles says he has been drawn since his own adolescence—and it forms a central theme in much of Fowles’s own fiction. Other writers for whom his feelings run deep and whom he discusses interestingly are D. H. Lawrence, the Molière of Don Juan (1665), the Homer of the Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.), and the William Shakespeare ofThe Tempest (1611).
Wormholes matters because John Fowles is an important English novelist of the later twentieth century. It usefully brings together essays from scattered sources. Most appeared originally in a variety of popular magazines and scholarly journals; several were first published as introductions to books by other writers; several first appeared as accompaniments to collections of photographs. The essays illuminate and provide a context for the novels by developing ideas with strong thematic connections to the novels, by enlarging on some of the biographical experiences from which the novels stem, and by exploring the connections Fowles thinks most critical between himself and other writers. Wormholes shows Fowles to be not only a man of diverse yet interestingly connected interests but also a writer who both has resisted some pressures to be “modern” and centrally is of his age. It also reveals him as one who, despite his conviction of an essential narcissism in the creative process and his own artistic need for isolation, writes with a strong belief that “the duty of all art . . . is in some way (if only in terms of pure entertainment) to improve society at large.”
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCIV, April, 1998, p. 1297.
Choice. XXXV, November, 1998, p. 521.
Kirkus Reviews. LXVI, March 15, 1998, p. 382.
Library Journal. CXXIII, March 15, 1998, p. 65.
The New York Times Book Review. CIII, May 31, 1998, p. 37.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, March 9, 1998, p. 55.
Review of Contemporary Fiction. XVIII, Fall, 1998, p. 260.
The Spectator. CCLXXXI, September 12, 1998, p. 43.
The Times Literary Supplement. September 25, 1998, p. 26.