Tuesday, November 08, 2005

John Fowles Dies

Most of us in my literary growing up group at school and University read John Fowles. In particular, The Magus was seen by me and many of my literary "gang" as a masterpiece of challenging, imaginative fiction with strong narrative qualities and a great story. Fowles was concerned, above all, with the existential freedom of the individual, with his scope for choice and the energy with which he wrestled with the mysteries of existence. The Magus, in my view, was his greatest achievement.

Here is a summary (from todays Daily Telegraph UK) of his work:

The Collector (1963) was the first manuscript he sent to a publisher, deeming it to be satisfactorily completed. Narrated successively by its two central characters, the novel told the story of a sad, lonely psychopath who abducts a beautiful girl with whom he has become obsessed, and whom he holds in a cellar in a desperate attempt to win her love.
A tortuously realistic portrayal of obsession, the book introduced themes that were to remain central to Fowles's work - the individual's struggle for physical, psychological or artistic freedom and the author's hatred of timid convention. It also explored the divide between the existential "Us" and the mind-numbed "Them," an antithesis expressed by the richness or poverty of his protagonists' language.

The book became an instant bestseller and was rapturously received by the critics, although Fowles took exception to those who portrayed it simply as a sex-and-crime thriller; he described it as an allegory, with the victim representing intelligence and culture, and the kidnapper symbolising a moral bankruptcy born of materialism. Inevitably this invited the charge of elitism, yet Fowles had endeavoured to attach sympathy to both characters, a point he made clearly in his second work, The Aristos (1964), in which he stated that one cause of all crime is "maleducation".

The enormous success of The Collector, which was made into a film starring Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar, freed Fowles from financial concerns. He gave up teaching and moved to Lyme Regis. He had always believed that a writer needed to live in exile, and Lyme Regis allowed him to be both part of English culture and isolated from it.

His success also removed him from the constraints of commerciality. Indeed, when writing The Aristos he deliberately set out not to produce another best-seller or to become falsely pigeon-holed as a thriller-writer. Subtitled "A Self-portrait in Ideas", the book explored the author's views on a wide range of subjects, his idea being that: "If you put down all the ideas you hold it would amount to a kind of painter's frank self-portrait." The book was quizzically received, critics being surprised by Fowles's switch from fiction to a statement of personal philosophy.
In 1965 Fowles finally published The Magus, the novel on which he had been variously engaged since 1952, and on which he continued to work after its publication, ultimately producing a revised version a decade later.

This book, which became required reading for students, describes an English teacher in Greece who becomes involved with a fabulously wealthy magician, the "Magus" of the title, who draws him into a "godgame" psychodrama involving the construction of a parallel fantasy universe. Elaborate, complex and often criticised for being pretentious, Fowles's novel drew heavily on Shakespearean and Homeric allusions which gave the work the aura of myth. Fowles's intention was no less than to create a fable by which his protagonist - and implicitly the reader - might impose some order on the meaningless cosmos in which he exists.

The book was moderately received by the critics, who all agreed that, even if the novel did not quite come off, there could be no doubt about the scope of Fowles's ambition. He adapted it himself for the screen, but later attacked the film (starring Anthony Quinn and Michael Caine) as "a disaster" and vowed never to adapt another of his own works. [Comment from me - his assessment of this film is correct. Its basically dreadful!]

The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969) was successfully filmed, albeit adapted by Harold Pinter without assistance from the author. In the novel, a triangular love story, Fowles convincingly evoked the Victorian world with remarkable acuity. Highly experimental both in its form and its erudition, the book won the WH Smith literary award and the International Association of Poets, Playwrights and Novelists Silver Pen Award. It was an unexpected (to Fowles) commercial success.

After the self-conscious artifice of The French Lieutenant's Woman, Fowles published a collection of his poems in 1973 which were strikingly spare by comparison with the richness of his fiction.

The Ebony Tower (1974), a collection of long, short stories and a translation of Eliduc, a French medieval romantic poem, sifted themes of art and literature. In the stories Fowles developed his ideas about the primacy of language, the centrality of ideas as a condition of human freedom and the eternal mystery at the core of an individual's existence.

The book, which was televised in 1984, betrayed Fowles's love of French culture and landscape. Although he rarely travelled, when he did it was invariably to France. At Lyme Regis, Fowles had all that he needed - tranquillity, the countryside, the sea, wildlife, his library and his jazz collection. His was not a temperament that demanded society. But it was one of his rare excursions, to Hollywood to discuss a screenplay, that inspired Daniel Martin (1977). He described this novel as "emotionally autobiographical", and it concerned the quest of the eponymous screenwriter to discover his true self by recapturing his past and assessing his relationships during a trip to England to visit a dying friend. In so doing, Martin discovers "what had gone wrong, not only with Daniel Martin, but his generation, age, century; the unique selfishness of it, the futility, the ubiquitous addiction to wrong ends".

So, at 79, he is gone. But not without having left a legacy of literacy excellent. Rest in Peace.

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