The English Novel in the Twentieth Century: 5 - John Fowles

By Heptonstall, Geoffrey | Contemporary Review, May 1996 | Go to article overview

The English Novel in the Twentieth Century: 5 - John Fowles


Heptonstall, Geoffrey, Contemporary Review


John Fowles has spoken of his life in cities as a daily exile. Though he is no agrarian idealist, his, relation to the natural world is revealed in two long essays, 'The Tree and 'Islands', which should be read both for themselves and for their counterpoint to his fiction. A recurring theme in the novels is the contrast between town (usually London) and country (usually the West of England). This says much of the author's sense of place. It suggests also an approach to human nature and to society.

'Ordinary experience . . . is quintessentially "wild", in the sense my father disliked so much: unphilosophical, irrational, uncontrollable, incalculable', Fowles wrote in a deeply personal statement, the childhood memoir which begins 'The Tree'. There are wild characters and bizarre happenings in Fowles's fiction. But here he is talking of ordinary experience. His position may owe something to Freud, though the greater debt is to existentialism which Fowles encountered at the peak of its extraordinary post-war popularity.

A graduate in French at Oxford, Fowles taught at the University of Poitiers where he began to write the pensees which form his major essay, 'The Aristos'. Significantly, the work begins: 'Where are we? What is the situation? Has it a master?' Not a series of questions which can be answered without some empirical evidence. They are a novelist's questions.

'The Aristos' (1964) is not philosophy except in a casual sense. There is no thread of a speculative logic. There is no satisfying conclusion. Fowles is concerned with particularities, with the minutiae of experience. Subtitled 'A Self-Portrait in Ideas', 'The Aristos' is a personal statement, rather than a picture of the human condition. The thoughts do have a master in the way they are expressed. Fowles's supreme gift is his compelling narrative drive.

His debut novel, The Collector (1963), is interesting partly because of its relation to the English novel of its time. The heroine, Miranda, speaks derisively of Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, rejecting it as a celebration of the commonplace. Her own situation is strange, for she is the captive of an obsessive fantasist. Miranda considers her situation with a cool detachment which might win her the freedom she cannot live without. She recognises that Clegg, her captor, is a victim of commonplace thinking (he is very 'correct') which sours his genuine appreciation of beauty. He cannot think what to do with Miranda. To Clegg she is an ideal, almost a sacred object, like a work of art. He dare not reach out to her in any way. Nor can he see that his distant admiration is depriving her of living responses. Miranda is unable to provoke any reaction in him, not even the sexual violation she would ordinarily fear. And so, neglected, she dies before her captor's uncomprehending gaze.

There are two narratives, Miranda's diary and Clegg's self-justifying and pathetically inadequate account. The latter may owe something to Hannah Arendt's 'banality of evil' reportage of the Eichmann Trial which was concurrent with the drafting of Fowles's novel. It may be something of a parody, a dark one, of works like Room at the Top or Billy Liar which concern the ambitions of suburban clerks.

The Collector is written with considerable verve. The tone of the contrasting narrative voices is well caught. Though pastiche and parody weave through the work (the story as a whole being a variant on 'Beauty and the Beast'), Fowles retains his authority on the situation he has conjured.

When that authority finally collapses it feels almost a betrayal. The great weakness is the lack of a credible resolution. Clegg's decline after Miranda's death fails to convince. His sudden shift from fantasist capable of redemption to sociopathic killer is sensationalist. The logic of the narrative is that Miranda's death is also Clegg's. It is likely, also, that he would wish to reveal to the world his one unusual deed in so ordinary a life. …

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