Magazine article The Spectator

The Man Who Loves Islands

Magazine article The Spectator

The Man Who Loves Islands

Article excerpt

Opposite the title page stands a reproduction of Fowles's nice bookplate, a sort of laurel wreath on which sit magpies and an owl. The author of The Collector, the sage of Lyme Regis brooding amid an odd collection of books that have also fuelled his imagination, has now permitted Jan Relf to collect him: the non-fiction of a lifetime. As editor she has politically corrected him here and there; in quiet revenge he patronises her feminism.

`These little bits of what I am' range in date from 1964 to 1997, and fall into five sections. In ten articles he discusses his ego in relation to his deskwork; three are faintly political; 11 concern writers who matter to him and whom he makes freshly matter to us, including Lawrence, Alain-Fournier and Marie de France; seven of the pieces cover, or rather reveal, his detailed love for nature. The last section, entitled `An Unholy Inquisition', is an interview in which he lets himself be doubly exposed as both evasive and pretentious. His photograph blazoned on the jacket focuses on these unendearing aspects of his genius: yokel straw hat hiding his brains, eyes backing off and mouth dubious, grizzled beard proclaiming a famous non-persona. As he elsewhere argues, the term `honest novelist' seems almost an oxymoron.

At the start we are faced with Jan Relf's introductory hero-worship, which kicks off by putting its foot in it: `As a novelist, John Fowles needs no introduction.' Then up pops Fowles with a further aside that curls the toe: he claims always to have kept a diary in which `the real me, as opposed to the phoney John Fowles, the public pseudoperson', is apparently to be found. The eye shrinks in disbelief as he continues, But to say that all the essays here are `not really me' is a sort of shamefaced excuse I do not seek. I do believe everything that is said here, and I know it is absurd to say I wish it had been expressed better.'

Who can guess what bets he thinks he is hedging, but as an honest reader I feel put out and put down. Olympians never apologise, least of all in advance.

My admiration for Fowles is as immense as my affection is limited. But it's myself I blame for any unworthy quibbles. I lapped up his books too greedily at first read, in particular The Magus and The Ebony Tower, then had to swallow my folly, order myself to mature -- unless, of course, it was he who was helping to grow me up. …

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