My English teacher, Gerry, was an eccentric. De rigeur, non? When the mood took him, he would give each pupil in his class a novel to read, the choice of book supposedly tailored to his or her individual aura: he claimed, in all seriousness, to possess the gift of second sight. To me, one time, he handed In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s celebrated account of the small town murder of a Kansas family; another time, he handed over A Clockwork Orange. What these offerings spoke about me, in Gerry’s eyes, I dread to think, but I adore them to this day!
I’m not sure how old I was when I first read John Fowles – 15 or 16 most likely – and whether it was Gerry who recommended I did so. I seriously doubt it. I remember him dismissing Fowles – one of the few British modernists – as not even worthy of being in the footnotes of any right-minded survey of 20th century English literature. “Have you tried reading Daniel Martin?” (1) he fumed. “Don’t bother!” Mind you, Gerry said equally outrageous things about George Orwell and Aldous Huxley! (2)
A few months ago, I was discussing Gerry’s damning assessment of Fowles with a friend. I mooted the idea of re-reading all the author’s books – in publication order, naturally – and writing about the experience. After all Fowles had meant something to me once.
In this enterprise, I was faintly encouraged by having just read, and rather enjoyed, a Granta piece on Fowles’s gloriously mean-spirited journal entries about the making of the film version of The French Lieutenant’s Woman. It augured well. Who doesn’t love a curmudgeon, particularly one as wilfully obdurate as John Fowles clearly was?
My introduction to Fowles had been via second novel The Magus, picked up in a York charity shop. The book turned out to be an early copy, minus its dust jacket, published by Jonathan Cape in 1965; Fowles would revise and expand The Magus in 1977, misguidedly adding more sex, upping the Nazi stormtrooper count, and, fluffing the ending for a second time. (He never did quite know when to stop writing. Have a read of the two separate endings to The French Lieutenant’s Woman if you don’t believe me.)
The first time I read Fowles’s debut, The Collector, I must confess to being underwhelmed. (By this time in my reading tastes, I had abandoned Fowles for the wry sadistic oozings of Ian McEwan). To be fair, The Collector is not Fowles’s finest work. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as a starting point for anybody interested in reading him. Tedious, nasty, faintly pleased with itself, it can’t quite decide what sort of novel it wants to be. Fowles’s restless prose - arch, self-conscious, faintly ridiculous - flits from one tone to another like one of the butterflies so beloved of the book’s protagonist, Clegg.
Reading it again these thirty years later, I am struck by some rather unexpected resonances. The misshapen trajectory of the pools-winning, social misfit Clegg’s narrative has him abduct a young art student, Miranda, and imprison her in the cellar of his remote house, in what could be the blueprint for the Natascha Kampusch kidnapping.
Clegg’s plans and preparations are so meticulously drawn, his motivations so measured and plausible, that it feels as if the reader is in for a twisted fairy tale (Spanish auteur, Pedro Almodovar, must surely have been taking notes for his own Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down?) Halfway into the novel, however, Fowles suddenly changes tack. He has Miranda recount – Rashomon style - her side of events. It ought to be a stroke of genius, the novel’s coup de grace, but is, in fact, one of its biggest drags.
Writing as Miranda, Fowles is insufferable. He just can’t help himself. He despises Clegg, not because he’s a nut-case, but because he doesn’t know – or seem to care - about music or books or which fork he should use at dinner. Despite casting her as an art student, he has Miranda rail against the very cult of youth of which she is a part: implausibly she yearns to paint like Berthe Morisot. Do what? In 1963!
Elsewhere, it’s poor Alan Sillitoe’s turn to receive a kicking, if for no better reason than he wrote a bestseller with a social conscience. (Fowles has Miranda get really stoked up about that one. “It is not enough to be a good writer,” she moans, “because I think Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is disgusting.”)
I’m probably doing Fowles a huge disservice. Maybe he fully intended Miranda’s priggish morality to grate, just as Clegg’s warped self justification, which comes at the book’s inevitable downbeat conclusion, is loathsome. “Perhaps he wanted to attack the society that produces such people,” writes Miranda about Alan Sillitoe, in a comment that could just as easily be applied to Fowles himself, “But he doesn’t make it clear.”
There was a film version of The Collector, directed by William Wyler – a Hollywood director who had worked with De Mille and who part-bankrolled John Cassavetes’ first feature, Shadows. Made in 1965 under the cosh of Hollywood’s amour fou with all things swinging, the film starred Terence Stamp, in an early role, opposite the unknown Samantha Eggar. Fowles was decidedly unimpressed with the casting of the latter, having held out for Julie Christie. “She is so remote from my conception of Miranda,” he complained about Eggar to his journal. “The essential thing life, intelligence, an eager thrust she seems to lack completely, both in looks and mind.” Ouch!
I am beginning to express regrets about this project already. Next up is The Aristos, a book it never even occurred to me to read when I was a teenager. It’s not a work of fiction, rather it appears to be series of philosophical musings. In the very first line, Fowles prepares the reader for the worst, describing it as a deliberate act of career suicide! I have had to borrow a copy from my friend Vicky. Inside were some notes on the text, written in her distinctively neat handwriting. Asked if she had studied the book at university, she told me she had read it for fun! What Gerry would have had to say about that?
1) Fowles’s difficult fourth novel (if you ignore the novella The Ebony Tower) said to be partly based on the writer’s experiences working in Hollywood on The Magus.
2) I did tell you he was eccentric. He would have loved the irony of finding himself in the footnote of this post. God, I miss him.