When I rubbished The Collector, in this blog earlier in the year, I may have been doing novelist John Fowles a disservice – though I think it was I who came off worst. I hated the experience of reading Fowles’s book so acutely that it scuppered my brilliant plan of reading all his novels again for the first time since being an oik in the eighties. (Friends have gently suggested that this whole enterprise is a bollocks idea to begin with anyway.)
At no time have I wanted to read John Fowles’s second book, The Aristos. I can vividly recall the book’s striking red and gold cover, face out on a shelf in the Leeds Headrow branch of Austicks in 1982, but I never succumbed to even the slightest curiosity. What prevented me from picking it up, I wonder? After all, I had read The Magus twice by then – and loved it.
Now the terms of the Fowlesian pact I have entered into for this blog series demand that I include The Aristos for completism’s sake. By chance, my friend Vicky was able to lend me a copy, thus sparing me a visit to eBay. (Neglected English novelists are not a typical topic of conversation for us, by the way, so the fact it came up at all seemed to augur well).
Judging by the way she had embroidered the pages of her Picador edition with notes and comments, it was clear the teenage Vicky engaged with Fowles a lot more than me. Tucked into the back inside cover, I discovered a folded piece of paper on which she had drilled down her responses to the author’s belief that we should “bet against the afterlife”; there was also a blank postcard of Lyme Regis harbour and The Cob. I asked Vicky what she remembered most about reading The Aristos, and she told me that it had accompanied her on a family holiday to the Dorset coast, in 1994, before she went to university. She has not read the book again since.
I can well understand why. The Aristos appeared in 1964, “against the advice of almost everyone who read it”. With The Collector an unexpected hit, however, Fowles had sufficient clout to force the issue, regardless of either his agent’s or his publisher’s misgivings: “I used that success to issue this failure,” he noted somewhat acidly.
By then too, Hollywood had come a-calling – an experience Fowles found mostly flattering. In Britain, he was being fêted as a modernist, albeit an accessible one. Yet, at 38, the former school master was a generation apart from the other literary ‘faces’ of the sixties – his Elvis to their Beatles – and he knew it. Now with The Aristos – and its discarded subtitle, ‘a self-portrait in ideas’ – he removed himself even further.
He would write a self-serving preface to the 1968 revised edition in which he stated: “In every field of human endeavour it is obvious that most of the achievements, most of the great steps forward have come from individuals.” Fowles had grown quickly sallow at what he perceived as a widely-held failure to understand – or to credit – the literary merits of his writing. In the same preface, he even felt compelled to defend himself against charges of fascism (rendering the artwork of the paperback mentioned earlier – part labyrinth, part fascistic rune – deliciously ironic).
Contemporaneous reviews of The Aristos are a bit thin on the ground. Critics seem to have ignored it completely, preferring to go straight to Fowles’s next book, The Magus. Recent attempts to contextualise the writer’s “difficult second book” are largely of the “What is this shit?” school of criticism. Reviewing the publication of Fowles’s journals for The Independent, in 2003, for example, Peter Conradi shrugged off The Aristos as ‘that most regrettable of … books,” one he felt was tainted by the author’s servitude to Existentialism. (“I learnt my lesson there,” Fowles commented in an interview with James Baker for the Paris Review. “It is not only wines that won’t travel between our two countries.”)
In The Aristos, Fowles expounds his theories about the tension between the individual and mass society. Written in the fifties – austerity and ultra-conformism rolled up as one – and drawing inspiration from Greek poet-philosopher Heraclitus, Fowles pre-empts the narcissism of the sixties to come with his peculiar cult of the individual. Presented in the form of notes in “an attempt to suppress all rhetoric,” the book embodies Fowles’s enthusiasm for a particularly French style of writing known as the pensée. (“This admiration,” Fowles later said, “ruined” The Aristos.)
In a generally positive reassessment, book blogger Simon McLeish, points out that Fowles’s arguments are sometimes ‘more artistically pleasing than (they are) illuminating’. Fowles may well have anticipated this. He notes early on: ‘I am a poet first; and then a scientist. This is a biographical fact, not a recommendation.’
The intervening decades have not been kind to Fowles’s personal brand of humanistic surfeit. (No doubt I do him yet another disservice: it is getting to be a habit with me.) The struggle, expressed at the book’s heart, feels peripheral and perfunctory adjunct now to our daily lives. Fifty years ago, when Fowles wrote, “(The) power to buy is as habit-forming, and as pernicious, as heroin,” he could barely have guessed at his corrosive foresight.
In our world today, where brands and conspicuous conformity function like soma, the sparring match between the Individual and the Many is all played out. It feeds into a bleak reality for Fowles, as if he knows a grim disappointment lurks poised around the corner: “Never were there so many hollow people in the world, like a huge and mounting shore of empty cockleshells.” I’m not sure how to read this. Could it be dear readers, that, for all his humanist impulses, Fowles truly hates us?
Critics of Fowles have expressed the view that The Aristos is a cipher, a key to understanding not just the author’s early novels, but the author himself (“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”). It’s true Fowles didn’t give a stuff about what people thought of him, but really this is too much. Anyway, I just hope to God reading The Collector and The Aristos doesn’t ruin my love for The Magus, the next book on the list, when I eventually get it back from my writer friend Andy.
Of course, Fowles himself would remind me that there is no such thing as God, and that I’m on my own. Yeah?! Thanks for that, John.