John Fowles's Englishness makes a triumphant return in his tormented, magnificent journalsby Julian Evans / November 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Book: Journals, vol 1 Author: John Fowles Price: (Jonathan Cape, ?30)
The chief characteristic of Englishness as an element of the English novel in the last 60 years has been its revolt against itself. Englishness of the pre-multicultural kind was rarely seen as a domain to be anatomised with affection; more often it occupied a shallow grave, the casualty of satire and ridicule. The breaking wave of new identity that came with the work of Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi, Kazuo Ishiguro and others, and that has settled into the groundswell of energy personified by the Zadie Smiths and Monica Alis of today, is celebrated with good cheer, but also with synchronised applause and little thought of how old, displaced England fits into the new, funky, urban tractatus of our identity.
The first volume of John Fowles’s Journals spews out a hatred of the social conformity and condescension of postwar England. “The average Englishman can’t imagine, and can’t feel, and even if he does, is too inhibited to ever show either quality,” a 24-year-old Fowles writes on 6th April 1950. A year later, returning to England from teaching in Poitiers, he witnesses the Festival of Britain: “All the cleverness and the practicality and the didacticism I found rather repellent.” And five years later he is as angry as ever: “in England, being English, public schoolboy, ex-officer, Christian, Oxford, the barriers one has to tear down to achieve a belief in self!”
Later still, it is not very surprising to have it confirmed that one of the things Fowles was trying to do in his first published success, 1963’s The Collector, was to “attack the money-minus-morality society we have lived in since 1951.” I doubt there were many readers at the time who saw Frederick Clegg, Fowles’s inarticulate, psychopathic anti-hero, as the embodiment of Englishness, but Fowles’ antipathy to his own culture is revealed as one of his strongest motivations. Writing The Magus, he notes his sources-Robinson Crusoe, The Tempest-and again you can detect the antagonisms: his vision of islands as traps, his interest in the puzzles of evil revealed by the stripping away of convention. The curious thing is that these Journals come from the pen of a writer who-with his deadpan delivery of mystery and suspense, his skill at complex plot and historical pastiche, his interests in landscape and natural history, and his Dickensian taste for the theatrical aspects of fiction-is as English as they come.
Many in the 1970s (I count myself among them) regarded Fowles as the saviour of the contemporary English novel. After leaving Cambridge and three years of mechanical training in French and German literature, I became for a while allergic to all books. It was Fowles’s revised edition of The Magus (1977) that got me out of my reader’s block. His fiction up to and including The Ebony Tower had that sort of seductiveness, so compelling was its surface of theatrical reversals and its substratum of troubling psychology.
This was high fusion, traditional English storytelling joining the postmodern magical realist world. Daniel Martin was the novel that began to divide people. There were those who clung to its self-searching length as the work of a modern Dostoevsky, and those who lost interest in playing Fowles’s games. I was reluctantly of the second kind. Disillusion followed on admiration’s heels.
So it is with some astonishment on my part that this first volume of Fowles’s Journals has restored him to prominence in my mind. They can, as Charles Drazin says in his introduction, be thought of as another kind of novel. Indeed, so replete with the perfect illusion of humanity are the characters, including himself, that this may well count as the best novel he has written. This book has the risk and flight of great narrative: suburban boy becomes king of Parnassus, Essex man as literary hero. The trajectory of that story-shy student to inhibited romantic to Don Juan to unpublished writer to miserable teacher to success after 15 years-would lend itself to almost any form. So satisfying and simple is its outline as narrative, you could stage it as a musical.
But the deeper fascination of these pages lies in the sheer unguarded accumulation of Fowles’s experience. (This volume is actually the iceberg’s tip, edited down with formidable application by Drazin from 2m words to around 300,000.) Fowles becomes here, in the course of his writing, the most brilliant anatomist of his own situation. From his boyhood in Leigh-on-Sea onwards, as the son of a kind, twittering mother and barely successful tobacco proprietor father, there is a classic struggle not to offend against mid-century England, and to reject it savagely. Home life is dissected with Genet-like disgust. At Oxford, feelings of incongruity continue. He is bored by friends, injured by the paralysis of the public schoolboy in the face of women, contemptuous of authority. Some of the best early passages are moments of pure observation-often of girls, but also of the beauty of the Leigh marshes, of acquaintances at house parties.
Escape from the death-in-life experience of England in the 1950s came in the traditional form of continental flight-first to a lectureship at Poitiers, then on various organised holidays in Europe, then to a job teaching English at the Anargyrios school on the Greek island of Spetsai. One can sympathise with the ingredients of these early experiences-one part literary frustration to three parts sexual hopelessness-and yet he managed to return from Spetsai in 1953 with both the setting of a future novel gestating in his mind, and the wife of another teacher on his arm.
The story of Fowles’s difficult courtship and eventual marriage with Elizabeth Christy is an eye-opener. Separation, the inability to earn money, and the question of what to do with Elizabeth’s daughter Anna make for an uncomfortable, protracted episode. The diarist has not hidden the truth. He wanted Elizabeth but not Anna, and while Elizabeth was suffering in penury in London, he found himself a job at a finishing school in Hertfordshire and willingly fell for the temptations of two of the pupils there.
“Once again, the transition from the deep reality of E[lizabeth] to the amusing pastime of Sally came with an ease almost disgusting.” Perhaps the ego of the (male) reader can sympathise with that too; where my superego intervened was when Elizabeth is described having to travel across London on a March evening in 1954 to borrow an overcoat for an interview. She had had to sell her own, with her wedding ring, to pay her rent. Why didn’t he buy her a coat?
That episode signals a psychological blind spot in the diarist. In the novelist, I am inclined to think it signals a literary incompleteness. Fowles’s romanticism is traceable to Flaubert: he recognises exactly what it is that lifts Fr?d?ric Moreau from a hollow selfishness to a character worth pitying in Sentimental Education-his belief in love. Yet Fowles’s own fiction, striving to say something new, became a labyrinth of theatricality in which Flaubert’s saving understanding was lost. Although The Collector must have seemed stunningly truthful in its saying of the unsaid, even in this first novel a weakness was apparent. It is a newspaper story, situationist merely, a novel of narrow scope whose main achievements are its uncomfortable honesty and the ingenuity of its style.
The Journals show how much Fowles longed for that style, as in this entry for 6th January 1954: “Doubt about my writing; a deep, all-pervading doubt. The agonisingly slow progress I make towards coherence and grace; the constant misuse, semantic and euphonic, of words.” After settling with Elizabeth, moving to a job at a secretarial college in Hampstead and seeming to spend much of the late 1950s endlessly revising his work-he calls this his defect, his “fear of being published”-and reading Pasternak, Stendhal, Greene and Flaubert, he finally began to succeed.
Yet already in November 1954 he had revealed an Achilles heel. “The writer wants to include the whole world; all the whole world expects of a writer is some new flavour. Greatness is confused with individuality, ‘vision’ with word-ingenuity… I don’t like glossy writing,” he writes. But “that is the function of the new artist-Picasso-like, to use all the techniques. Master of all, slave of none.” He doesn’t like glossy writing, but ambition clouds his judgement. Trying to commit himself to a policy of simplicity, to “a poetry of truths, of emotions” during the 1950s, he knew that technique is not greatness, or vision. Yet, Picasso-like, he could not resist using every technique he could find. The result was that the virtuosity of The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman gradually declined into the idiosyncrasy and self-indulgence of Daniel Martin and A Maggot.
Nevertheless, in themselves – as opposed to what they reveal about their author’s faults – these Journals are magnificent: vivid, widely compassing, full of vitality and pride, a chronicle of a novelist’s painful evolution, written with sometimes unconsciously complete candour about states of manhood and literary ambition. On the strength of this volume, they are probably the greatest thing he has written. Two of the best sections are the story of his relationship with Elizabeth, who died in 1990, and his account of the filming of The Collector and his friendship with Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggars. It contains countless entries remarkable for their accuracy, felicity, or wit. Howard’s End is “insipid, as if written by an intelligent rabbit”; Oxford is “only good by contrast, not good intrinsically”; Michael Caine “can’t act, but takes himself very seriously… Very ugly, these new ultra-hard young princes of limelight.”
These Journals are also a warning. Fowles’s high ambition, its source buried in his mute Essex adolescence, exacted its price in his pursuit of fame by the mastery of technique and the subordination of humanity. Fowles has not published a novel since 1985, and this volume seems to confirm that it was the tensions between a traditional kind of English storytelling and the revolt against it – the revolt into technique – that eventually silenced him. All through the journals I sensed the aching egotism of a spirit desperate for the world to listen-a spirit who is worth listening to on almost every page, but an incomplete one, unable fully to refashion his egotistical experience into the telling of stories. That is why we don’t remember his characters, their dilemmas and tragedies, so much as their author’s unhappy honesty.