Thursday, November 10, 2005

John Fowles Gets A Final Kiss From the Bitch ...

Eileen Warburton, John Fowles: A Life in Two Worlds (New York: Viking, 2004).

John Fowles is a wonderful British novelist, who has just died, leaving some unpublished manuscripts and journals. Fowles is one of my favorite writers. I am confident that several of his works will survive: Daniel Martin, The French Lieutenant's Woman, The Magus and the delightful and witty, Mantissa.

In Mantissa, a novelist with writer's block meets "Erato" -- the muse of erotic poetry -- and experiences some stirring and unpleasant adventures meant to reawaken his talent. By the way, I much prefer Erato's sister, "Euterpe" -- who inspires lyric poetry and writings in general -- that is, romance and adventure stories. ("Conversation on a Train" and "Serendipity, III.")

Eros and Euterpe are eternal rivals, always competing for their favorite poets. Both are blondes with green eyes (for me), yet they tend to appear in many disguises, sizes and shapes, often one is a brunette, since -- like most women -- they are shape-shifters. Take a look at Da Vinci's "Virgin and St. Anne," or A.S. Byatt's "Virgin in the Garden," or Vidal's "Two Sisters."

Appropriately enough, one of the themes in Fowles's feminist novels is "duality," something which is particularly evident in Daniel Martin. This ambiguity is central to his understanding of women. Ernestina and Sarah from The French Lieutenant's Woman, resurface in one form or another in most of his fiction. Fowles described himself as a "feminist," a Francophile and Anglophile (not necessarily in that order!), and also an existentialist. There is certainly a veiled eroticism in his work which can be haunting. Ideas and great dialogues also feature in his writings.

Thomas Hardy is a major influence, but so are Charles Dickens and George Eliot, together with the French masters, Flaubert more than Balzac. Curiously, George Meredith hovers in the wings, in the form of his best character "Richard Feverel." Only one of Fowles's novels fails completely, A Maggot. As for The Collector, it is the novel Albert Camus might have written, if he had attended an English boarding school and Oxford University in the post-war era.

Fowles is also haunted by Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meulnes ("The Lost Domaine") which informs his own quest for the "enchanted grove" of the writer's imagination. What I call the "Forest of Arden." Perceptively, Fowles understands that ...

... the one truly acute perception of the young, ... is the awareness of loss as a function of passing time.

There is no better way to halt the passing of time than by the use of the magic word "now." It is how we keep our "shadows" (J.M. Barrie), here, in this magical setting. Just ask Peter Pan. Fowles is ironic and self-aware as a writer, distant and cool. He tells us:

Society, existing among other human beings, challenges me, so I have to choose my weapon. I choose writing; but the thing that comes first is that I am challenged.

And he beguiles future biographers, who begin to salivate as they read sentences like these:

All my life, though sometimes all too erratically and spasmodically, I have kept a diary, in which I perhaps foolishly imagine the real me, as opposed to the phony John Fowles, the public pseudo-person, may be found. 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. ...

The mysteries of women and literature are equally unfathomable and, perhaps, related. No doubt a woman invented literature. Harold Bloom suggests that the Hebrew book of Genesis, written by "J," is the work of a woman. Was this invention a blessing or curse? A little of both probably. Maybe the celestial Poet's greatest epic is the feminine principle. Lucifer must be a brunette, but what about God? A blond? (See "Faust in Manhattan.")

Fowles is fascinated by his "sluttish Muse," even in the act of creation:

Inspiration, the muse experience, is like telepathy. Nowadays one hardly dares to say that inexplicable phenomena exist for fear of being kicked in the balls by the positivists and behaviorists and other hyperscientists. But there is a metatechnics that needs investigating.

See my earlier comment dealing with neuroscience and the Dalai Lama. And compare this exchange between Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal:

Finally, I laughed. "Gore, admit it. The novel is like the Great Bitch in one's life. We think we're rid of her, we go on to other women, we take our pulse and decide that finally we're enjoying ourselves, we're free of her power, we'll never suffer her depredations again, and then we turn a corner on a street, there's the Bitch smiling at us, and we're trapped. We're still trapped. We know the Bitch has still got us."

Vidal gave that twisted grin of admiration which is extracted from him when someone else has coined an image which could fit his style. "Indeed," he said, "the novel is the Great Bitch."

You said it Gore. Finally, as an epitath, I whisper a poet's (Margaret E. Sangster's) verse for John Fowles ... as he finds his way home to that enchanted grove:

Out of the chill and shadow,
Into the thrill and the shrine;
out of the dearth and the famine,
Into the fulness divine.

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