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John Fowles (1926-2005)

 

English novelist and essayist, master of layered story-telling, illusionism, and purposefully ambiguous endings. Fowles's best-known novels include The French Lieutenant's  (1969), adapted into screen in 1981, and The Magus (1965), which has gained a cult status. His protagonists must often confront their past, self-delusions and illusions, in order to gain their personal freedom or peace of mind.

"One of the great fallacies of our time is that the Nazis rose to power because they imposed order on chaos. Precisely the opposite is true - they were successful because they imposed chaos on order. They tore up the commandments, they denied the super-ego, what you will. They said, "You may persecute the minority, you may kill, you may torture, you may couple and breed without love." They offered humanity all its great temptations. Nothing is true, everything is permitted." (from The Magus)

John Fowles was born in Leigh-on-Sea, in the south-east of England, the son of Robert Fowles, a prosperous cigar merchant, and Gladys Richards Fowles. "The rows of respectable little houses inhabited by respectable little people had an early depressive effect on me," he once said.

Fowles was educated at Alleyn Court School and Bedford School. Later Fowles regretted that as a captain of prefects at Bedford School he allowed himself to exercise tyranny over the younger boys. "Being head boy was a weird experience," confessed. "I suppose I used to beat on average three or four boys a day.... Very evil, I think. Terrible system." During World War II his family evacuated to a small Devonshire village near Dartmoor. In 1944 he entered the University of Edinburgh. Between the years 1945 and 1946, Fowles served in the Royal Marines. He then studied at New College, Oxford, French, and German languages and literature. While at Oxford, Fowles was much influenced by the French Existentialism, the most fashionable philosophical movement at that time.

After receiving his B.A. in 1950, Fowles worked as a teacher at the University of Poitiers in France, and at a boys' school at Anargyrios College on the Greek island Spetsai. There he met his future wife, Elisabeth Whitton; they married in 1956. In England Fowles continued his career as a teacher at Ashridge College (1953-54) and at St. Godric's College (1954-63). He also worked on many writing projects, including a novel, The Magus, that he continued to revise for 13 years.

"I have in any case no memory at all for novels, for their ideas, plots and characters. I could not even reconstitute my own with any accuracy if I were obliged to. I suppose I read as I write. I live the directs and present experience very intensely; but when it is over, it sinks very rapidly out of sight." (Fowles in 'Of Memoirs and Magpies,' The Atlantic Monthly, June 1975)

As a novelist Fowles made his debut awith The Collector (1963), a mixture of thriller and an analysis of class conflict. Before its publication, Jud Kinberg and John Kohn, former television writers, purchased the screenrights of the book. William Wyler agreed to direct the picture. "I found I couldn't put the book down," he recalled.

The Collector gained a huge success and enabled Fowles to devote himself entirely to writing. The narrative alternates between the viewpoints of the two protagonists, Freddie Clegg, is in his middle twenties, orphaned child, and a collector of butterflies. After winning a national football lottery, he uses his winnings to purchase a secluded Tudor mansion with a fortresslike cellar. He kidnaps and imprisons a young woman, Miranda Grey, a lively and strong-willed art student. Miranda, whose name refers to Prosperos daughter in Shakespeare's play The Tempest, keeps a diary, records their conversations, and plans her escape, while Clegg wants to win her "respect." She gains small victories, calls Freddie "Caliban," and dies without her freedom. At the finale the collector plays with the idea of repeating his performance.

In an interview Fowles said that he wanted to illustrate with terms of the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heracleitus the opposition of the Few and the Many. The Many are the stupid, the ignorant, and the easily molded. The Few were the good, the intelligent, the independent. In the novel the boy stood for the Many, and the girl for the Few. (Fowles in Conversations with John Fowles, ed. by Dianne L. Vipond, 1999)  

The story had two sources. Fowles had seen a performance of Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle, in which a man imprisoned women underground, and he had read a true story of a London boy, who captured a girl and kept her several moths in an air-raid shelter. Clegg's narrative provides the frame of the story, but Fowles offers also Miranda's point of view, her diary. In the film version Terence Stamp played Clegg, although he first thought the character was impossible for him. Samantha Eggar did not have much acting experience, but she got the role of Miranda. Stanley Mann and John Kohn wrote the screenplay. John Fowles, who found the script "a pleasant surprise," doctored some dialogue. Wyler also followed Fowles's suggestion and eliminated all the background music in the kidnap sequence. The French composer Maurice Jarre scored the film. In the Village Voice Andrew Sarris called The Collector "the most erotic movie ever to come out past the Production Code", but said that Wyler's direction was "horribly impersonal."

Fowles's second novel, The Magus, drew from Shakespeare's The Tempest. It is a story about Nicholas Urfe, who escapes his latest love affair on the Greek island of Phraxos. There he meets the demonic millionaire Maurice Conchis, the Prospero of the tale, and falls in love with Lily, Conchis's dead fiancée or an actress portraying her. Conchis is the master of magic and hallucinations in the "Godgame", which leads gradually Urfe to deeper self-knowledge and re-birth. "All my life I had turned life into fiction, to hold reality away," Urfi says. Fowles interweaves in the story Greek myths, psychoanalysis, Nazis, and shifting explanations of the mysterious events. Finally Urfe breaks free from Conchis's power. However, when Fowles published the revised version twelve years later, this point is left more ambiguous.

Fowles's draft title for the book was originally "The Godgame." He began writing the work in the early 1950s. Both narrative and mood went through countless transformations. In the novel he acknowledged the influence of psychologist Carl Jung, and such literary models as Henry James's The Turn of the Screw and Charles Dickens's Great Expectations. Guy Green's screen adaptation of the book was a huge disappointment for him. There was, Fowles mourned, no poetry, no mystery, "just Caine, the bestpaid European filmstar, drifting through a role he doesn't understand."  

The French Lieutenant's Woman grew out of a dream the author had of a woman standing at the edge of a quay, looking out to sea. The film version of the story from 1981 was made by Karel Reisz, starring Meryl Streep. Reiz followed Fowles's storyline, but the modern subplot, a film within a film, was created by Reisz and Harold Pinter, who wrote the screenplay. "There was trouble with the proposal scene," wrote Fowless in his diary, "and one day Karel rang me up to see if I could help - he felt it was too curt and quick. 'Harold says he'll do anything, but he simply can't write a happy scene.'"

Before them Fred Zinneman had planned to direct a film based on the book, but he did not find the right actress for the title role. The script was written by Dennis Potter. Also the directors Mike Nichols and Franklin Schaffner wrestled for a short with their own versions. Fowles had little to do with the production. Reisz later said that for him the project came alive when Meryl Streep was signed. Jeremy Irons played Charles, who tries to solve the mystery of the elusive Sarah.

The French Lieutenant's Woman, set largely in Lyme Regis in the 1860s, re-created the Victorian melodrama and the world of Thomas Hardy. In the story a wealthy amateur paleontologist Charles Smithson, a supporter of Darwin's evolution theory, falls in love with Sarah Woodruff. She is a passionate and imaginative governess, who is believed to have been deserted by a French naval lieutenant. This affair has ostracized her from society. Another woman in Charles's life is Ernestina Freeman, whose conformity contrasts to Sarah's rebelliousness. Fowles moves between past and present, adds footnotes, quotations from Darwin, Marx, and the greats Victorian poets, and comments Victorian politics and customs. This experimental, self-conscious novel has different endings, one heart-warming, another shocking. "In some ways the unhappy ending pleases the novelist. He has set out on a voyage and announced, I have failed and must set out again. If you create a happy ending, there is a somewhat false sense of having solved life's problems." (Fowles in The New York Times, November 13, 1977)

Daniel Martin (1977) was about an English screenwriter's search for himself in his past. But the work is also full of observations on aesthetics, philosophy, cultural history, the difference between Britain and the United States, archeology, myth. Fowles described Daniel Martin as "a very long novel about Englishness." At one point the protagonist compares differences between written word and films: "Images are inherently fascistic because they overstamp the truth, however dim and blurred, of the real past experience, as if, faced with ruins, we must turn architects, not archeologists. The word is the most imprecise of signs. Only a science-obsessed age could fail to comprehend that this is its great virtue, not its defect." Daniel is engaged to Nell but he realizes that he loves his sister Jane.

In the murder mystery A Maggot (1985) Fowles returned to the layered structure of The Magus. A group of five people travels in Devon in 1736. After a night's lodging, they continue their journey - and disappear. An investigation starts, three members of the group are found, but their testimonies lead to a miracle and a disturbing vision of a contact with travellers from the future. Although Fowles's atheistic view is obvious, he also gives room for a religious interpretation of the mystical events.

In 1966 Fowles moved with his wife Elisabeth to Dorset. They lived first at Unerhill Farm and then settled to a cliff-top house by the sea in a southern town called Lyme Regis. Fowles was appointed in 1978 joint honorary curator of the Lyme Regis Museum, and from 1979 to 1988 he was the sole honorary curator.

Elisabeth Fowles died of cancer in 1990. Gaining a reputation of "a cantankerous man of letters," Fowles lived quietly in Lyme. In America, his books were read in college literary courses. Fowles died at his home in 2005 at the age of 79. He was survived by his second wife, Sarah Smith, whom he married in 1998. Fowles published also several nonfiction about Lyme Regis. His other works include poems, short stories, and essays. The Tree (1992) contains recollections of Fowles's childhood and explores the impact of nature on his life.

The author's philosophical basis for much of his work can be discerned in his early collection of notes and aphorisms, The Ariosto (1964), originally subtitled "A Self-Portrait in Ideas." Fowles once said: " I hate to think of the awful pages of bad philosophy that would be in my novels if I hadn't written that." In many interviews Fowles expressed his enthusiam for feminist movement and as a result he has attracted the attention of feminist scholars, who have accused  him of failing to reflect the reality of women's lived experience.  

For further reading: The Fiction of John Fowles by William J. Palmer (1974); John Fowles: Magus and Moralist by Peter Wolfe (1976); John Fowles by Barry N. Olshen (1978); John Fowles by Robert Huffaker (1980); John Fowles by Peter Conradi (1982); The Fiction of John Fowles by Carol M. Barnum (1988); John Fowles: A Reference Companion by James R. Aubrey (1991); Point of View in Fiction and Film, Focus on John Fowles by Charles Garard (1991); Fiction of John Updike and John Fowles by John Neary (1992); Understanding John Fowles by T.C. Foster (1994); Conversations with John Fowles, ed. by Dianne L. Vipond (1999); The Poetics of Mystery: Genre, Representation, and Narrative Ethics in John Fowles's Historical Fiction by Klaus Brax (2003); John Fowles: A Life in Two Worlds by Eileen Warburton (2004); John Fowles: Visionary and Voyeur by Brooke Lenz (2008)

Selected works:

  • The Collector, 1963
    - Neitoperho (suom. Seere Salminen, 1964)
    - films: The Collector (1965), prod. Collector Company, Columbia Pictures Corporation, dir. by William Wyler,screenplay John Kohn, Stanley Mann, starring Terence Stamp and Samatha Eggar; Bilanggo sa dilim (1986), prod. Solid Video, dir. Mike De Leon, starring Joel Torre, Cherie Gil, Rio Locsin 
  • The Aristos: A Self.Portrait and Ideas, 1964
    - Aristos: käsityksiäni elämästä (suom. Tuija Rovamo, 1985)
  • The Magus, 1965 (rev. ed. 1977)
    - Jumalten naamiot (suom. Erkki Haglund, 1986)
  • The Magus, 1968 (screenplay)
    - film: The Magus (1968), prod. Blazer, dir. by Guy Green, starring Michael Caine, Anthony Quinn, Candice Bergen, Anna Karina. "This near-miss is not without many notable virtues. Fowles's script sustains interest in its convolutions, direction is resourceful and sensitive, Caine is far more dynamic than usual and Quinn and the two femme stars register strongly." (from Variety Movie Guide 2000, ed. by Derek Elley, 2000)
  • The French Lieutenant's Woman, 1969
    - Ranskalaisen luutnantin nainen (suom. Kaarina Jaatinen, Hannu Sarrala, 1973)
    - film: The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), prod. Juniper Films, dir. by Karel Reisz from a screenplay by Harold Pinter, starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. "The film's frequent mirror shots are not only a reference to the illusions of the Victorian age, or the way Victorian fiction is mirrored by events in the modern story. They also relate to Sarah Woodruff as conscious performer, a woman of imagination with a flair for lurid self-dramatization." (from Neil Sinyard's essay, quoted in The Meryl Streep Story by Nick Smurthwaite, 1984)
  • Poems, 1973
  • Shipwreck, 1974 (photographs by the Gibsons of Scilly)
  • The Ebony Tower, 1974
    - Eebenpuutorni (suom. Heimo Pihlajamaa, 1975)
    TV film: The Ebony Tower (1984), prod. Granada Television, dir. by Robert Knights, teleplay John Mortimer, starring Laurence Olivier, Roger Rees, Greta Scacchi
  • Cinderella, 1974 (adapted from Perrault’s Cendrillon of 1697 by John Fowles; illustrated by Sheilah Beckett)
  • Daniel Martin, 1977
  • Ourika / Claire de Durfort, 1977 (translated into English with an introd. and epilogue by John Fowles)
  • Steep Holm, 1978 (editor)
  • Conditional, 1979
  • Islands, 1979 (photographs by Fay Godwin)
  • The Tree, 1979 (photographs by Frank Horvat)
  • The Enigma of Stonehenge, 1980 (photographs by Barry Brukoff)
  • Don Juan, 1981 (adaptation of the play by Molière)
  • A Brief History of Lyme, 1981
  • Monumenta Britannica by John Aubrey, 1981-82 (ed., with Rodney Legg)
  • Mantissa, 1982
  • A Short History of Lyme Regis, 1982
  • Lorenzaccio, 1983 (adaptation of the play by Alfred de Musset)
  • Thomas Hardy's England / Jo Draper, 1984 (introduced and edited by John Fowles)
  • A Maggot, 1985
    - Ilmestys (suom. Klaus Karttunen, 1987)
  • Land / Fay Godwin, 1985 (with an essay by John Fowles;  introduction by Ian Jeffrey)
  • Martine, 1985 (adaptation of a play by Jean Jacques Bernard)
  • Lyme Regis Camera, 1991
  • Tessera, 1993
  • The Tree; The Nature of Nature, 1995 (two essays accompanied by eight woodcuts by Aaron Johnson and published by Carolyn and James Robertson)  
  • Wormholes: Essays and Occasional Writings, 1998 (edited and introduced by Jan Relf)
  • John Fowles and Nature, 1999 (edited by James R. Aubrey)
  • Conversations with John Fowles, 1999 (edited by Dianne L. Vipond)
  • The Journals. Volume I, 2003 (edited and with an introduction by Charles Drazin)
  • The Journals. Volume II, 2005 (edited and with an introduction by Charles Drazin)


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