Sunday, June 29, 2014

Two Novels by John Fowles

The Magus
by John Fowles

“It came to me…that I didn't want to be anywhere else in the world at that moment, that what I was feeling at that moment justified all I had been through, because all I had been through was my being there. I was experiencing…a new self-acceptance, a sense that I had to be this mind and this body, its vices and its virtues, and that I had no other chance or choice.”   ― John Fowles, The Magus

While his novel The Collector was my introduction to the work of John Fowles I was not nearly as impressed with that novel than I was with The Magus. In it I found an intense, engrossing novel that maintained my interest in several ways.

The plot of the novel is a story of a young unhappy man who considers himself a poet and a philosopher. He takes a job at an English boarding school on a Greek island to escape what could become a complicated situation after a young woman with whom he is involved falls in love with him. Having used up his "charm with women," as one of the characters puts it, he sees this a better alternative. On this Greek island, he meets a millionaire named "Conchis" who tells the young man, Nicholas, stories of his life. To Nicholas' surprise, the characters in the stories begin to appear on the estate in what Fowles (in the prologue to the revised edition) describes as a kind of magical realism. While the novel seems to explore the ideas of conflict in mythology and philosophy, it rapidly turns into a kind of psychological mystery as Nicholas becomes more and more enmeshed in Conchis' mind games and it becomes more difficult for him--and the reader--to tell the difference between reality and fiction.

While, I found a certain resonance with Le Grand Meaulnes, by Alain-Fournier, in the showing of a secret hidden world to be explored along with reference to Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, the novel seems as much about the idea of "freedom" in the twentieth century. It also explores the definition of meaningful experiences, both inter-personal and intra-personal. While always artistic even while it sometimes seemed a bit bewildering it was ultimately a great read due to the uniqueness of its structure and its exploration of ideas. Combined with Fowles' beautiful prose that proved to be the right potion for a great novel.

The French Lieutenant's Woman 
by John Fowles

“The supposed great misery of our century is the lack of time; our sense of that, not a disinterested love of science, and certainly not wisdom, is why we devote such a huge proportion of the ingenuity and income of our societies to finding faster ways of doing things - as if the final aim of mankind was to grow closer not to a perfect humanity, but to a perfect lightning-flash.”   ― John Fowles, The French Lieutenant's Woman

In John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman a mid-20th-century author sets out to write a Victorian novel but finds himself beset by his own modern epiphanies, risibility with the Victorians, and characters who resist his pen, insisting upon their own free will, as they refuse to do what the novelist purportedly wants them to. The writer, while trying to mimic Hardy, is too aware of Victorian (and modern) foibles to let himself really write a strictly historical work of fiction.

The plot involves a fairly intelligent Victorian gentleman engaged to marry a respectable young woman, and who becomes fascinated by a dark-haired beauty who stands on a breakwater and stares out to sea (imagine a Caspar David Friedrich painting). Thinking perhaps to help her out of her misery, he falls deeply into her secrets and mystery. I have described him as protagonist and her as antagonist mainly because we see things mostly from his point of view, though she is the center of the narrative. This is a classic Victorian love story. That it is couched within a post-modern, self-conscious meditation on authentic existence, evolution, and Marxism is the twist that Fowles, who also takes brief essay-like excursions into Victorian sex mores, the wonders of wild nature, and other historical topics, gives the reader. The ideas never overwhelm the plot, but merely offer themselves as extra cream for the discriminating reader to enjoy. It is a delight for the aficionado of Victorian literature and one of the easiest to digest of any post-modern novel that I have encountered.


Brian Joseph said...

I have not read Fowles but I want to. The themes that he explores make me think that I would love his books. A good author can explore so many great themes in the seemingly everyday lives of people.

James said...

These are Fowles' best novels in my opinion, although I have not read all of his work.
The French Lieutenant's Woman was also adapted for the cinema. Although there were significant changes it is a better than average film.