Apr/May 1999 Book Reviews


John Fowles
Random House, 1998 405pp
ISBN: 0 224 04456 7

reviewed by Ann Skea

Dear John Fowles,

Having read your many remarks about reviewers in various places in this book, and noted that you regard them as only marginally less odious than "the classic-stuffed Strasbourg goose, alias academic", I decided to write you a letter instead of a review. I am following your example in this, since you call some of your own reviews "essays", or they creep into introductions to books by, for example, Thomas Hardy, Arthur Conan-Doyle, John Aubrey and Moliere. We should not, as you say in regard to nature, be too restricted by the naming of things. Incidentally, I don't altogether agree with your views on naming, but I'll come to that later.

Probably, I am being a bit defensive here. But you say you cannot imagine anyone reviewing "for sheer love of it, for pleasure". I have to say that as a freelance reviewer I only occasionally get paid for my reviews, but I do enjoy writing them. I choose my books carefully, enjoy reading them (usually), and want to share that pleasure with others. I know very well that my views are subjective, but I trust my readers to understand that too. And such is the nature of the Internet, where most of my reviews appear, that those who disagree with me can, and do, say so.

Reviews, I am happy to say, are different to novels. Given your descriptions of novel-writing in this book, I'm glad I do not have to deal with self-willed characters who take over "if they are given their heads and hearts", or with the "guilts and anxieties" and the "appalling personal costs" about which you speak in your essay - Golding and 'Golding'(1986).

You are right when you say in that essay that you share your life with a character ("thing", you say) called 'John Fowles'. He is certainly a member of The J.R.Fowles Club, although you do not mention him there. I do not think you should be as distressed as you seem to be about this co-existence. Novelists, as you say, deal with lies: with an unreal medium (which, I would like to add, can also express complex truths). To my mind, a good novelist (and I include you, here) stirs the imagination, yet writes with an inner vision, a sort of ideal, to which the reader responds. We are taken on your journey (as you call it) as crew-members. Small wonder that we respect and admire a successful captain, even if we know little of his private life and character.

I know and admire 'John Fowles', and that is why I wanted to read and review this book. But this book is not by 'John Fowles', or at least only in part. It is a selection of "Essays and Occasional Writings" spanning the years between 1964 and 1996 and written by other members of The John Fowles Club. There is also an interview with them, dubbed 'An Unholy Inquisition'. Some of these other John Fowles are insecure, fallible and argumentative. One is rather inclined to sermonise on topics like hunting, conservation and photography with all the zeal of a religious convert. One seems to bend over backwards to prove that he is a feminist ("the male of the species is historically, psychologically, anthropologically, and very, very clearly, the more guilty gender"), although I can't quite decide if his assigning the female authors who prompt this confession to the roles of rescuing mothers is tongue-in-cheek or not. And there is a techy one who enjoys taking swipes at reviewers, academic critics and Americans. I much prefer the one whose magpie knowledge and writer's insight informs his comments on literature, especially that of Hardy and Lawrence, and French literature. And the wanderer and story-teller of 'Greece', 'Islands', 'Shipwreck', I think may well be 'John Fowles' himself.

So, John Fowles, as you say of Golding and 'Golding', "perhaps if we knew each other properly as ordinary beings, we should not get along at all". I hope that's not true.

I said that I would come back to the business of naming, but it seems that much of this letter to you has been taken up with just that. Of course, none of this is what you meant when you castigated us all for being obsessed with naming and classifying things to the extent that we are blind to their reality. But I'm afraid that you will never stamp out naming, it is such a basic, human survival skill and such an essential aid to communication. It is an aid to imagination, too. How could you, as a novelist, do without it?. In 'The Blinded Eye', you wrote:

A North London Garden. Winter. A spot of cerise, grey and black in an old pear tree.

Already names have helped to paint the picture, but as soon as you say, "A cock bullfinch", the picture (for me) acquires a whole constellation of new images and ideas which I associate with those words. It becomes infinitely richer.

You say that, although you once were a hunter, classifier and namer, you now have a Zen approach to nature, by which I take it you mean an experiential, existential, wholistic approach. This is what you would have us all adopt, so you beat us about our heads with you argument-from-experience. So much of what you say in this book, I do agree with, but preaching to us will not change us. I wish you would pay more attention to the John Fowles who in 'Islands' wrote:

The truth is that the person who always benefits and learns from the maze, the voyage, the mysterious island, is the inventor, the traveller, the visitor...that is, the artist-artificer himself".

He is right. We all must make that journey for ourselves. But vicarious, imaginative voyages with a good captain can show us some of the pleasures and the pitfalls we may encounter.

I'm sorry if I sound ungrateful for the all the self-revelation which you allow in many of the pieces in this book. I am not ungrateful, but I think your effort was misguided. I am sure there will be many, like me, who would prefer to keep their imaginary 'John Fowles' untarnished, unrealistic as that may be. Curiosity will no doubt prompt me to read the John Fowles Diaries, if they are ever published. But I must confess that I look forward far more to reading 'John Fowles' novel In Hellugalia, when you feel ready let go of it as your living dream and commit it to paper.

Wishing you good health, good writing and the Zulu wish which you, yourself, favour: Go well.

Ann Skea


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