Skip to Content

Books

The Timon of Lyme Regis

4 February 2006

12:00 AM

4 February 2006

12:00 AM

The Journals, Volume II John Fowles

Cape, pp.463, 25

Dr Johnson talks somewhere of a Reverend Dr Campbell whom he calls the ‘richest man ever to graze the pasture of literature’. If his riches derived from his books, he was surely outgrossed by John Fowles, whose novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman topped all the bestseller lists, and remained on the New York Times list for a full year. Fowles’s advances reached $250,000. Even The Ebony Tower, a soft-porn novella, and a clutch of short stories made him a small fortune. Hollywood films were made of FLW (as he refers to it) and of his earlier novels The Collector and The Magus, though none was worth seeing. The movies are always said not to do justice to literary sources, but they often reveal fustian, bluff and heartlessness.

Even the massive Daniel Martin, that protracted and self-involved tombstone which he laid on his own career, earned another fortune in movie options alone. Fowles was then only 50; if he lived on to his late seventies, his subsequent work was a succession of dandyish postscripts, interspersed with local histories of Lyme Regis, and translations of Molière and of recondite texts culled from second-hand bouquinistes. At the same time, these journals enabled him to vent his increasingly solipsistic angst. Love of nature — birds and flowers supplied the only society he relished — served to emphasise his contempt for modern man.

When I read the first volume, covering the apprentice years, I was nettled by the unremitting Jew-consciousness. Even his friends never fail to be ticketed with long-nosed or venal traits. The habit continues here, but I have become immune. He refers early on to a visit to Leigh-on-Sea, his hated childhood home, where ‘life is lived as if the year is 1929 — 1939, at most’. What he despises in his petty bourgeois parents is, though he never realises it, of a piece with his own prejudices, which never attain the dimensions of the fascism embraced by that other nature-lover Henry Williamson, who called Hitler ‘the great man across the Rhine whose symbol is the happy child’. Fowles reserves his totalitarian sympathies for the USSR. In 1981, distended with money, he remarks:


I would welcome a Russian invasion tomorrow, if it could take place without too much destruction and bloodshed. To be poor again, and have to struggle against something better than the insane pressures of a bestselling novelist, the poison of fan mail.

He thus joins the long, ignoble tradition of writers embittered by unsatisfactory fame, who wish slavery and dictatorship on the whole world so that their own accidie can be forcibly cauterised (Drieu la Rochelle was another). Fowles consoled himself with local life and the curatorship of the Lyme Regis museum. Even here pleasure soured. By 1990, he is comparing the place unfavourably with La Vallière, from which he had just returned: ‘Here is somewhere from the Gulag archipelago.’ This from a man who associates Russia with ‘socialist humanism’ which wins ‘hands down’ over ‘capitalist superficiality’.

Fowles occasionally reads himself with scathing smugness, but never sees the irony of his being a Bennite socialist with contempt for ‘working-class tat’, ‘grockles’ and the ‘mediators’ who pander to their tacky tastes. Mounting indignation is directed against the long- and sometimes loud- suffering wife, Elizabeth, who becomes frustratedly unmounted herself. The origins of their joyless union were depicted, in zestful detail, in volume one, which dealt with Fowles’ schoolmastering on Spetsai in the early Fifties. Elizabeth was then the wife of Roy Christy, Fowles’ colleague. They play the eternal triangle with the usual variations: the cuckoo sees himself as a passionate liberator, the husband as treacherous friend and the wife as undervalued prize. The Christys’ infant daughter Anna figures as no more than an encumbrance, which Fowles — like D. H. Lawrence with Frieda’s children — wants her to dump.

The Magus was the belated, overblown fruit of Fowles’ Hellenic romance. It followed The Collector, a wish-fulfilling concoction about a yob who sequesters a young woman who would otherwise be out of his league. Tom Maschler parlayed the book into bestsellerdom and masterminded Fowles’ literary ascent thereafter. Maschler was soon villainised by his protégé as a commercial Svengali with the Collector’s possessiveness. Fowles was a gastronome who never failed to bite the hands that fed him.

Gratitude and gracelessness were twinned in him, not least when it came to Tom and Malou Wiseman, whose south of France house became a maison de cure for his blues. He remarks with sponger’s condescension on Tom’s Jewish appetites and derides the chatty Malou by dubbing her ‘maloutante’.

Greece was his other recurrent haven. He loved the flora and lepidoptera and the depopulated silence of eastern Crete. His Hellenism was never cultural. He spoke little modern Greek, and read less; Seferis, Ritsos and Cavafy might as well not have existed; the ancients likewise. His literary (and bibulous) tastes were francophile. He translated French capably, but had no ear for the spoken language: to write ‘Lycée Fran


Show comments
Close