09 November 2014

A Throwback to John Fowles

My next column for The Sunday Guardian.

If there ever was a novel that must be read for its self-conscious take on everything that is to do with fiction itself, it must be The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles. And if it is to be read, for this reason or for any other reason, it is also to be read again – just to be sure that everything that Fowles has said has been absorbed for future rumination. He is reminiscent of Maugham, who also has a way of placing a world of meaning with each statement, each gesture, each parenthetical aside. Yet, Fowles is different, because he is didactic where Maugham is subtle, and he is wicked where Maugham is gentle.

First, there is the paradox of time that the reader is benignly, but calculatedly, made aware of. The writer is of 1969, but his characters are of exactly a century before. This is not merely external information to aid one's reading of the text. It is part of the text itself, part of the commentary that Fowles is constantly making. The novel, as an organic whole, is aware of its precarious existence – that it belongs to a different time period than the one it lives and breath;es in, a time period that is over and done with and can, therefore, be discussed in terms of historical and sociological constructs. In a sense, Fowles is unabashedly diagnosing an era both with clinical detachment and with a specialist's interest.

What makes this fact more interesting is that the era that is subject to this physician's table is not just any era – it is Victorian England, a veritable spiritus mundi of literary thought. Fowles takes reckless advantage of this and borrows freely, in his epigraphs, from Tennyson, Arnold, Hardy, Austen – you get the drift – and, in a masterful stroke, places them alongside quotes from mundane archives and sociological and medical reports that seem to have an equal bearing upon our knowledge of the period.

The milieu he paints is neither the world of Dickens nor the world of Thackeray. It is written with the hindsight that neither of these writers could possibly have possessed, the sheer advantage of having been born a century later, almost as though he is a historian who just happens to inscribe fiction into the history he writes: ‘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.’

Unlike Georgette Heyer, who also wrote fiction that is set in a certain historical timeframe, or even Dickens, whose Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities are set during the Gordon riots and the French revolution respectively, Fowles does not merely present a story with a certain background – he presents the story with the collective knowledge that he has gained about all time periods, including his own, with the perspective that modern studies have offered him, with connective information about a time that is merely an elusive future to his own characters. It is thus that Fowles can apply Sartrean logic in a setting before Sartre or remark with wisdom on a Darwin who is entirely new and astonishing to his characters. It is thus also that there are references to computers and motion pictures in a time when they did not exist. He slips into his fiction wicked comments on the reigns of Disraeli and Gladstone, knowing what is to happen in each of their reigns and comparing the Victorian political scenario to its modern counterpart. These allusions are not anachronisms, they are part of the technique of the narrator, and not of the narrative, both of which are individual and entirely separate entities.

Equally baffling is the freedom that he give his readers and his characters. Like everything else in Fowles, there is a paradox here again. In the complex relationships that exist between reader and narrator, Fowles makes wild offers of freedom to the reader. But he cannot cease to be an entirely autonomous creator.

And so, in his own way, he finds a compromise between the two – there is freedom, but there isn't. Now you see it, now you don't. But you know it’s there. And there’s nothing quite as magical as knowing that.