09 November 2014

A Throwback to John Fowles

My next two columns for The Sunday Guardian are a two-part essay on The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.

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. Which leads us, of course, to the perceived freedom of fiction, the license of narrative, the relationship between author and reader, between narrator and assumed reader … because Fowles, who will not leave distinctions unblurred, creates, for himself, an assumed reader whom he periodically addresses, as well as an assumed narrator who appears, every so often, in the novel itself. So strong is the relationship that develops between them, in fact, that it is almost unfortunate that his assumed reader is not the actual reader; the former makes herself a part of the narrative, asking intelligent questions, making insightful comments and subtly manoeuvring the plot with powerful opinions and suggestions. In many ways, Fowles seems to be telling the actual reader to ask more questions and to never take anything at face value. He even places something as diffident as the novel's outcome in the reader's hand, thrusting it in the reader's face, as if to say, ‘There it is, now you make the choice.’ And as the reader is further embroiled in the novel, the tone shifts dangerously to, ‘Now make a choice, damn it!’

‘It is only when our characters and events begin to disobey us that they begin to live,’ says the narrator. The freedom he offers his characters is even dicier than that. They can choose – and how! – but there is always the lurking knowledge that we have that it is Fowles who finally chooses. The assumed narrator is, admittedly, a wily little boost to the author's ego. He becomes a character in the book and is like a chameleon, a shape-shifter. He exists a little everywhere. And he is always watching. He exists both in the third and the first person, both as a strange little bearded man and as a prosperous Harold-Zidler-like impresario, both as a powerful puppet master and as a helpless passer-by, the very manifestation of the freedom paradox.

In every way, in every possible way, this is what we do with our lives – and especially, most especially, our pasts. Fowles writes: ‘You do not even think of your own past as quite real; you dress it up, you gild it or blacken it, censor it, tinker with it ... fictionalize it, in a word, and put it away on a shelf - your book, your romanced autobiography. We are all in the flight from the real reality. That is the basic definition of Homo sapiens.’ And again: ‘I said earlier that we are all poets, though not many of us write poetry; and so are we all novelists, that is, we have a habit of writing fictional futures for ourselves, although perhaps today we incline more to put ourselves into a film. We screen in our minds hypotheses about how we might behave, about what might happen to us; and these novelistic or cinematic hypotheses often have very much more effect on how we actually do behave, when the real future becomes the present, than we generally allow.’

Fowles' characters are, perhaps, as cunning as Fowles himself. Each is strong enough to demand an ending to achieve his own ends. His characters are much like the stock characters of the classic romance a la Walter Scott – the grand triangle of the youth, the fair lady and the dark lady. But where an Ivan Hoe chose, and was expected to choose, the fair lady, our young protagonist, Charles, undergoes an existentialist anxiety of freedom and choice. Three alternatives are then presented – the fair lady, and thereby Victorian convention; the dark lady, and thereby Romantic non-conformity; final freedom from the two women, and thereby Modern rebirth and restructuring. Each of the three alternatives caters not just to the three types of readers, but also to the three main characters as each ending is centred around one of the three main characters.

This way, you are the reader, but also the writer. You are the plot, but also the character. You are the beginning and the end, perhaps even the beginning of the end. More than that, you are time, you are freedom, you are the one for whom the bell tolls, but also the bell-ringer. Only Fowles can give you this – and only he can take it away.