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John Fowles, 79; Bestselling Novelist Wrote 'The Magus,' 'French Lieutenant's Woman'

November 08, 2005|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

John Fowles, the cerebral British novelist whose restless exploration of literary form and thematic fascination with free will brought him immense critical and commercial affirmation in works such as "The French Lieutenant's Woman" and "The Magus," died Saturday at his home in the southwest English town of Lyme Regis, Dorset. He was 79.

His publisher, Random House, told Associated Press on Monday that Fowles had died of an undisclosed illness. He had been in poor health since a stroke in 1988 and had heart problems.

A reclusive man who said his novels often originated in a recurring image or a dream, Fowles rejected what he once called the "cage labeled 'novelist,' " preferring to stretch the borders of literary convention in each work.

He did this most famously in "The French Lieutenant's Woman," the haunting Victorian love story -- published in 1969 and made into an Oscar-nominated movie -- that Fowles supplied with two endings.

But innovation was an early hallmark of his work. His first novel, "The Collector," published in 1963, offers two versions of a ghastly event -- the kidnapping and imprisonment of an upper-class art student by a lower-class clerk. One version is told by Fred Clegg, the kidnapper, and the other by Miranda, his 20-year-old captive. "The Magus," a 1966 novel about a rich man who imposes a series of strange fantasies or "godgames" on a young English schoolmaster, ends ambiguously, leaving the reader to grapple with the book's meaning. Both novels were made into films.

"I don't think any art or science can describe the whole reality of nature," Fowles told an interviewer in 1985. "I often feel this in writing fiction -- that one is trying to describe what one can't and ought not even to be trying; and is so condemned to a sort of vulgar futility, or eternal second best."

The scholarly view tended to be far more generous. Fowles "remains one of the least predictable and most re-readable of major modern authors," according to his citation in the Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography.

The bestselling author was more celebrated in the United States than in England, which may explain why he often described himself as living in exile in his own country. Once his books sold well enough for him to quit teaching, he bought an 18th century house in Lyme Regis and had "very little social contact with anybody" except his wife and muse, Elizabeth.

Novelists, he told Margaret Reynolds and Jonathan Noakes in their critical study "John Fowles: The Essential Guide," "have to live in some sort of exile. I also believe that ... they have to keep in touch with their native culture, linguistically, psychologically, and in many other ways. If it sounds paradoxical, it feels paradoxical. I've opted out of the one country I mustn't leave. I live in England but partly in the way one might live abroad."

An only child for the first 15 years of his life, Fowles was reared in middle-class comfort in the London suburb of Leigh-on-Sea in a family without literary or cultural interests.

"I was brought up in an intensely conventional suburb ... by, in social terms, conventional parents. I have tried to escape ever since," he told an interviewer in 1989.

When his sister, Hazel, was born, Fowles had a nervous breakdown and had to leave school for a semester.

"I suppose there was a sense of being cut off when my sister was born," he told the South China Post a few years ago. "I wasn't jealous, absolutely not. I just thought she was a rather pretty, oppressive little thing."

He served two years in the British Royal Marines, but World War II ended before he could experience combat. After leaving the military he entered Oxford University, where he studied French and German. He called this period, when he delved into the existential writings of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, "heaven, in an intellectual sense."

After graduation, he taught English at the University of Poitiers in France before moving to the Greek island of Spetsai, where he taught at Anorgyrios College. Spetsai provided the inspiration for "The Magus," which he set on the fictional island of Phraxos and spent a dozen years writing. It also was where he met his future wife, Elizabeth Whitton, who was then married to another professor. When her marriage failed, she married Fowles in 1954.

She became key to his success, said biographer Eileen Warburton. In her 2004 book "John Fowles: A Life in Two Worlds," Warburton wrote that he published his first novel only after they were married and none after she died in 1990. She was his first reader and, as Fowles described her, his "sternest editor," who often caused him to tear out long passages of his manuscripts and rewrite them. According to Warburton, Elizabeth was the one who suggested the multiple endings of "The French Lieutenant's Woman" and spurred him to revise the ending of "The Magus." She also was a model for the formidable female protagonists of those books.

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