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Warts, wormholes and all

The Journals Volume Two: 1966-1990 John Fowles, edited by Charles Drazin Alfred A. Knopf: 464 pp., $35

December 03, 2006|Nicholas Delbanco | Nicholas Delbanco is the Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor at the University of Michigan and the author of, most recently, "Spring and Fall: A Novel."

JOHN FOWLES died on Nov. 5, 2005, but his prose continues to appear. The first installment of his journals -- published in the U.S. six months before his death -- describes his young manhood and artistic apprenticeship (1949-65), the years of self-discovery and life in France and Greece. This second and concluding volume covers the period of 1966-90, when the writer has grown successful but increasingly troubled by fame and wealth as well as by increasing ill health. Opinionated, unsparingly honest and unrevised, these pages do not always make for pleasant reading, but they are crucial documents for those who rank their author as an important writer or wish to know more of the man.

During his lifetime, Fowles published a collection of poetry ("Poems"), a book of philosophical aphorisms ("The Aristos"), several discussions of landscape and local history ("The Tree," "Islands," "Shipwreck," "The Enigma of Stonehenge," "A Short History of Lyme Regis," "Lyme Regis Camera") and a novella and short stories ("The Ebony Tower"). A collection of essays ("Wormholes") appeared -- with the editorial assistance of Jan Relf -- in 1998. It is as a novelist, however, that Fowles stakes his principal claim. His first three novels were bestsellers in America, and each became a movie thereafter. Terence Stamp, Anthony Quinn and Meryl Streep bodied forth, respectively, the title roles of "The Collector," "The Magus" and "The French Lieutenant's Woman"; Laurence Olivier played the protagonist of "The Ebony Tower" for a television production. "Daniel Martin" (1977), "Mantissa" (1982) and "A Maggot" (1985) complete the published oeuvre -- since, later in his life, Fowles was impaired by several strokes and turned inward, to the journals, for his work.

Together these paired volumes comprise more than 1,100 pages, yet they represent only a small portion of what Fowles called his "disjoints." According to editor Charles Drazin, the full text amounts to 2 million words, and he has cut and pared to provide a narrative through-line and sense of the whole. What emerges is a portrait of the artist as a young, then middle-aged, then world-weary and exhausted man. A chilling entry (Feb. 13-14, 1988) reads:

"A Saturday and Sunday. I was foolish, stayed up to read the Saturday night, then went to bed about three, and slept like a log. At some point in that oblivion I must have had a stroke. I had stayed up to read the end of Gittings' life of Keats, those terrible last weeks in Rome. That was an irony. At any rate, when I tried to stand up as usual on the 14th, the Sunday morning, I couldn't. It was as if it, the leg, was drunk, though the rest of me was sober; no sense of balance, unable to walk straight...."

Such notations grow painful to read. On July 10, 1989, Fowles records: "Dreadful days, I don't know what I am doing.... I feel ill, or permanently weak, and unable to do anything about it.... I can't answer letters, keep any sort of business, or contact with the world, going. In literary terms I feel completely forgotten, or dead.... I lie awake and 'contemplate' the mess our lives have got into.... "

Those who admire Fowles as a naturalist and local historian will find extensive evidence of his passion for landscape and its creatures; we watch him in his beloved garden or naming spiders and birds. Those who admire him as an ambitious artist will find somewhat less to savor, though his readings of fellow writers (including Nabokov, Waugh, Burgess and Rushdie) are keen. The journals provide a kind of shadow text to the body of published achievement -- so that we learn, for example, that a novel first called "Futility," then "The English Man," will become "Daniel Martin," and that it took five years of fits and starts to complete the book.

It was their author's conscious decision not to rewrite or improve on his journals, to display himself "warts and all." This he does. He's not overtly homophobic or anti-Semitic, but when he meets a homosexual or a Jew he never fails to describe them as such; his dislike of parents and children runs like a vein of dross throughout the ore of the text. Arguments with his wife are rehearsed in repetitive detail, and -- most distressingly, perhaps -- the sententiousness that mars his fiction can run rampant here. "America, I weep for thee" is a representative phrase.

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