Saturday, July 30, 2011

Serendipity: John Fowles, Wormholes

I have never really wanted to be a novelist. For me the word carries a load of bad connotations--like author and literature and reviewer, only worse. It suggests something factitious as well as fictitious, insipidly entertaining; train-journeyish. One can't imagine a "novelist" 's ever saying what he actually means or feels--one can hardly even imagine his meaning or feeling.

These words have had connotations because they suggest that in some way writing and being a writer aren't central human activities.

I've always wanted to write (in this order) poems, philosophy, and only then novels. I wouldn't even put the whole category of activity--writing--first on my list of ambitions. My first ambition has always been to alter the society I live in; that is, to affect other lives. I think I begin to agree with Marx-Lenin: writing is a very second-rate way of bringing about a revolution. But I recognize that all I am capable of is writing. I am a writer. Not a doer.

Society, existing among other human beings, challenges me, so I have to choose my weapon. I choose writing; but the thing that comes first is that I am challenged.

--John Fowles --
from Wormholes

Wormholes is a collection of John Fowles' non-fiction writings: "essays, literary criticism, commentaries, autobiographical statements, memoirs, and musings." The quotation is the very first lines of the work. It's quite a surprise to read that one of the premiere English novelists (or so I regard him) "never really wanted to be a novelist." He's a revolutionary who doesn't believe the pen is mightier than the sword, yet found that his best weapon is the pen.

Are his novels really the response to challenges from society?

Some novels by John Fowles: The French Lieutenant's Woman, The Magus, The Collector, The Ebony Tower, and Daniel Martin.


  1. Fred,

    I've only read a few of his books, and none recently. How would a book of his - that you've read - be a response to challenges from society? Does he want to alter something in society by it, and can you say what that is?

  2. Cheryl,

    According to the quotation, his novels are supposed to be a response to a challenge from society and his major ambition is to alter society. Or, at least, it was when he wrote this back in 1964 when he wrote this.

    The major characters in his novels tend to be outlaws or outsiders in some way. Frequently they can be seen as villains in some way, although they would more likely to see themselves as outsiders rather than evil villains.

    Perhaps the challenge is the way each of his major characters tries to carve out an independent existence, frequently in conflict with society's laws, mores, or dictates. It's been awhile since I've read any of his novels, so I'm going more on memory now.

    What novels have you read by Fowles lately? What are your thoughts about it in light of his comments?

  3. Fred,

    Read lately? Nothing for 10 years at least. French Lieutenant's Woman and A Maggott I remember, and I don't think I finished The Magus. It's been too long for me to really comment on these, but yes I think what you said about the characters being outsiders in some way makes sense. Just wondering if his novels are something I want to revisit or not.

  4. Cheryl,

    I've read a number of his, and I will have no problem with going back though them again some day.

  5. I read THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN by Fowles ages ago. I remember liking it very much even if it did confound me with its multiple endings. Enjoyed the film with Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep, though not as much as the book.

  6. Hi Fred, I'm not familiar with Fowles but like him a lot from just the quote you share. He seems to tolerate the ambiguity of who he is and what he does pretty well. That in itself makes him a likeable chap in my book. Cheers, Kevin

  7. Yevette,

    I also thought the book was better than the film, although the film wasn't bad.

    Fowles tends to be experimental in some ways, but he never seems to forget the goal--telling a good story. The interjection of himself into the novel was an interesting way, I think, of blurring the line between fiction and reality.

    The multiple endings suggest the fluidity of the future--almost as if the future was only partially caused by the past and the present (Perhaps Heisenberg's uncertainty principle in fiction here?).

  8. Kevin,

    He not only tolerates ambiguity, he employs it consistently in his novels. _The French Lieutenant's Woman_, for example, has several endings. You can choose your favorite ending or all of them.