Issue 111, Summer 1989
John Fowles was born in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, on March 31, 1926. He attended Bedford School (1940–1944) and then served nearly two years in the Royal Marines. After his four years at Oxford (New College), where he read in French and received a B. A. (Honors) in 1950, Fowles turned away from his conservative upper-middle-class background toward a new freedom and a trying decade of apprenticeship as a writer. He supported himself through teaching jobs at the University of Poitiers, at Spetsai, Greece (where he met his wife-to-be, Elizabeth Whitton) and at various schools in and around London until his first published novel, The Collector, appeared in 1963. It became a best-seller, and was made into a film by William Wyler in 1965. These successes did not deter him from going back to earlier projects: the philosopher’s notebook (begun at Oxford), in which he attempted to deal with many questions pertinent to contemporary experience, was published as The Aristos: A Self-Portrait in Ideas in 1964; a first, tortured novel he wrote (inspired largely by his own self-analysis and “conversion” to existential freedom) appeared as The Magus in 1965. In that same year he took up residence in Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast.
The view of Lyme Bay from Fowles’s own Belmont House is described in the opening chapters of his most famous novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), which won the Silver Pen Award from PEN International and the W. H. Smith Literary Award. The apprenticeship was over. This pseudo-historical novel revealed a new openness to experimentation with narrative voices and an intellectual sophistication that has marked all his later fiction: The Ebony Tower (1974), Daniel Martin (1977), Mantissa (1982), and A Maggot (1985).
But Fowles the novelist, true to the humanistic tradition, has insisted upon playing other roles. He is an imaginative historian, an environmentalist, and a student of natural history—as evidenced in Islands (1978), The Tree (1980), The Enigma of Stonehenge (1980), and A Short History of Lyme Regis (1982). He has translated and commented on several classic French works, including Perrault’s Cinderella and Molière’s play, Don Juan. One comes to a better understanding of his art through a reading of his afterword for Alain-Fournier’s famous novel of youthful quest, The Wanderer, his foreword to The Lais of Marie de France, or his satirical conte on the deconstructionist thinkers, Mantissa. Just where Fowles stands in relation to the history and culture of his own country is made clear in an early essay suggestively titled, “On Being English but Not British.” In spite of a large body of critical literature on his fiction, the best description of his attitudes and procedures in the course of creative composition is the often-anthologized “Notes on Writing a Novel.”
The interview was done, at Fowles’s request, through written exchanges beginning in June, 1987, and concluding in April, 1989. His desire to proceed “by post” had its origin in a certain dissatisfaction with the several taped interviews he had done and perhaps with some of the academic criticism of his fiction. He would set the record straight. Yet a taped interview was the occasion for our first encounter at his home in November 1985. At that time he gave the impression of great strength and confidence, gentle manner, and enormous capacity for ambiguity and complexity. When that interview was published (in the Michigan Quarterly Review), he wrote to say that in the future he wanted time to write out more thoughtful responses. On reaching mid-point in our written exchanges, John Fowles suffered a life-threatening stroke. He wrote: “Writing, what it is to be a writer, fills one with horror in their smallness, pettiness. All one’s former vanity is folly.” But he had the questions before him, he had promised to reply, and partial recovery allowed him to continue. The impact of that stroke on his spirit is described in the interview, but it is most tellingly realized in his concluding quotation of the refrain from Scottish poet William Dunbar’s sixteenth-century “Lament for the Makers”—Timor mortis conturbat me.
Is it accurate to say that you did not begin to establish an identity as a writer until you went to Oxford in 1947 and entered into a rather fashionable revolt against the limitations of a suburban middle-class background?
Yes, completely accurate, though I think the notion of joining “a rather fashionable revolt” is a little bit wrong. You must remember my generation—I was born in 1926—had spent our late adolescence and early twenties in wartime, followed by a period of national austerity that remained psychologically like war. Oxford in the late 1940s was, I think, to all of us lucky enough to be there, a kind of wonderful escape from all that—a happy dream, an alternative world . . . in a sense a novel we had heard of, but never actually read until then. Where the individual was paramount, not the nation. I came out of the strict “order” and discipline of the British Marine Corps into the ancient indulgence of Oxford; it was a heady experience for all of us, an intoxication, hardly a matter of revolt.
I should add that in my teens I had a somewhat unusual experience for a youth, having become head boy of my large public school (in Britain really a private school, of course). Head boys were in those days responsible for all minor discipline in the school outside of class, able to give punishments and cane delinquents; we were, so to speak, appointed heads of Gestapo, with a body of lesser prefects to help us spy on and patrol, cow and bully, the several hundred other boys. It was really a very bad system, and I wish I could say that a more sensitive side of myself had revolted against it at once. It did not. The power went to my head, and it was only afterwards—when I had left the school—that I rejected it completely. I have indeed hated all forms of public authority ever since—oh, not every individual representative of it, but the general idea behind it.
Apart from anything else, head boys were largely excused from any other kind of work, and that had fatal results on my own proper “academic” career. We were also supposed to stand as models for the whole system (in my particular school, producing eventual administrators of the already dying British Empire, stiff with every supposed middle-class virtue), and that was a role I came to realize I despised and did not want. This happened in the two years or so of service in the Royal Marines between leaving school and going to Oxford. I arrived in that latter place, in other words, in a state of full rejection of everything I had been earlier taught to believe in. Oxford handsomely confirmed the revolt, rather than initiated it.
What induced you to read in French during your four years at Oxford? What writers particularly impressed you? Was Montaigne, for example, an influence and a model in the formation of your humanistic philosophy?
This was largely pure chance. I had been fairly good at modern languages in school, and had a very sympathetic master there. It was sort of taken for granted that I would later do them at university. Those were, of course, the days of compulsory conscription. So I was in the Marines from 1944 to 1946, ending as a lieutenant training recruits who hoped to become commandos. I was at the time a little bit torn between joining the Marines permanently or taking the place I had been promised at Oxford. One day we had an official visit from a famous lord mayor of Plymouth, Isaac Foot. I was appointed his temporary ADC for the visit, and took the opportunity to ask his advice about my dilemma. To my surprise—we had all been brainwashed in those days into thinking the only thing that mattered was one’s middle-class national duty—he said very crisply that only a fool would find it a dilemma. If I had a place at Oxford, of course I should go for that, not the Marines. Spurred by what Isaac Foot said, I applied at once.
My first year at Oxford I “read” both French and German. I liked my French tutors, did not like the German ones, and so dropped German . . . something I have regretted somewhat ever since. Despite grim experiences in the trenches and afterwards in the occupation army in Germany itself during the First World War, my own father was much more fond of German literature than French. That decision of mine did not please him. In a sense I was going against family (or Victorian) tradition in turning my back on Germany and German. But I am sure now, forty years later, that it was basically the right decision. I think it is much more useful for the future novelist—for any seeker after culture—to get to know the Latin side of Europe well, rather than the Teutonic and Nordic one. The Germans are too like the British, and the French so richly different. We need what we haven’t got by nature.
I had student “love affairs” with various French writers, although some took years to take effect. I very much liked Montaigne, although I haven’t read him for years now. He seems to me one of the sanest and intellectually most attractive Europeans who has ever lived and he set me on the course of humanism that I have followed ever since. We had at that time to spend a great deal of time on Old French, and used to rather groan about it linguistically; but there seeped into me eventually an affection for the early storytelling—for Marie de France, Chrétien de Troyes and the rest, the fathers and mothers of the European novel. I also liked the French comedy, especially Molière and Marivaux—not Racine and Corneille, I’m afraid, and I liked the late-nineteenth-century poets—Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Laforgue. I also particularly fell for that elegant, precise tradition of the pensée, the carefully framed apothegm and wisdom, something we’ve never really mastered in English—Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, Chamfort, all the rest. That admiration ruined a book I wrote later, The Aristos. I learnt my lesson there. It is not only wines that won’t travel between our two countries.
By and large, I have never had much enthusiasm for the classical side of the French tradition, whose apotheosis is, I suppose, Racine. Even at Oxford I seemed to get endlessly lost in the byways, things I should not—at least for exam purposes—have been reading. I have never been particularly interested in French contemporary literature. Though I love the language, I have never learned to speak it well, though I would claim I am quite a good reader of it. But that was, I think, the aim of the old Oxford at that time: to teach one to understand France and the French, not to speak the language currently and fluently. That for me remains a vital difference between proper university “French”—or any other foreign culture and language—and its language-school variation. They are, or should be, two different things. One is for human beings, the other for business people. I don’t think modern educationists have ever understood that, at least in this country.
But weren’t the existentialist writers—Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir—important in fostering your bid for freedom from the rigid structures of your conservative background?
Those writers certainly came to us after the war as strange and exciting. I always liked Camus best. Sartre I often found hard to understand. I can remember giving up L’Etre et le Néant in a mixture of despair and disgust. It wasn’t just a language problem, more a philosophical one, not knowing what he actually meant in real life. That applies to most of the gurus since. I don’t recall having read Simone de Beauvoir then. I think the “influence” was partly from the endless amount of talk in Oxford about “the existentialists,” “authenticity,” being engagé and the rest, all the implicit condemnations of the bourgeois view of life, that affected me. It corresponded to feelings inside myself that I think would have emerged anyway, indeed had already emerged, if confusedly, but were certainly quickened by the existentialist writers.
Students of my work often make rather a lot of existentialism, a good deal more than I ever felt is true of myself. But that is a familiar feeling, for me, anyway. You are presented as something you never really were. Of course it’s flattering to be extensively studied; but I’m not altogether happy about the intensive pursuit of living writers that seems so popular now with literary students and teachers. I write for other reasons than providing fodder for the literary faculties.
Did you read Jung? Could his influence be linked with the theme of psychological growth so apparent in the early novels?
I did dabble in him, from Oxford days and after. But not as a serious student might, much more as a dilettante, picking up the ideas I needed and that appealed to me rather as a spoilt child might pick out of a lucky dip if he or she were given free range and choice. For me Jung has always been the most fruitful psychologist, that is, most fertile in his effects on any subsequent fiction. I suspect a straight analyst, more or less in Freud’s footsteps, would suit me better medically, if I ever needed such attention—which perhaps I do . . . like every other novelist!
You have said that you started writing The Aristos as a sort of student’s notebook or “self-portrait in ideas” at this time. It seems an indispensable book for the serious student of your early fiction—The Magus and The Collector. Did it precede any extended effort to write fiction?
Like so many Oxford students, I developed very timid literary ambitions there. Such as they were, mine had far more to do with poetry than the novel. Poetry lasted as a long dream, long after I’d left university, of which the Poems that were published in 1973 were a funeral relic. I still occasionally get the urge to write poems, but usually sternly resist it. I didn’t attempt fiction till the mid-1950s, and then not very seriously; it long remained a kind of second best, or faute de mieux to me. The Aristos I did begin in my last year at Oxford, 1949. I also began keeping a personal diary about that time. I am a great believer in diaries, if only in the sense that bar exercises are good for ballet dancers: it’s often through personal diaries—however embarrassing they are to read now—that the novelist discovers his true bent—that he can narrate real events and distort them to please himself, describe character, observe other human beings, hypothesize, invent, all the rest. I think that is how I became a novelist, eventually. It’s certainly how I tend to see my older books when I reread them, which is not at all often: that is, as a sort of past diary about myself. So that’s how I felt and thought then. Not always a pleasant experience! The Aristos certainly preceded my novels, and yes, often bears heavily on them.
You have said that you wanted to be known as a writer and not simply a novelist. You continue to make it difficult for us to separate the fiction and the nonfiction in your work. Is this a result of the early humanistic idealism—being a “renaissance man,” a generalist, rather than a devotee in any single genre?
I’ve always felt that expressing myself in other literary forms is natural and desirable. Or putting it most generally, that all novelists should live in two different worlds: a real one and an unreal one. That is perhaps why my taste in fiction is towards a fair degree of realism in style and my taste in nonfiction (say in what scientists and academics write) is towards those who can exhibit qualities like tolerance of hypothesis, dislike of the rigid interpretation, a general fluidity of attitude, and a basic sympathy towards a subject . . . a touch of ordinary humanity, in a phrase.
Very important for me also is the collection of “old” books I have gathered over the years. I am a lousy bibliophile in the proper and normal sense. What I like about picking up old books is their enormous variety and the glimpses they can give into past and lost worlds and cultures. I do this quite indiscriminately, with whatever takes my fancy; the returns, in a literary sense, are infinite, but difficult to categorize. An American student to whom I mentioned this asked if she might have a list of what I had read or collected over the years. I told her it was impossible. I keep no such list. But this very miscellaneous reading I have done over the years has become a major influence for all its maddening vagueness for the students. Students nowadays seem to want to “place” precisely, to locate precisely, everything about a writer’s work: what he is, what has made him or her what they are, and so on. It seems to me that to imprison it is to deny something very essential about writing. Rather the same thing has taken place in nature, or natural history—the mania to place everything in a precise species or subspecies, to discover exactly how it works, all the rest. I am opposed to the scientization of nature, the reducing of it all to species, ecological distributions, biochemical mechanisms, and so on. I feel this very strongly about writing and writers too. The world wants us caged, in one place, behind bars; it is very important we stay free.