The master British novelist records, in shapely prose, the struggles involved in attaining his craft, as well as the usual coming-of-age worries.
Fowles (Wormholes, 1998, etc.), the author of such lapidary novels as Daniel Martin and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, seems never to have considered an ordinary life, whatever that might be. “I cannot imagine working in a routine post,” he wrote in his mid-20s. As a young man living in the rural West Country during WWII, he learned poaching from a well-intended Home Guard commander; still earlier, he had the mouth of the Thames for his playground, which brought him the knowledge and, in a sense, the outlook of a Victorian naturalist. Torn between science and literature, Fowles quite sensibly chose to do a French degree at “Oxford the imperturbable,” though he decided while in the “silly little city” of Poitiers that he didn’t really want to go to lectures, really didn’t want to read the required texts; he really wanted to write himself: “I have the blend—the sensual flesh and the oversensitive mind,” he confided in his journal. “Some artistic good is bound to come of it.” Steeped in Kafka and Camus, Fowles wandered around Europe while collecting material and aperçus for The Magus, which took him nearly 13 years to finish. While teaching at private schools and colleges, Fowles records, he read nearly everything and let no detail go unnoticed, as when he ponders the startling people he would meet in the Greek backcountry: “A Persian-German has psychological (and ornithological) possibilities; will repay watching.” He also collected just about everything it was possible to collect, which he dismissed by observing that as long as it didn’t become obsessive or ruinous, anything was permitted. Small wonder that Fowles later characterized himself as being made up of various selves, one a poet, one a traveler, one a naturalist, one a movie buff, etc.
But Fowles is preeminently, of course, one of the most accomplished English novelists of the last half-century, and this glimpse into his education and work is a pleasure.