His Own Peak

Ian Sansom

  • John Fowles: The Journals, Vol. I edited by Charles Drazin
    Cape, 668 pp, £30.00, October 2003, ISBN 0 02 240691 3
  • John Fowles: A Life in Two Worlds by Eileen Warburton
    Cape, 510 pp, £25.00, April 2004, ISBN 0 224 05951 3

You’ll remember this. You may not live there anymore, and it might be years since you’ve been there, but you’ll recognise it instantly. Nothing has changed. Not a thing out of place, and not a detail altered: same views, same problems, same people, same faces, same old same old. ‘I feel violent with "hate” against this bloody town.’ ‘It is the unsociability, the not-knowing-anyone, the having-no-colour, that kills. No interesting people to talk to, no sincere people, no unusual things to do.’ ‘Then there is "niceness” as a standard of judgment – God, how I hate that word, too! – "a nice girl", "a nice road". Nice = colourless, efficient, with nose glued to the middle path, with middle interests, dizzy with ordinariness. Ugh!’ ‘Going through a long period of self-discontent.’ ‘Sense of waste.’ ‘Need to find a striking individuality.’ ‘People bore me profoundly and desperately.’ ‘The complete pointlessness of overdrinking.’

Ah, yes, you guessed! This is your younger self speaking. And this is John Fowles, 1949-65: 250,000 words of adolescent whining, groaning, anomie, enthusing about Antonioni films and wishing he were somewhere else, with more glamorous people, doing more glamorous things. A marathon of self-obsession, self-pity, misery, filth, shame, loneliness, isolation, and a lot of embarrassing stuff about sex. It’s difficult to pick out the funniest bit in a book that is entirely lacking in humour, but ‘apart from language, I am French’ is pretty hard to beat. Or there’s this, written in 1963, when Fowles was in his late thirties: ‘Their minds don’t work like mine, they aren’t "free” or "authentic” in the senses I use those words.’ How true. Particularly since Fowles’s freedom and authenticity leads him to hang around the house all day watching women through a telescope: ‘It is sheer curiosity, or almost sheer, much closer to ornithology than voyeurism.’ His poor wife, unable to appreciate this fine distinction between different forms of bird-watching, does not approve.

Some journals, of course, are worth keeping: pretty much anything from the 17th century; people fighting in wars; the country diaries of curates and Edwardian ladies; prisoners of conscience; Anaïs Nin; Richard Crossman; Tony Benn; Alan Bennett. But on the whole, no. And yet we can’t stop ourselves. These days, if you’re a young writer and you don’t do your own weblog you’re something of an exception, and even for the amateur, the ‘journaler’, there’s now a whole industry geared to encouraging and providing for you, with books and websites: Kathleen Adam’s Journal to the Self and Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way provide real Californian state-of-mind sort of stuff. Start early in the morning seems to be the best advice, and find a pen you’re happy with. It’s a craze. The people behind www.1000journals.com and www.journalproject.com scatter empty notebooks willy-nilly around the phone-booths of North America, in the hope and expectation that some phone-booth-using Ginsberg or Emily Dickinson will scrawl beautiful poems inside, and then pass the journal on – and the amazing thing is, they do. People go to make a telephone call, to cancel an appointment at the dentist’s, and instead, bam, inspiration strikes and they take up their pens and write odes and streams of consciousness about their sad and amazing lives. Everybody these days seems to have so much to say for themselves, and plenty of time to say it – we’re like spigots. These days, if you’ve got a lot you want to get off your chest and you can’t content yourself with a few pints in the pub, prayer, arguments with your spouse and the occasional angry letter to your local paper, then companies like K. Schweizer in America will happily provide you with all the tools you need to preserve your precious thoughts for posterity: a Medieval Leather Journal ($89 plus p+p), perhaps, or the Burlwood (made of ‘high gloss elm burl’ with a leather spine, $75).

At least the Burlwood journal would burn well, because, frankly, if you’ve got a journal, the best thing you can possibly do with it is throw it on the fire. At the very least, don’t publish it in your lifetime: leave other people to decide about the merits of your musings; your kids, after all, will need kindling. Or better still, don’t take up journal-keeping in the first place: it’s a bad habit, like watching TV, or going to the gym. Spend your time doing acts of charity instead, or take up a hobby, something self-improving – how about reading? You might start with Emerson:

Each young and ardent person writes a diary, in which, when the hours of prayer and penitence arrive, he inscribes his soul. The pages thus written are, to him, burning and fragrant: he reads them on his knees by midnight and by the morning star; he wets them with his tears; they are sacred; too good for the world, and hardly yet to be shown to the dearest friend. This is the man-child that is born to the soul, and her life still circulates in the babe. The umbilical cord has not yet been cut. After some time has elapsed, he begins to wish to admit his friend to this hallowed experience, and with hesitation, yet with firmness, exposes the pages to his eyes. Will they not burn his eyes? The friend coldly turns them over, and passes from the writing to conversation, with easy transition, which strikes the other party with astonishment and vexation. He cannot suspect the writing itself. Days and nights of fervid life, of communion with angels of darkness and of light, have engraved their shadowy characters on that tear-stained book. He suspects the intelligence or the heart of his friend. Is there then no friend?

There is not.

The chronology of John Fowles’s friendless and hallowed experience is as follows: he gets born, goes to prep school, boarding-school, Oxford, then goes to teach at the international school on the Greek island of Spetsai, returns to London with the wife of a colleague, teaches at various unsuitable colleges, enjoys enormous success with his first book, The Collector (1963), and buys a big house in Lyme Regis where he writes very long books, such as The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), Daniel Martin (1977) and A Maggot (1985), which sometimes get made into films and make him a lot of money (large parts of the Journal are filled with his totting-up of income and expenditure). It may have taken him a while to achieve the success he feels he deserves, but he hit his stride straight off in his journal, setting the tone in the first entry, on 24 September 1949: ‘A curious thing. About to throw a piece of screwed-up paper into the yellow jug which serves as waste-paper basket, I said to myself, "As much chance as you have of being a genius.” It fell into the jug without a murmur, a 20 to 1 chance, at the least.’

Fowles’s claim to moral, intellectual, aesthetic and physical superiority is the main theme of the Journals. He dates his self-discovery as a writer to his climbing of Mount Parnassus in the summer of 1952: ‘It is from this ascent that I date some real first belief in myself as a writer.’ As the editor of the Journals, Charles Drazin, notes, ‘while other writers have been content to climb Parnassus in their imaginations, it is somehow typical of John that he should have trekked across the Argive Plain and climbed the mountain for real.’ Even Drazin may not take Fowles quite as seriously as he takes himself (in the index, under ‘Fowles, John, characteristics’, Drazin lists ‘cruel streak’, ‘depressive aspect’, ‘egotistical aspects’, ‘introspections’, ‘jealousy’, ‘multiple aspects’, ‘sensitivity of’, ‘sociability/unsociability’, ‘solitude and loneliness of’, and nothing else). He’s quite right, though: it is somehow typical of Fowles to have climbed Mount Parnassus, because he is clearly possessed of an absolute and literal sense of having risen above all those around him. He is his own peak: he has no equal. As he continually insists: ‘I stood, stand, apart.’ It’d make Nietzsche blush.

As his intelligence and self-esteem and fame increase, so everyone around him appears smaller and smaller, and this is the other great theme of the Journals: the littleness of all the little people. Fowles’s great fear, according to his new biographer, Eileen Warburton, is ‘the oblivion of ordinariness’. As early as December 1949 he confides to himself, and to posterity: ‘In the intellectual and aesthetic sense, I have developed out of the rest, yet I have to try and conceal that in order to make life livable.’ Anyone who’s ever read, say, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, or D.H. Lawrence’s Letters, or indeed virtually any of the canonical works of 20th-century English literature, will be more than familiar with this profound self-love, which is the leitmotif of Modernism and one of the sustaining myths of Sunday newspapers, toney weekly magazines, and the so-called English ‘literary’ novel. It’s the English strain of the fatal Holden Caulfield Syndrome – apart from you, me, my kid sister, and a few of our friends who went to college with us and who happen to live nearby in Fitzrovia, Kensington, Hampstead or Islington, everybody else has a cramped little mind and lives in a cramped little house, and is useless, dead, pointless, ugly and stupid. (Even Camden Town is a shock to Fowles when he visits from Hampstead: ‘E. and I went down to Kentish and Camden Town to scout round for old furniture; exciting how infinitely remote that world is from Hampstead. Peeling, pitted, endlessly dirty houses; children playing in the streets. The people all poor, or flashy.’) The English strain of this mouth-frothing degenerative disorder is usually characterised by another painful symptom, apparent in Fowles’s The Aristos (1964), which confuses the aristocratic with the artistic temperament, plays around with the usual insufferable rift between the few and the many, and announces that ‘the ordinary man is the curse of civilisation.’ This is HCS, with class complications.

Basically, according to Fowles, everyone else is totally crap: useless, rubbish, a waste of time and not worth bothering about. He starts with his parents, as is traditional, and moves on from there. The parent-hate stuff is more Mole than Freud – not so much traumatising primal scene as terribly noisy hoovering. They tidy up, your mum and dad. ‘Spasm of hate. Trying to listen to Mozart 465 Quartet, when M[other] seems, almost deliberately, to spoil it.’ Every schoolboy knows that parents have no taste, but Fowles remains a pitiless adolescent into adulthood. ‘A new view on my parents, which embraces all their faults – or better, the qualities they lack. They have no sense of style. They can’t tell a stylish jug from a pretty jug, they don’t feel the style of things, of a book, of a piece of music, of a meal, of a flavouring, of life.’ ‘For some time,’ he concludes, ‘I feel willingly that I could like killing them.’ He does his best to analyse his parents’ apparent failings, compared to his own obvious excellence, and this is what he comes up with: ‘The difference in environmental norms accounts for much – a boarding-school, an officers’ mess, a university, all have led me into a much wider plane than 25 rather introvert years in the same quiet household, where the class has slipped.’ All that education didn’t go to waste, then. His poor sister, who is younger than him and who can therefore never catch up, comes off even worse: ‘Hazel is an interesting test-object for egotism. Financially it is to my benefit that she should not exist . . . She merely seems like a small pet.’

It would of course be a misfortune for anyone to end up with someone like John Fowles for a son or a sibling, but as a husband? From the evidence of the Journals it seems almost inconceivable that someone would have chosen to live with such a monster of egotism, and yet Elizabeth Christy left her husband in Greece and moved to London to be with Fowles. Warburton claims that ‘Elizabeth is at the centre of the books, as she was of John Fowles’s life. There were no publishable novels before her coming. There were none after her going.’ Elizabeth died in 1990. But there were always the journals. Writing about his wife-to-be, Fowles confides: ‘I shall have to explain to her soon what the situation is. It will be interesting, as an experience, something to record.’ Later, he writes again: ‘She has asked me not to write about her in here. But I couldn’t not write, loving her as I do. If it is a betrayal, then it is the modern variant of the 18th-century Rape of the Lock. Sinning for love. And besides, what else I betrayed, I could not betray this diary.’ Like some primitive who thinks the camera steals his soul, Fowles seems to believe that his precious diary is a record of a sacred, special, inviolate self, and he must obey this self above all else. His wife therefore matters less to him than his opinions about his wife. So, he carries on regardless: he’s an Author, for God’s sake. He decides to marry only because he needs to ‘exercise unused affection’, and even then he worries because ‘she hasn’t the breeding, the culture, the articulateness I thought I must have. To compensate for that she has intuition, sincerity, looks and grace. I fear her weak will, or rather spasmodic will – the lack of endurance.’

One thing that Fowles does not lack is endurance: age doesn’t weary him, and he continues to condemn. ‘More violence with E . . . It is as if she has some cancer of the mind.’ ‘She is as useless emotionally as a pre-migration bird.’ Of Elizabeth’s daughter by her previous marriage he feels only contempt: ‘I watched her today, and she stared back in a strange hostile way; yet I could not find the least pity for the child. She was a fact, an abstract something, within the normal bounds of human obligations, to be pushed aside. I cannot disregard her; yet I cannot consider her.’ And just over a week later: ‘I detest it. It is an "it", not a "she".’ When he tires of having a go at his wife and his step-daughter, he has a dig at his mother-in-law – ‘a hopeless shallowness, childishness, vacancy; it is as if she was arrested at the age of 12’ – which is pretty rich from a grown man who watches women through a telescope, takes up playing the recorder in middle age, and who when he gets a touch of flu can barely raise his heavy, brainy head from the pillow: ‘It corrupts the whole body. Impossible to read seriously, impossible to sleep at nights, impossible to write. Nightmare illness; everything fetid, miasmic, gangrenous.’ Readers may at this point recall other great writers afflicted with similar symptoms: ‘I believe my consumption has grown worse. Also my asthma. The wheezing comes and goes, and I get dizzy more and more frequently . . . My room is damp and I have perpetual chills and palpitations of the heart. I noticed, too, that I am out of napkins. Will it never stop?’ That’s Woody Allen: he is joking. You can imagine what it’s like when Fowles is diagnosed with amoebic dysentery: ‘Not altogether an ill wind; so many depths would have been unplumbed.’

It is never a good idea to live next door to a writer, because they tend to sit around the house all day staring out of the window, but you can’t help but feel sorry for Fowles’s unsuspecting neighbours, who in the cold winter of 1956 innocently invited him in to play Scrabble and who are repaid thus: ‘The poverty of minds that can spend such evenings playing such rubbish . . . The Ms are wonderfully slow, really; like human snails, hardly credible.’ Fowles’s parents are like snails, too (‘peeping their horns out at today, like snails’), as are places like his home-town, Leigh-on-Sea (‘Snail-towns’). If you’re not a snail in his estimation, you’re probably a robot. He writes of a colleague: ‘This girl represents a sort of splendid physical machine one wants to set in motion.’

He hates ‘the provincial’, obviously, and he isn’t much keener on Jews, or foreigners, or other writers: all the standard prejudices, undistinguished even by his own high standards of unpleasantness. Hanging out with Frederic Raphael and Wolf Mankowitz at a literary festival, he writes: ‘They like to feel rootless, of course, because Jews want always to be pitied.’ Nathaniel Tarn, a poet, is described as ‘a European cocktail Jew’. Viewing a house he’s considering buying he meets the owners, a couple who are looking after the children of visiting African students: he describes the babies in their care as ‘fat black pickaninnies . . . like noble animals’. On a bus he sees ‘strange Lithuanian or Slav men’ who are ‘ominously, coarsely brutal’. At a tutorial at Oxford he notes of a fellow student: ‘He comes almost exactly in the "little man” category of insignificance.’ There is page after page after page of this sort of nonsense, but he seems to think it’s all right to publish it, because ‘no one truly sensitive can hurt another human being.’

If he doesn’t hate you, Fowles probably wants to have sex with you; though as anyone who has read The Collector will know, these two things are intimately connected in the author’s mind. In the Journals he spends a lot of time writing about how much he despises his girlfriends. Of one: ‘I see her growing old quickly, fat, with the Jewish, Mediterranean strain coming out in her . . . no aristocratic traits. And aesthetically I need a little aristocracy, a little carriage, fine-bred beauty.’ He gets the hots for various students and colleagues at the Ashridge College of Citizenship, where he finds himself teaching: Sally (‘a desire to feel her firm fine breasts’), Sanchia (‘some exotic flower’), May (‘rather stupid but exceedingly pretty’). When Sally leaves, he’s upset:

I feel sorry she is going, as if I were losing a pet dog. And she has had an immense value for me, because Ashridge has in many ways crushed me, tried to dwarf me, ignored me. Infuriated and tyrannised me, and she has been the secret consolation, the card up my sleeve. Through her I have satisfied many inclinations to revenge.

He fantasises about sleeping with nurses, ‘not particularly from desire, but better to be able to classify and distinguish them’.

There are of course some – several – good things in the Journals. He’s quite right about the curious appeal of Jane Austen (‘the sheen of sexuality upon everything’), and there’s a nice recipe on page 383:

Fry meat and onions together in butter. Boil water in the same pan when it is emptied and make a purée of tomato sauce, black pepper, saffron. Put a sage-leaf and a chilli at the bottom of the casserole. Then parsnips, onions, carrots, swedes, chestnuts (essential), haricot beans or split peas, a garlic clove. Peppers and mushrooms, if in season. Cook for at least four, preferably six or seven hours at low heat in the oven.

I’ve tried it, and you can say a lot of things about John Fowles, but I’ll say one thing for him: he can cook. It’s a good recipe. But the nuts are not essential.