John Fowles, the novelist who died on Saturday aged 79, combined a rare narrative instinct with a scholar’s interest in literary form; as a result he enjoyed the unusual distinction of both professorial attention and enormous sales.
A solitary man who shunned both the London literati and the society of his neighbours at Lyme Regis, Fowles was concerned, above all, with the existential freedom of the individual, with his scope for choice and the energy with which he wrestled with the mysteries of existence.
He provided few solutions in his work, preferring to allow the answer to a question to be itself another question. For he believed that “Mankind needs the existence of mysteries. Not their solution.” His own work, sometimes labyrinthine in its complexity, rarely deviated in style or content from this maxim.
But Fowles’s fiction was never merely dry, intellectual sparring. He was a writer possessed of an expansive imagination, whose gifts as a storyteller meant that his dramas were played out beyond the conflicts of the inner self. His narrative genius led to three of his novels being filmed, two of them to critical acclaim.
Fowles had no specific writing routine; working when the mood took him, he would write the first draft of a novel in a couple of weeks before laying it aside, continuing with another project and then developing the original draft over a period of months or years. This method revealed the singular nature and range of his interests and the quixotic nature of his mind, qualities which enabled him to fashion one of the most interesting bodies of work in modern fiction.
John Fowles was born in Essex on March 31 1926. His father, Robert, was a suburban cigar importer and his upbringing in “a small town dominated by conformism – the pursuit of respectability” fostered in him “an intense and continuing dislike of mankind en masse”. He was educated at Bedford School where, in addition to being Head Boy, he excelled both as a scholar and as a cricketer.
He trained for two years in the Royal Marines, but never saw active service, after which he read Modern Languages at New College, Oxford. His studies in French literature profoundly influenced his intellectual development, for he devoured the existentialists Sartre and Camus, and perceived Gallic medieval myth as the font of modern fiction.
After graduation Fowles taught English at the University of Poitiers before moving to Anargyrios College on the Greek island of Spetsai. Inspired by the beauty of the landscape and the proud individualism of the Greeks, he began writing creatively, completing and reworking novels – specifically The Magus (1965) – which he felt were of insufficient quality to be published.
Returning to England in 1952, he lived and taught in London, constantly working to hone his fictional technique, analysing and imitating those he considered masters of the art – Defoe, Flaubert, Hemingway and Lawrence.
The Collector (1963) was the first manuscript he sent to a publisher, deeming it to be satisfactorily completed. Narrated successively by its two central characters, the novel told the story of a sad, lonely psychopath who abducts a beautiful girl with whom he has become obsessed, and whom he holds in a cellar in a desperate attempt to win her love.
A tortuously realistic portrayal of obsession, the book introduced themes that were to remain central to Fowles’s work – the individual’s struggle for physical, psychological or artistic freedom and the author’s hatred of timid convention. It also explored the divide between the existential “Us” and the mind-numbed “Them,” an antithesis expressed by the richness or poverty of his protagonists’ language.
The book became an instant bestseller and was rapturously received by the critics, although Fowles took exception to those who portrayed it simply as a sex-and-crime thriller; he described it as an allegory, with the victim representing intelligence and culture, and the kidnapper symbolising a moral bankruptcy born of materialism. Inevitably this invited the charge of elitism, yet Fowles had endeavoured to attach sympathy to both characters, a point he made clearly in his second work, The Aristos (1964), in which he stated that one cause of all crime is “maleducation”.
The enormous success of The Collector, which was made into a film starring Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar, freed Fowles from financial concerns. He gave up teaching and moved to Lyme Regis. He had always believed that a writer needed to live in exile, and Lyme Regis allowed him to be both part of English culture and isolated from it.
His success also removed him from the constraints of commerciality. Indeed, when writing The Aristos he deliberately set out not to produce another best-seller or to become falsely pigeon-holed as a thriller-writer. Subtitled “A Self-portrait in Ideas”, the book explored the author’s views on a wide range of subjects, his idea being that: “If you put down all the ideas you hold it would amount to a kind of painter’s frank self-portrait.” The book was quizzically received, critics being surprised by Fowles’s switch from fiction to a statement of personal philosophy.
In 1965 Fowles finally published The Magus, the novel on which he had been variously engaged since 1952, and on which he continued to work after its publication, ultimately producing a revised version a decade later.
This book, which became required reading for students, describes an English teacher in Greece who becomes involved with a fabulously wealthy magician, the “Magus” of the title, who draws him into a “godgame” psychodrama involving the construction of a parallel fantasy universe. Elaborate, complex and often criticised for being pretentious, Fowles’s novel drew heavily on Shakespearean and Homeric allusions which gave the work the aura of myth. Fowles’s intention was no less than to create a fable by which his protagonist – and implicitly the reader – might impose some order on the meaningless cosmos in which he exists.
The book was moderately received by the critics, who all agreed that, even if the novel did not quite come off, there could be no doubt about the scope of Fowles’s ambition. He adapted it himself for the screen, but later attacked the film (starring Anthony Quinn and Michael Caine) as “a disaster” and vowed never to adapt another of his own works.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) was successfully filmed, albeit adapted by Harold Pinter without assistance from the author. In the novel, a triangular love story, Fowles convincingly evoked the Victorian world with remarkable acuity. Highly experimental both in its form and its erudition, the book won the WH Smith literary award and the International Association of Poets, Playwrights and Novelists Silver Pen Award. It was an unexpected (to Fowles) commercial success.
After the self-conscious artifice of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Fowles published a collection of his poems in 1973 which were strikingly spare by comparison with the richness of his fiction.
The Ebony Tower (1974), a collection of long, short stories and a translation of Eliduc, a French medieval romantic poem, sifted themes of art and literature. In the stories Fowles developed his ideas about the primacy of language, the centrality of ideas as a condition of human freedom and the eternal mystery at the core of an individual’s existence.
The book, which was televised in 1984, betrayed Fowles’s love of French culture and landscape. Although he rarely travelled, when he did it was invariably to France. At Lyme Regis, Fowles had all that he needed – tranquillity, the countryside, the sea, wildlife, his library and his jazz collection. His was not a temperament that demanded society. But it was one of his rare excursions, to Hollywood to discuss a screenplay, that inspired Daniel Martin (1977).
He described this novel as “emotionally autobiographical”, and it concerned the quest of the eponymous screenwriter to discover his true self by recapturing his past and assessing his relationships during a trip to England to visit a dying friend. In so doing, Martin discovers “what had gone wrong, not only with Daniel Martin, but his generation, age, century; the unique selfishness of it, the futility, the ubiquitous addiction to wrong ends”.
Fowles was an omnivorous reader whose fertile mind required wide-ranging stimulation. This was reflected in his own work, not only in his fiction but also in the variety of his published material. His love of the natural world and its importance in his writing were reflected both in his assertion that he “came to writing through nature” and in four books of photographs for which he provided an introductory text: Shipwrecks (1974), Islands (1978), The Tree (1979) and The Enigma of Stonehenge (1980).
Throughout the next decade Fowles continued to publish at his usual unhurried pace. Two novels, Mantissa (1982) and the historical drama A Maggot (1985), were well received, in addition to his works of local interest, A Short History of Lyme Regis (1982) and Lyme Regis Camera (1990).
In 1998 Fowles announced that he was setting up a trust in order to leave Belmont, his 18th-century house at Lyme Regis, to a group of academic institutions to be run as a writing centre for students.
In his last work, Wormholes (1999), a collection of essays, Fowles indicated why he so often left his characters at a fork in the road. A passionate lover of nature, he explained that he described human life as an ecologist might describe a patch of ground – not to control its diverse complexity, but to appreciate it as poetry can be appreciated.
The first volume of his memoirs, called simply Journals, was published in 2003, but not everyone was impressed – Robert Nye described them as “often boringly self-involved and self-important, even repulsive in what [they reveal] about him”. The second volume is due for publication next year.
John Fowles married Elizabeth Whitton in 1954. She died in 1990, and he married secondly, in 1998, Sarah Smith.