Book critics have gripes, and here’s one of mine: novels are too much like
movies. They emphasize the visual, even though the medium of the novel
should be the imagination, the psyche, the inner truth behind the outside
image. I made a list once of the great psychological novelists, and noticed
they were all dead. Roll over Dostoevsky, and give Henry James the news.
Coincidence, or just a sign of our cinematic times?
In the 21st century, people only believe what they see,
and novelists respond by conceiving of fiction as a
film treatment with the film. Maybe they are just hoping
for a movie deal—and who could blame them, given
shrinking book advances. Yet the result is a depressing
flatness to narrative, a glancing off the surface of things,
and a reluctance to embrace those elusive aspects of
reality that can’t go viral on video.
But then, for a break from novels masquerading as
movies, I turn with relief to John Fowles. Yes, he is
one of the deceased novelists mentioned above. And
he may have been a bestselling novelist in his day—
The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) stayed on the
New York Times bestseller list for a year—but a book of that sort would
hardly find a spot in the remainder bin nowadays. A book that popular gets
turned into a movie, but few authors wrote stories less suitable for film
treatment than John Fowles. The Magus, his labyrinthine existential novel
from 1965, is one of my favorite literary works of the 20th century….and it
also resulted in one of the worst films of all time. (Woody Allen once
quipped: “If I had to live my life again, I'd do everything the same, except
that I wouldn't see The Magus.”) Yet Fowles's brilliance resided precisely in
the kinds of effects that don’t translate easily into Hollywood hits.
Fowles got his revenge on a film industry that butchered his stories and
turned them into joke fodder for Woody Allen. In his ambitious novel Daniel
Martin (1977), Fowles builds his story around a British dramatist who
leaves theater behind for the more lucrative Hollywood screenwriting trade.
He is embarrassed at his sell-out, and keeps promising himself that he will
return to more serious writing—another play or perhaps even a novel. But
he always signs on for one more movie.
We encounter Daniel Martin in full mid-life crisis. His marriage has ended in
an acrimonious divorce. His daughter treats him with cautious skepticism,
and he can’t help but wonder how many of her own problems are the result
of his absence from her life. Martin’s career has brought him a respectable
income and a degree of fame, but not the kind he covets. He scorns the
superficialities of Southern California, where his scriptwriting craft has
brought him, and to numb the pain he falls into a casual affair with a young
British actress, another disaffected visitor to the Dream Coast.
But an expected phone call from England puts a halt to this life of calculated
decadence. Martin learns that his former brother-in-law is on his deathbed,
and insists on seeing Daniel before dies. Anthony, an Oxford professor of
philosophy, was a close friend during their college days, but they haven’t
spoken in years—due mostly to Martin who, shortly after his divorce,
lampooned his former in-laws in a play that barely disguised the real
individuals behind the characters on stage. Adding to their tangled personal
history, Daniel had a brief affair with Anthony’s wife, his ex’s sister Jane.
Martin tries to extricate himself from a deathbed encounter with his former
(and betrayed) friend, but finds it impossible to refuse a dying man’s
request. He returns to England, with trepidation—not without reason, given
the charged setting he is about to enter.
Martin now must navigate through a psychological minefield. Which is the
most fearsome party among those he must encounter? The dying
classmate he libeled on the stage? The classmate’s wife, with whom he
once had an intense if short-lived sexual liaison? Martin’s embittered ex-
wife, full of jibes and complaints? Their cagy and calculating daughter, out
to prove that she can also pursue dysfunctional affairs? The ex-wife’s
super-wealthy new husband? The daughter’s old-enough-to-be-her-father
lover, who is cheating on his own spouse? Wherever Martin turns, he has
problems on his hand—most of them created by his own past behavior—
and too little to offer to remedy them.
Another writer might have turned this into a dining room farce, full of dark
comedy and rapier-like insults. But Fowles reaches for something deeper.
He probes his characters’ weaknesses with the callous impunity of a
surgeon wielding a scalpel. He is determined that they should keep no
secrets from us, the curious readers. But the characters in his books still
retain their mystery, no matter how much we probe. Their every action is
presented with crystal clarity, as if they were actors on the screen, but we
still left to puzzle over that greatest of all mysteries: namely, what is really
happening in another person’s head. Other writers have also grappled with
this matter—a subject which, in my opinion, may very well be the wellspring
of fiction—but few with the determination or acumen of John Fowles. You
would need to go to the final works of Henry James to find another novelist
who navigated through this hidden terrain with such skill.
Many memorable scenes in this novel capture this discrepancy between
what is said, and what remains beyond words, in our most intimate
encounters. Martin’s meeting with his dying classmate is one such
interlude, and the give-and-take between the ailing philosopher and the
man who smeared his reputation provides a classic example of precisely
those kinds of turbocharged intersections of destiny that were Fowles’
specialty. But this scene serves in turn to set up other equally dangerous
meetings with other involved parties—most notably between Martin and
Anthony’s wife Jane, the passionate lover of his student days who is now a
Not everything meets with my approval in this novel. The second half of the
book could be tighter, improved by the removal of fifty or so pages of slow-
paced narrative. Fowles is perhaps too willing to chase after tangential
subjects, and his interpretations of Gramsci and Lukacs, perhaps timely
during the Cold War years, haven’t aged as gracefully as the rest of his
book. Yet most of this book hits the mark, and with an intensity that few
modern ‘cinematic’ novels can match.
Sad to say, few people read Daniel Martin nowadays. In fact, I almost never
hear Fowles’ name mentioned in literary discussions. He deserves a better
fate. I rank Fowles among the half-dozen finest novelists of the second half
of the twentieth century. The fact that his deeply psychological approach
has fallen out of favor is hardly a reason not to read him. Rather, we
perhaps have more reason to read him now than ever before….if only for a
reminder of how much of the real action is never captured by the camera.
Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture. His most recent
book is Love Songs: The Hidden History, published by Oxford University Press.
Published November 6, 2015
|A Neglected Classic:
John Fowles's Daniel Martin
by Ted Gioia
a website devoted to radical,
unconventional and experimental
fiction with a particular focus on the
rise of modernism and its aftermath.
|Essays on John Fowles (1926-2005)
Ten years after his death in November 2005, novelist John
Fowles is an almost forgotten figure. His novels, once widely
discussed and debated, are seldom read and rarely even
mentioned in current-day literary circles. I am both saddened
and surprised by this state of affairs. I believe that John Fowles
ranks among the half-dozen finest novelists of his generation,
and his books still have much to teach us. With the goal of
spurring more interest in this seminal figure in 20th century
literature, I am commemorating the 10th anniversary of
Fowles's death by publishing 5 online essays on his work.
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